13:26, August 22 157 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-22 13:26:03
Bra checks? Football fans are used to being treated like criminals

The treatment of female Grimsby Town supporters asked to show their bras at Stevenage FC’s turnstiles last weekend to check whether they were underwired or not, appalled male and female football fans across the country. Stevenage FC issued a defensive statement in response, effectively blaming the reputation of the entire away contingent of Grimsby Town fans for how they were searched and treated by their stewards.

Although I’m shocked by “bra gate”, it’s hardly surprising. I’ve been the caseworker for the Football Supporters’ Federation for 10 years now and am all too aware of how poorly football fans can be treated.

Indeed, we have legislation exclusively for football fans, criminalising us for offences that wouldn’t exist in other contexts, such as drinking in view of a football pitch, being drunk entering a stadium or drinking alcohol on a coach to or from a match.

Elsewhere this weekend, supporters of Brighton and Hove Albion experienced delays getting into Leicester City’s King Power stadium, despite in some cases arriving 40 minutes before kick-off. In a statement Leicester City explained that “late” arrivals of fans heightened the problems. By late it didn’t mean after kick-off, it meant before. While the club said it would look at the cause of the problems, it isn’t the first time a club has implied blame towards fans for circumstances entirely beyond their control.

In recent years football policing has improved dramatically, although it’s not yet consistent around the UK. Football-related arrests remain at historically low levels and incidents of hooliganism are rare. Stadiums are safer and mostly welcoming, and the demographic of supporters is broader than ever.

And yet the legacy of widespread football-related disorder of nearly three decades ago still lingers. It is still easy to stereotype and blame fans for incidents rather than examine other legitimate factors. There is little scrutiny of the draconian legislation directed at fans and, with notable exceptions, even less scrutiny of how they may be policed and stewarded.

For example, there is a wide perception that football banning orders are solely for “hooligans” who have been involved in or who may contribute to violence or disorder. But it’s often ignored that among those surrendering their passports to police ahead of their club or country playing overseas, there will be scores of first-time offenders convicted of a “football-related offence” that has nothing whatsoever to do with violence or disorder.

The list of “football-related offences” is a long and nebulous one, yet civil liberty campaigners and commentators are, in the main, silent on the subject. Rightly, there is concern at the Metropolitan police’s proposed use of facial recognition technology at the Notting Hill carnival – Liberty says the use of this technology has no basis in law and is discriminatory. And yet barely a whisper was heard about its experimental use at the Champions League finals in Cardiff back in June.

Similarly, recent news that drivers wishing to hire vans could be subject to extra police checks following the terrorist attack in Barcelona was given widespread coverage. But for years now, under traffic commissioner guidelines, coach firms providing services to football fans have passed on the personal details of those booking the coach to police on pain of having their coach-operating licences withdrawn.

On Wednesday evening Blackburn Rovers are at home to Burnley in the Carabao Cup – a fixture with a history of bitter rivalry. I’m not going to shy away from the fact that a very small number of people have used that rivalry as an excuse for violence. However, for nearly 10 years now the response to the risk of disorder has been an insistence that whenever these two sides meet, the away supporters are collected from their home stadium and compulsorily bussed in and then taken back to the same stadium after the game – what’s known as a “bubble match”.

Of course, nobody is forcing fans to attend the match – they do so entirely of their own free will, surrendering their right to freedom of association. But that isn’t really the point.

The point is that all football fans are wrapped up like this, subjected to a huge policing operation, often with a helicopter following the coaches, and it happens without question from those who’d justly be outraged if such restrictions were imposed on others in society. Frankly, it says more about the capability of local police than the behaviour of supporters. The Football Supporters’ Federation and other supporter groups across the country will continue to campaign against the criminalisation of all football fans and for fair and equitable treatment. We can only hope that our voice is joined by those who are rightly vocal about other people’s rights.

Amanda Jacks is the caseworker for the Football Supporters’ Federation