This simple question is one for all of society, though it is most used in the context of schools. But bullying can happen anywhere—at work, places of worship, clubs, social settings. It often dresses in different clothes: misogyny, racism, nationalism, tribalism, religious intolerance, class distinctions, privilege.
One place where bullies work to the greatest effect is in football. Recent focus on the beautiful game has revealed the re-emergence of the dormant ugliness of some of its supporters. No matter how many good slogans and campaigns come down from the top of the game, the place it needs to change most in its ‘fans’.
I have had the joy of supporting a lower league football team with all its travails for over twenty years. And I would love to say that the welcoming, accepting atmosphere that I found among people at Leyton Orient was universal. But that would dodge the issue. I know, from experience, that the sickness is not ‘out there’ but within.
I recall some years ago coming home on an evening train from Cambridge, where my wife and mother-in-law had spent the day visiting friends while I was at the football, and seeing a carriage reduced to trash. I recognised, and still do, some of the faces of people I had seen at home games as they tore seats, smashed lights and bottles before setting off a fire extinguisher.
It was frightening. And being in the next carriage was not a sufficient barrier. My fellow passengers and I passed anxious looks. Should we intervene? What support did we have? There was no conductor on the train and at the next stop a few of us made our way to the driver’s cabin and reported the incident. We got back on the train, having removed ourselves from proximity of the scene of devastation, and the journey resumed.
It was about three stations later, long after the damage had been done and the guilty had dispersed throughout the train, that the police boarded and came through the carriages. No-one, not even the man sitting up from me, who I knew had been part of it, was nicked for the vandalism. Did I stand up and accuse him? No. Why?
I feared for my safety. I knew this chap was not a lone wolf, but part of a pack that would regroup further down the line. And if I could recognise them, they would certainly recognise me. Like many bullies, they got away with it because the victims and witnesses did not believe there would be a rigorous response that would protect their vulnerability.
I reported this incident to a friend I sat next to at Brisbane Road, a lovely chap I had met when I baptised his granddaughter, and told him that I was going to stop coming to the football. If people like us stop coming, he said, the idiots take over. This was the same man who rescued me from accusations of paedophilia because I had come straight from a church function, dressed in my clerical clothes, to a game. That came out of the blue; I was simply queuing to get half-time refreshments.
I have stuck with it. But it is an uncomfortable adhesive. In the past six weeks, I have been to a number of away games and I have either directly witnessed or heard of incidents of abuse to players, officials, fellow supporters, and people who support the home team.
The make up of the crowds is a good indication about what is wrong. As a keen theatre patron and football goer, I have seen similar trends: increasing diversity among casts and teams, with no concomitant significant visible shift in the backgrounds of spectators. Why might this be?
Having heard Asian people derided in a chant on a train coming home from a game at Millwall, perhaps the most hardcore and vicious practitioners of football bad behaviour, (though some of the nicest people I have ever met support the Lions), I was distressed. The bloke sitting opposite me, with a young lad next to him about the same age as the boy with me, said in some astonishment, ‘You’re an Orient fan, aren’t you?’ I nervously outed myself and was able to raise my objections to the chant. ‘It’s only a bit of fun,’ he said.
And herein lies the problem, the negation of culpability because it is banter or adds to the atmosphere. It does not. At a game at Carlisle a man sitting behind me (I had to move) spent more time effing and blinding and accusing the other side’s supporters of onanism than watching the game. He was nasty, vulgar and crass. And he was having a ball.
There are routine chants at Leyton Orient from some fans about how they ‘hate’ those bastards in claret and blue. Towns are derided as shit, their residents are designated ‘scum’, ‘wankers’, ‘pikies’ and ‘poofs’ and, when in university towns, ‘students’! There are lots of Fs and Cs thrown in for good measure. Should their voices be drowned out, there are many hand gestures, one in relation to masturbation, that take their place. This behaviour is not just for the hardened. I have seen children as young as seven using the language and gestures and then look for approval from their elders. They are rarely rebuked.
Goalkeepers get the worst of it from supporters behind the posts. At a game in Bristol recently, the home keeper was abused, told he was shit, slagged off and belittled by a man further down from me. If anyone else was subjected to such abuse, and that is what it is, while merely going about their business, the perpetrator would rightly be held to account. But it is justified as it usually is, just a bit of light hearted banter that adds to the game. After all, they will tell you, it’s part of the territory of being a goalkeeper.
The same game saw a steward racially abused by Orient supporters for doing nothing more than his job. I had the report second hand but it was given to me by a friend who, by his own admission, ‘could never be accused of being a liberal. But it was out of order.’ Was the incident reported? A check with the club management confirmed that they had heard nothing about this.
As for referees and linesmen, they get a torrent of abuse for when they make decisions supporters think are biased or unfair. Many of us have joined in the booing of officials. Only later do I think this may have been a form of bullying.
A couple of weeks later Lawrence Vigaroux, Orient’s man between the sticks, was subjected to racist online abuse similar to that meted out to three black footballers who missed penalties in the England-Italy Euro final defeat. The person received a ban from the home club, Port Vale. It was reported the Euro abuse was by someone who attended Orient games. He received a lifetime ban.
At home and away games there are a number of Os’ supporters who would boo when players take the knee. It is true that they are very much in the minority, but they obviously feel comfortable in doing this. This is bigger than ‘culture wars’ or ‘wokeness’; it is about what is acceptable to people going about their jobs, and the enjoyment of others for what is, after all, only a game of football. A number of players and clubs, Orient among them, have not made the gesture as they believe it has not had the necessary corollary.
Is it any wonder that some people are intimidated by going to the grounds? It is well attested how popular football is among many communities, yet their presence is limited in the stadia. The ubiquitous England flags, usually with a club’s name or insignia, that are draped by away fans at games are more than tribal signals. They are the fruit of a deep illness within us.
Lest this becomes an epistle written with a stone before casting it through my own glazed residence, I own that standing up to a 16 stone drunken, swearing oaf as I know if it gets physical (as it rapidly can) is not my idea of a good day out.
Nor have I always been the person I am who, I hope, is open to change. For my sins I was, by virtue of my upbringing and background, a bigot, though I did not realise that at the time. I was simply asserting what was the accepted ethos. After all, the country I was born in had a White Australia Policy, and the sins and crimes against its indigenous people were not even mentioned. They are more than enough to repent of.
Through my work, training and vocation as a priest, I have had to challenge many accepted norms but no doubt being white, male, of a professional background, and in a role that still has a burnished sheen of respectability softens my perceptive radar, I have learned that we have to challenge ourselves internally and externally.
During a recent discussion with a diversity champion in the arts, who happened to be a Tottenham season card holder, he took issue with my concerns about the make-up of crowds. The changes that he says are more instrumental in substantive change come in management, in the boardroom, in the who and how of running of a club. That is where institutions are changed. It is why our society, the church and so many other organisations fail to implement ‘the lessons to be learned’ that follow every investigation of a scandal. Until we change the structures of organisations, we should not be surprised that they make the same mistakes.
Which is why I now report, when I can, the ills I see. I call out comments, I make myself unpopular and my nickname has changed in some parts from Revkev to Redkev.
Why do bullies get away with it? In a version of a saying in various forms attributed to Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and a number of others, ‘Bad things happen when good people stay silent’. It is important to speak out and recognise the illness within us and around us. Only then can we really Kick It Out.