‘We have to ask ourselves some difficult questions after latest shame’

I’m writing this as West Ham celebrate top spot in our Europa League group, guaranteeing that we’ll be playing European football in March next year. It’s a richly deserved reward for the players who’ve performed so well on our tour this season.

However, the so-called West Ham ‘fans’ who decided to pass the time on a flight to Belgium singing an anti-Semitic song, as a Jewish man walked down the aisle to take his seat do not deserve this. Police action has been taken and two men have been banned, but how depressing, and yet, how predictable: back in May 2019, exactly the same thing happened, with a video again showing our fans engaged in anti-Semitic chanting after an away defeat against Manchester United. 

At that time, I wrote about various issues of racism and anti-Semitism which have blighted our beautiful game. Since then, perhaps naively, I had hoped that the focus on ‘Kick It Out’, the players taking a knee before the game, the emphasis on the Black Lives Matter movement, and general media coverage and greater awareness of these issues, might have been a lightbulb moment for those in society who struggle with this sort of thing.

I was hopelessly wrong, and this isn’t just a West Ham problem, either. In October, Chelsea season ticket-holder Nathan Blagg, aged just 21, pleaded guilty to posting racist and anti-Semitic tweets about players and supporters.  He also bragged about what he could say online, in one tweet posting: ‘Can’t beat days like this, can be as horrible as I like and not be judged it’s mint.’

Two weeks prior, a West Brom fan was jailed for eight weeks for racially abusing Ronnie Sawyers – himself a West Brom player – on Facebook; and before that, an England fan was sentenced for posting racist abuse about three black England footballers on the night of the Euro 2020 final. Despite all the attempts to the contrary, it seems that sport still harbours this sort of behaviour. 

Witness what has happened in the world of cricket: Azeem Rafiq, a former player at Yorkshire Cricket Club, has said publicly that he had experienced repeated racism during his time there, with formal complaints being made last year. Of those complaints, seven of 43 allegations were upheld, the club denied that there was a problem with racism, and a leaked report into the investigations suggested that the racist insults ‘were friendly and good-natured banter’. 

Fast forward a few months, and the chairman has resigned, the kit supplier has withdrawn, sponsors have left the club, the ground cannot host England matches, and the ramifications continue. The stain, of course, remains. Turning back to the West Ham incident, I’ve seen the footage of what happened on that flight involving those supporters. I wonder whether the Jewish man who was subjected to that language thought it was ‘banter’.

In my opinion, those who were involved, should be banned for life from football, and charged with a criminal offence. But what about those who stood by – perhaps friends or acquaintances of those involved – and watched it? To me, they are complicit in this.

It isn’t always easy, of course, but this behaviour has to be called out. Someone on that plane must have known that what was going on was a problem, but not one person, or group of people, even attempted to challenge what was being said. That’s why the song continued, and presumably the ‘supporters’ thought it was hilarious. That’s also why it took a posting on social media for some sort of action to be taken.

If we’re going to ask the question ‘why do people do it?’, others have to ask themselves some pretty searching questions about why they felt they couldn’t do anything about it. What would have happened if the video hadn’t made it to social media? Would it have been brushed under the carpet?

In fact, we all have to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Here’s one: Are we, as a West Ham family, doing enough to combat this, individually and collectively? Can each of us look in the mirror and say we are? We have lots of initiatives to support diversity and inclusion, and this is very welcome. Change is slowly happening, with more and more focus on what is happening.

As the West Ham incident shows, though, this kind of behaviour is still there and has a profound impact on those that bear it. I have been fortunate enough never to experience racism, but others aren’t so lucky and live with it on a day-to-day basis. Each of us has a duty to educate ourselves. And it isn’t someone else’s problem, it is everybody’s problem. 

Until we double-down on this and fully take collective responsibility, racism and anti-Semitism will continue to be a widespread cancer in today’s society.

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