Global Soccer Still Isn't Getting it Right While Addressing Racist, Abusive Fans

Incidents around the world make it clear that whatever is being done to address abusive fan behavior is not enough.
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This is the sports world in 2019: Recently, fans of the Italian soccer team Lazio were captured on video marching through the streets of Glasgow making Nazi salutes before a Europa League game against Celtic. Weeks earlier, Bulgarian supporters made the same gestures from the stands while hurling racially abusive language at England players at a Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia. The Italian soccer league has been plagued by fans yelling racist slurs at players all season; one club, Cagliari, has seen a several instances in recent years but has faced no serious punishment from Italian soccer authorities.

The apparent rise of corrosive fan behavior isn't just happening in soccer or outside the United States, either. There were several prominent incidents involving NBA fans who showed little respect for boundaries last season—instances in which stars such as DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry were subjected to racist taunts or physical contact. After discussions with players, the NBA has toughened its code of conduct for fans this season, installing a zero-tolerance policy for abusive behavior.

Bulgaria fans make Nazi salutes

But as soccer has shown, instituting a policy doesn't mean much if it isn't enforced. This year, FIFA established a three-step procedure to address biased fan behavior. The first step involves the referees stopping the game, followed by a stadium announcement requesting that the behavior stop. If it doesn't, the referee may suspend the game and send players off the pitch while the stadium hears another warning. If the abuse continues, the referee has the authority to abandon the game altogether. The new policy has been followed in some cases—in a French league game in August, the referee halted play to stop homophobic chants coming from the stands—but the three-step procedure hasn't been enforced uniformly in Italy, where bad behavior occurs regularly.

What should Italian soccer authorities be doing? For starters, they should do more to identify individuals, name them publicly and prevent them from attending games. Also, instead of letting teams with serial offenders like Cagliari skate by without serious punishment, they should go beyond issuing fines and hit clubs with a points deduction in the standings. Respected Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti has said he would pull his team off the field if his players are subjected to racist abuse, and it's hard to believe that Ancelotti and Napoli would be punished if they did just that.

French World Cup winner Lilian Thuram, who played in Italy and has devoted his post-playing career to fighting racism in soccer, says too much responsibility rests with the targets of racial abuse to take action. He wants to see white teammates speak out forcefully against racist behavior. But that doesn't happen nearly enough. When Juventus forward Moise Kean was racially abused at Cagliari last season, his own teammate, Leonardo Bonucci, said Kean deserved part of the blame for celebrating his goal in front of the opposing fans. After Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku was subjected to monkey noises at Cagliari this season, one of Inter's supporters groups wrote Lukaku a letter saying he should consider it a sign of respect.

Romelu Lukaku was racially abused at Cagliari

Closer to home, fans of the Mexican national team have for years been chanting a Spanish word that FIFA has deemed homophobic when opposing teams take goal kicks. FIFA has fined the Mexican federation 14 times in response (reportedly totaling $190,000) but has never taken more serious action, and so the chant has persisted. In September, U.S. Soccer authorities were ready to invoke FIFA's three-step process during a friendly against Mexico in New Jersey, but the U.S. didn't take enough traditional long goal kicks to draw the chant. It remains to be seen how effective the protocol will be, or if referees will have the guts to abandon a match.

The same could be said for the NBA and its new policy, which forbids not just racist, sexist and homophobic abuse but any denigrating language from fans that isn't basketball related. The league says it will pull a fan out of his seat and investigate if an incident arises. The NBA certainly did practice that kind of accountability last season. The Celtics banned a fan for two years for his language toward Cousins, and the Jazz banned two fans for life for yelling racist insults at Westbrook. Warriors minority owner Mark Stevens was fined $500,000 and banned for a season for shoving the Raptors' Lowry from his courtside seat during the NBA Finals.

Basic civility is becoming a bigger issue every day. It's admirable that the NBA is taking a stand against toxic fan behavior. The soccer world would be wise to pay attention.