Supporters have discussed a new club-wide approach to equality and diversity and the possibility of education being built into the club’s sanctioning process at a fans forum which took place on April 3.

Attended by four members of club staff including Simon Thornton, diversity and inclusion manager, Susan Black, director of communications, and Lorna Duckworth, safeguarding and equality officer, the meeting lasted 90 minutes with contributions being made by forum members Paul Amann, Yunus Lunat and Steve Evans.

Red Together

Liverpool Football Club’s new approach to equality and diversity was presented by Simon Thornton who told the forum that the Red Together initiative would be “our focus from 2019-22” and that the basic premise was for it to allow supporters to work alongside the club and its workforce in delivering key objectives.

Outlining the strategy, Simon Thornton said it features a number of aims including:

  • The delivery of club-wide commitments to diversity and inclusion as part of our strategy
  • The modernisation of governance and risk processes building equality principles at every opportunity
  • Building an inclusive club culture
  • Working to improve our staff profile across a number of characteristics
  • Focusing on providing an inclusive fan experience
  • Engaging our supporters in promoting equality and role-model positive behaviour
  • Supporting a number of pro-equality campaigns throughout the year

Referring specifically to staff profiles, Yunus Lunat said that the document refers solely to gender when statistics would inform that race needs to be a priority given the profile of the club’s current workforce, which is not as representative as the city region in which Liverpool Football Club is based. Further, that Liverpool Football Club should seek to attract the best workforce from beyond the Liverpool region and, therefore, to rely upon the regional statistics is not a true comparison. The benchmark should be the national profiles.

Yunus Lunat added: “Sport claims to be inclusive but if it isn’t living up to that objective in its employment policies how can it stand up to scrutiny? Football’s understanding of racism has to be more than just trying to make sure that people do not suffer racist abuse when they go to matches. Bringing people into the game from different backgrounds has to be a big part of that and only when this happens will we start to see the kind of inclusivity that football clearly needs.”

In response, Simon Thornton said; “This is definitely part of our thinking. We need to look at what we can do to recruit more widely. Red Together will be central to all of this because it is a club-wide commitment to equality and diversity and it is about all aspects of the club so I can assure you that working to improve our staff profile in the coming years is a key objective.”

Paul Amann said: “I absolutely agree that you need a clear strategy, but in my view the club continues to miss a trick when it comes to being more inclusive and more representative. We are all aware of the effects that funding cuts have had on community and grassroots organisations, many of which are based in areas that the club should be doing more to reach out to, and this is something that you should definitely be looking at.

“A lot of those organisations would love to work with the club or simply be endorsed by them simply because of the power of the badge. This can happen on a very basic level via staff volunteering in local communities or it can be through partnerships but the basic principle is that the club needs a human interface and a regular presence. That would help people of various backgrounds feel that they have a connection with Liverpool Football Club beyond football and would also increase the sense that Liverpool is an organisation that they could work for.”

Susan Black replied: “Those points are really valid. If there is a feeling that people do not know how to get into LFC as an employee then it is incumbent on us all to work together to improve that sense of access. If we need to engage more directly then we absolutely can do that. This is something that we are already doing through Red Neighbours but at this stage that only applies to areas that are closest to Anfield, ie the L4, L5 and L6 postcodes. There is a lot of good work going on in this respect, career speed networking and Intu University being two prime examples, and this could easily work in other areas.”

Paul Amann added: “That would definitely be a start and it wouldn’t need to be in all areas initially, you have to run before you can walk obviously, so even if it was initially just rolled out into a couple of areas neighbouring the ones that it already happens in it would be a step in the right direction.”

Sanctioning and education

At the request of Yunus Lunat, and in light of a series of recent incidents, the club agreed to discuss the possibility of education being used as part of its sanctioning process in situations in which it may be deemed appropriate to do so.

Introducing the topic, Simon Thornton said: “Discriminatory behaviour appears to be on the rise and this is clearly a concern. The question I would like to pose in relation to this is how can we work with supporters to change things and ensure that the positive messaging about what this club and its supporters stand for is out there as much as possible? Also, in relation to Yunus’ question, would an educational element be appropriate when someone has acted discriminately?”

Yunus Lunat said: “It is becoming so toxic again, that is the reality. I don’t think it [racism] ever went away but people who are of that mindset clearly feel emboldened at the moment and this is reflected in some of the incidents that we have all seen. An initial idea for this football club would be to hold a day of inclusion which celebrates that we are one no matter what background we come from and which also serves to isolate those who do not share that mindset. It needs a big push – a game to focus on and focus minds.”

Paul Amann, Yunus Lunat and Steve Evans were all in agreement that education should be built into the sanctions process with Paul Amann commenting that “lessons will only be learned if there is some sort of educational element and restorative justice.”

Yunus Lunat added: “With a lot of sanctions processes it is a case of throw away the key and do not pass go. I am not suggesting there aren’t cases in which individuals deserve to be banned and indeed should be banned but sometimes you have to look at the behaviour and the person responsible for it and ask whether there is an opportunity for education and reform.

“In my opinion, one of the mandatory sanctions should be education either online or in person but in the case of a secondary offence a permanent ban has to be an option. It can’t just be about punishment, though, as that in isolation does not lead to a change in behaviour.”

With Spirit of Shankly (SOS) representative Phil Rowan unable to attend the forum due to work commitments, forum chair Tony Barrett confirmed that he had consulted with outgoing SOS chair James McKenna prior to the meeting. During that conversation, James McKenna confirmed that SOS would be supportive of education being added to the sanctions process.

Steve Evans said: “It has to be about education. For all of us, Liverpool Football Club is our lives and if any of us let ourselves down we should have the opportunity to prove it was a one off and that we can and will learn from it. But if it is a serious offence then the punishment has to be severe and, as Yunus said, the individual would have to be banned.” 

Paul Amann said: “In terms of sanctions, a further issue that hasn’t been mentioned is consistency. The lack of consistency with which instances of racism are dealt with in comparison with instances of homophobia is something that needs to be addressed. There have been examples in which racism has been, quite rightly, dealt with severely but the same has not been the case when it comes to homophobia. There needs to be a level playing field for sanctions.

“But in relation to education and rehabilitation, I would add that if someone does go through that kind of process it would be up to the club to track their behaviour if and when they returned to the ground. I know this might be perceived as a bit ‘Big Brother’ but it is a fair response to the kind of behaviour that we are discussing as the one thing that would not be acceptable would be for it to be repeated unchecked.

“Also, a further caveat should be that if anyone who is found to have committed any kind of discriminatory behaviour is also found to be a member of a proscribed political organisation I would have no hesitation in saying they should be banned for life.”

Forum chair Tony Barrett said: “This was a very forthright forum in which supporters underlined their support for the club’s equality and diversity strategy but also called for heightened activity in this area, particularly in terms of engaging communities and addressing some of the staff profile challenges that the club is facing. There was also unanimous support for the idea of introducing an educational element into the sanctions process which will now be discussed by club officials.”

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