Troy Townsend believes Kick It Out’s latest report on the amount of racism and other types of discriminatory abuse in football is only the tip of the iceberg, particularly at the grassroots level.
Townsend, the equality charity’s head of development, described the situation in amateur and youth football as “lawless”, with “horrendous” abuse occurring even in the youngest age-groups.
Speaking to PA on the day Kick It Out revealed the number of incidents of discriminatory abuse rose last season for the seventh year in a row, the campaigner said: “This is only a snapshot of what is happening out there – if football was to collate its information I think we’d be really talking about a problem.
“Our stats would go through the roof if we reached out more and people thought reporting (abuse) is the first step in eradicating discrimination from our game.
“It’s lawless at grassroots at the moment. Some of the stuff we hear is horrendous from the lowest ages up to the highest ages of youth football.
“A lot of it involves parents being the perpetrators. A lot of it is player on player or language that you wonder how they know these words at that age. We’ve never got it right at grassroots – the stats don’t lie.
“I appreciate there’s usually only one official and it’s a ‘he said, I said’ situation, but we have to come up with something more effective and hold those people to account.”
In total, Kick It Out received 581 reports of discrimination last season, a 12 per cent rise on 2017/18’s figure of 520 and more than double the number recorded five years ago.
This increase should not come as a surprise after a season that witnessed numerous high-profile examples of overt discrimination, with stars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mohamed Salah and Raheem Sterling all subjected to abuse.
And Kick It Out’s numbers would have been even worse if it had not changed its approach to recording abuse on social media.
In the past, it has treated each discriminatory comment on a social media platform as an incident but is now only recording the initial comment in a post or thread, a change that saw the number of social media reports actually fall from 201 in 2017/18 to 159 last season.
Excluding social media, the number of reports leapt by a third last season from 319 to 422, with reports of racism increasing by an alarming 43 per cent to account for two thirds of the total.
There was also a big increase in anti-semitism and Islamophobia, with faith-based discrimination rising by 75 per cent from 36 to 63, although the majority of these are related to either some Spurs fans calling themselves ‘Yids’ or rival fans taunting them with the same anti-semitic term.
Townsend said it is hard to tell if racism is on the rise, racists are more “emboldened” to broadcast their views because of the contentious political climate or more people are just more willing to report abuse.
“We’re in a worrying period of time, and it is a societal problem, but I can’t affect that,” he said.
“What we can do is talk about what we can do inside the game.”
He said that people needed to have faith their complaints would be taken seriously, which means speeding up the time it takes to complete discrimination cases and keep complainants more informed of what is happening throughout the process.
Townsend admitted the charity’s relationship with the Football Association, which ultimately runs the disciplinary process, was “strained” in the past but is now better, albeit with room to improve, likewise Kick It Out’s links with the clubs and leagues.
This is something the professional game would appear to acknowledge, as the FA, Premier League and EFL wrote an open letter to sports minister Mims Davies on Wednesday outlining several measures they intend to take this season, including “enhancing and growing programmes to provide more opportunities for (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people in coaching, refereeing, management and administrative positions in the sport”.
They also pledged to review how clubs sanction and educate offenders, look again at the list of sanctions available to the FA, improve stewarding, make it easier for fans to make clubs and the authorities aware of incidents and further develop their community and schools programmes.
Additionally, the three football bodies asked the minister and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to lead a working group on how to involve social media companies more in the fight against discrimination, an issue that has frustrated Kick It Out.
“It’s hard work – look at the hate speech that is allowed on those platforms,” said Townsend.
“We talk regularly to them and we pass on information but I don’t see enough action. I don’t seem them saying we need to stamp that out.
“I haven’t heard anything coming out from those social media companies that tells me we are going to be in a better place in six or 12 months’ time.”