If Sanjay Bhandari was in any doubt about a key challenge he faces leading English soccer’s anti-racism body Kick It Out, it was confirmed by abusive social media posts reacting to his appointment.
“My first thought was just a little bit of shock,” Bhandari told The Associated Press. “But then I come from a different generation. We used to take quite a lot and I used to take quite a lot on the terraces.
“And I knew that actually the best way to deal with those people is ignore them, mute them, block them.”
Footballers in England went further this year, staging a 24-hour social media boycott in April after being dissatisfied with the response by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to the torrent of racism directed at them.
“We've been having meetings with all the authorities together and I've been involved in those with the social media companies,” Bhandari said during his first media appearance as the new chairman of Kick It Out. “I believe that they're engaged. And as soon as we have some more to share on the outputs, we will do that. We will do that as a football family.”
Cases of discrimination across English football rose for the seventh straight year last season. Kick It Out tracked 581 cases compared to 520 the previous campaign.
A Manchester United fan, Bhandari has faced racist abuse in the stands and experienced the dilemma many fans grapple with at games.
“That is a really tricky one because I haven’t reported it,” Bhandari said, “and I want to encourage people to report but we also have to think why people don’t report sometimes and how can we work mechanisms around that so we can get a truer picture.”
Bhandari performs a calculation, particularly when hearing an offensive term for Pakistani people.
“I am thinking how far am I from the aisle,” he explains, “where are these people in relation to me, who am I with, is there someone who I have duty of care towards, maybe someone under the age of 16 at the game with me, if the stewards are going to take one person out what about the rest of their mates and am I going to be left to deal with that?”
Bhandari also questions why the onus should be on him to call out racists in the stands at matches.
“Just because I am the victim of it doesn’t mean I am the person who has to report it,” he said. “It could just as easily be some of those innocent bystanders ... and part the answer for this is we really arm them in how to deal with this.”
Racist incidents made up 65% of total reports. The sharpest rise was in cases of discrimination based on religion — including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim incidents — with 63 cases noted compared to 36 the season before.
“I think of racism as a bit like the inverse of the stock market, right,” Bhandari said. “So if you looked at the stock market over the last 50 years ... the value (is) going up. But if you look closely, it's quite volatile. And I think racism in English football is like that.
“Forty years ago it was up there and now it's down here, but it's quite volatile. And I think we're on an upward spike. And our challenge is not getting complacent, making sure that we arrest that slide, that upward slide.”
Bhandari blames a rise in racism for divisions in society being exacerbated by broader socio-political and economic factors, combined with a lack of faith in public institutions.
A former lawyer who specialized in fraud, Bhandari has replaced Herman Ouseley, a member of the House of Lords who ran Kick It Out for a quarter-century.
One challenge in the job will be to discuss with authorities the scale of punishments imposed for discrimination from the field to the stands. UEFA, FIFA and domestic leagues in Europe have been criticized for not banning teams whose fans repeatedly hurl abuse.
“They have the death penalty in the U.S. and they have the highest murder rate. It isn't always about the sanction,” Bhandari said. “Sometimes it's about some of the other mechanical things that you can do.
“How can we turn, you know, the bystander supporters into activists that can help us? To sort of suppress some of this and, I suppose, cut it out at source.”
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