In a season that has frequently been dominated by events off the pitch rather than those on it, the past week has been a particularly dark one for Scottish football. Brendan Rodgers’ swift exit from Celtic may have knocked it off the back pages, but the sectarian abuse suffered by Kris Boyd during a game between Kilmarnock and Celtic and Steve Clarke during a match against Rangers should force all in the sport north of the border to hold up a mirror. The reflection will be an ugly one.
Of course, it should go without saying that such behaviour must be condemned – although that isn’t always the case, disappointingly. But taking into account how Scottish football has been plagued with this issue for decades, generations even, the discussion must now shift. How should this problem be tackled?
Action is undoubtedly needed. This has, not for the first time, raised the prospect of Scottish clubs adopting what is known as Strict Liability. In essence, Strict Liability is a system that would place responsibility for the behaviour and conduct of fans at the feet of the clubs themselves. Sanctions could involve warnings, fines, the closure of grounds, or sections of grounds, and even points deductions.
Scottish clubs already have to comply with Strict Liability rules when they play in Europe, with UEFA adopting the system across its continental club competitions. It’s through this that Celtic have been handed fines for the display of banners and the showing of flags by supporters, with UEFA also fining Rangers earlier this season for incidents that included a fan invading the pitch.
Many see Strict Liability as the answer to tackling serious issues like sectarianism, racism and incidents like coin throwing, of which there was a spate of earlier this season. However, is this really the way forward? Football might give sectarianism a platform in Scotland, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily a football problem. Football can take certain measures to deter such behaviour, but a sectarian fan at a football match is football’s issue just as much as a racist fan at a gig is the issue of the band that is playing.
Additionally, from a practical perspective, what exactly will clubs with limited resources like Hamilton Accies and St Johnstone do to deal with such issues that the police are incapable of?
Fans can be searched for flares and banners at the turnstiles, but what’s to prevent them carrying such toxic attitudes into a stadium?
This isn’t to say that sectarian bigots or racists should be let off lightly. Far from it. Strict Liability would only deter fans in a footballing sense that would affect their team. Instead, these people should face real world consequences just as they would if they behaved in such a way outside a football stadium.
Generally speaking, Scottish clubs are opposed to the notion of Strict Liability. The system was put to a vote in 2013, with Scottish FA members voting against its adoption. Since then, the discussion has been reopened, with former SFA CEO Stewart Regan admitting more recently that Strict Liability should be back on the agenda, but the desire for such a system within the corridors of power still seems to be low.
Scottish FA chief executive Ian Maxwell admits that “football has a responsibility to take action,” adding: “We must do all that we can under our current rules and engage with clubs to seek to eradicate such behaviour. This issue, however, is not one that football can solve on its own.”
Maxwell is right. This is undoubtedly a difficult issue to take on. Seven years ago, the Scottish Government introduced the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, in large part to tackle sectarianism. However, it was widely criticised for criminalising football fans and was repealed last year. The line between tackling issues like these that undoubtedly need tackling and criminalising fans is a thin one and must be carefully observed.
The past week has shamed Scottish football. Boyd and Clarke were right to highlight the abuse that is far too common at grounds north of the border, but previously, in years gone by, such remarks have been followed by scant action. That trend cannot be allowed to continue, but Strict Liability might not be the way forward.