Following Luton Town Football Club’s cup tie at West Bromwich Albion in mid-August, the club’s CEO Gary Sweet asked a small section of the club’s fans to stop chanting in support of a well-known far-right ‘political figurehead’.
Speaking out in response to fans singing in praise of Tommy Robinson, Sweet wrote an open letter to club’s fans (available here), stating, “Our experience was blemished, for the second away game running, by hearing the chanting of the name of a political figurehead by a small number of Hatters supporters.”
“This is hugely disappointing for us, as a board, because the individual in question wasn’t playing or involved in the squad or staff,” he continued. “Everyone at the club has worked extremely hard and will continue to work tirelessly to create an environment […] for our community of supporters to support their team and enjoy a football match knowing that all prejudice – whether that be political, religious, cultural or racial – can and should be left for another day.
‘Prejudice Can And Should Be Left For Another Day’
Fans were changing in support of Tommy Robinson. Image Credit: Andy Thornley / Flickr
Writing about the importance of making everyone feel welcome, he added: “This allows us to invite anybody into our environment without discomfort, disrespect or fear, and welcome any and every member of our wide community respectfully.
Our experience was blemished, for the second away game running, by hearing the chanting of the name of a political figurehead by a small number of Hatters supporters
“We absolutely accept and respect the fact that everyone holds their own independent opinions and values, but we politely ask for you to temporarily overlook those views for a couple of hours or so when attending Luton Town matches in future.”
Many Football Clubs Ignore Divisive Chanting. Not Luton Town FC.
Luton Town Football Club’s proposed new stadium Power Court. Image Credit: Luton Town Football Club
Since the Football Offences Act of 1991, indecent and racist chanting is banned in football grounds. However, this doesn’t stop people from singing their political views – even if they can be seen as divisive, such as Tommy Robinson.
Often football clubs turn a blind eye to chanting of a this nature, for fear of alienating supporters and stoking controversial debates around free speech and hate speech.
In this light, it’s particularly striking that Sweet has put his and Luton Town Football Club’s head above the parapet. RightsInfo contacted Luton Town Football Club to see what Sweet to find out why he and the club decided to issue the memo, and what it means for free speech.
Why did you feel it was necessary to make a stand?
We are at a very important phase in the Club’s ambitious development right now. Having been forced to endure such chaotic mismanagement and financial instability for so long […] we’re moving forward progressively with a new culture that embraces the best of our heritage alongside a newfound direction for the Club and social change within our town. […] Most importantly, we have a planning application which is just about to be decided upon by our Council which will elevate those ambitions by providing a foundation that would mean we could compete at a much higher level. The progression and development of our Club will be accelerated if everyone associated with it could link arms with one single aim and after an increasing level of feedback from supporters, we felt a considered plea for co-operation was appropriate.
Luton Town lifting the Conference Trophy in 2014 Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Some people might feel that the club is trying to restrict free speech, which is regarded as a cornerstone of democracy. How would you respond to that?
The intention is not to restrict speech – we believe in free speech too – but to ask our supporters politely to respect the wishes of others and allow for Luton Town matches to be an environment where political and racial differences don’t matter for the good of the team. If we can unite, as supporters, with one aim – to encourage and inspire the team to win, we believe we will not only see improved results, because we know players respond, but we create an inclusive environment where anyone is welcome to join in.
There is an argument that football grounds are a place to let off steam and are exempt from rules and laws that govern mainstream society. How would you respond to that?
Largely, we don’t disagree with that. When I was a regular season ticket holder, I always used to say I attended matches to rid myself of the frustrations of my stressful working week and on occasion I used to pity the poor linesman, if he heard me. But as supporters, we don’t attend just to let off steam, we take on a loyal commitment to our Club to be a member of a unique community that unites behind one single aim of ambition which creates a tribal kinship with fellow supporters, whomever they are or whatever their background. There are no qualifications to this membership other than the inevitable commitment that comes once you get the bug and we would love it if this membership acted as a peacemaker rather than a divider.
How would you respond to fans who say, ‘We pay our money to support the team and we should be able to say what we like?’
We would respect that opinion, of course and we’re not being dictatorial or instructive with our polite request. We are merely asking our supporters to focus on the game for the good of the team and to show respect to all our fellow supporters who have membership to this unique community. The bond Luton supporters have amongst each other is very strong, so we simply ask the question as to why anyone would wish to disrupt that?