By Andrew Srulevitch, ADL Director of European Affairs
For those obsessed with the ins and outs of European football, it has been a tough few months. Not necessarily because of anything the players have done on the pitch, but because of a series of ugly headlines and stories about racism from fans. And not just one or two isolated instances, but repeated reports of fans chanting anti-Semitic slurs from the stands, of peanuts thrown at black players, of fans and players giving Nazi salutes. And much worse.
From our vantage point as an anti-hate organization doing work to prevent this from happening in the United States, it’s really a lamentable state of affairs. Anti-Semitism and hate should have no place in sports, period. And it doesn’t have to be this way. More on that in a moment.
But first, a look at the challenge facing European teams. The stories and data show that bigotry is an ugly stain on the “beautiful game” of European football, as far too often fans express racism and anti-Semitism against their rival teams. And this has literally been happening for decades.
Just in the month of December alone, the FARE Network (“Football Against Racism in Europe”) reported 23 racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic incidents at games. Bananas and bags of peanuts were thrown at black players. Muslim players were called “parasites.” Fans of the Italian team, SS Lazio, gave Nazi salutes and made racist and anti-Semitic chants.
These acts are obviously reprehensible and were rightly condemned by the vast majority of fans.
And while racist acts are generally targeted toward players, the anti-Semitic insults are often directed at entire clubs. Sometimes the chants are about Jews being gassed or burned in ovens. Often the insult is simply being called “Jewish.” Casual observers of this trend might wonder how this can possibly be happening in Europe, the place where six million Jews and millions of others were killed in the Nazi gas chambers, and where laws exist in some countries prohibiting such expressions.
For historical or other reasons some teams are associated with Jews, for better, and (mostly) for worse. Ajax Amsterdam players, for example, are jeered with chants of “Jews to the gas.” Stickers of Anne Frank wearing the AS Roma jersey were distributed by a group of SS Lazio fans. Poland’s Stal Reszow team played their crosstown rival, Resovia Reszow, whose fans held a banner, “Death to the Hook-Nosed.”
After the Belgian club, Brugge FC, beat rivals RSC Anderlecht on August 26, 2018, dozens of fans were captured on video singing in Flemish: “My father was part of the commandos. My mother in the SS. Together they burned Jews, because Jews burn the best.”
Tottenham Hotspurs are derided as “yids,” but their fans have appropriated the term and turned into a point of pride, calling themselves the “Yid Army.”
What’s to be done about this disturbing trend? European sports teams, leagues, and international sports federations need to take action -- now.
In the United States, we have had our own share of controversies involving sports teams, fans, bigotry and free speech, including the recent “take a knee” controversy. But nothing compares to what we’ve seen in the past few years in European sport. Obviously, America is different. The teams and players in the U.S. deserve credit for tackling some of these issues head-on in an effort to help raise awareness of prejudice on and off the field. Perhaps some of those lessons can apply to Europe as well.
With that thought in mind, here’s five things we think European teams can do to address this problem now. We offer these not to be overly prescriptive, but because we have had experience and success with similar initiatives here in the U.S.
- Raise awareness. There’s no solution to racism and prejudice unless people are aware of the problem. Self-awareness among fans and players can go a long way to stopping bad behavior in the stands and on the field. We’ve seen this in the United States. Years ago, we launched a public awareness campaign with a tagline, “If you really believe in America, prejudice is foul play!” that included posters featuring star NBA athletes and big-name celebrities such as Michael Jordan. This helped foster a sense of awareness, especially among young people who are perhaps most susceptible.
- Create hate-free zones. We’ve also done this in partnership with teams in the U.S. Our No Place for Hate program partnered with the Atlanta Braves to created public service announcements featuring players talking frankly about prejudice in English and Spanish; we hosted No Place for Hate events at Braves games with free tickets for student leaders (more than 500 youth attended games each season); we held a rally and on-field presentation at those games; and players and coaches from the Braves appeared at schools and signed a pledge against hate. This helped to create more awareness but also a sense that the stadium was a hate-free zone. In the short term, teams can train stadium security officers and ushers with training on how to identify and deal with fans who engage in anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.
- Don’t under estimate the power of anti-bias education. Players and fans who invoke the Nazis and the Holocaust either haven’t been sensitized to the lessons of the Holocaust or are ignorant of the history. They also don’t know how hateful words can hurt. Teams can change that by helping to promote education about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in schools and communities, and an awareness of stereotypes. Players should learn about the history of Judaism in Europe, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It doesn’t take all that much: a short lecture, some reading or a video. Or it could mean taking players on a visit to a concentration camp site or a Holocaust museum. One model for this is actions taken recently by the Chelsea soccer club in the UK. The club’s owner announced an initiative aimed at discouraging anti-Semitism among its players and fans and has partnered with the Anne Frank House and London’s Jewish Museum and other organizations to provide workshops on Jewish culture. The team also launched an anti-bias and Holocaust education program for those fans banned from games for engaging in anti-Semitic conduct.
- Use celebrity power for good. Celebrity players are the ultimate brand ambassadors for teams. Imagine the power of having one of your most high-profile players saying, on television, at a news conference, or in an ad campaign, that he or she believes that hate is unacceptable. Never underestimate the power that one celebrity player can have to raise his or her voice and radically “change the game.”
- Bring Together Leaders for Change. It truly takes a community-wide effort to embrace change, which is why it is important for team owners, government and civic leaders, elected officials and players to stand united against hate. In the U.S., ADL recently created a Sports Leadership Council that brings together professional athletes and sports leaders to promote positive social change and combat hate, bullying and discrimination in our society. The initiative now includes commissioners of the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS and others such as tennis great Venus Williams. The council works directly with key leaders in the sports world to increase the sports community’s efforts to build bridges of understanding, unity and respect.
In Europe, anti-Semitism should be just as taboo as racism. The best performances on the field reflect healthy competition and sportsmanship, and those traits should be emulated by each team’s fans. Just as players should play hard and fair, fans should root hard and respectfully. By doing so, they will remove the stain of bigotry from the “beautiful game.”