Kevin Prince Boateng’s protest about racist chanting once again highlighted the systemic problem of racism among European football fans. I don’t think this is a problem with a single cause, but I do think that we can learn from the fact that racist chanting is unknown inside American sports stadiums.
First, few would deny that racism is a problem in the US. I heard an interesting piece on the radio the other day about a young American woman who was lifelong heavy metal fan but found herself being told she was not welcome at concerts- because she happened to be black. Most African Americans I have ever spoken to can cite similar situations where they feel they are not welcome. So then why is overt racism absent from American sports stadiums?
It’s not as if American sports fans are especially polite. Many are, but then so are many football fans in Europe- when it comes to extreme abuse we are talking about a minority. But you can hear lots of abusive language in American stadiums directed at the players. It’s also not about the law. Racial chanting at a sports stadium is illegal in the UK but still goes on (about 40 arrests per year at the moment), while it is not illegal in the US (in fact, it would be protected under the first amendment).
I think it’s connected to the hooliganism issue. This is also something that is systemic in Europe but more or less unknown in the US. Recent events have demonstrated that the US has a serious problem with violent crime; the US homicide rate is nearly five times that of Western Europe.
I think the connection has to do with ownership. In Europe the fans feel like they “own” their stadium – it’s their turf. In some cases the fans can claim this is literally true, e.g. many of membership clubs in Germany. In other cases either the stadium is municipally owned, or, as in England, the fans feel that their commitment to their club entitles them to a kind of ownership. In the US I think the fans are in no doubt that, however much their patronage deserves special consideration, they are nonetheless customers and in no sense owners of the team. Indeed, owners are very high profile individuals in the US, leaving little room for doubt about who owns the stadium.
How you behave in your own home tends to be very different from how you behave when you are a guest. I think that European fans feel at more liberty to express themselves, including the minority that want to indulge in racial abuse and acts of violence.
I also think that the legal owners of the stadiums take a very different approach in the US and Europe. If there were American sports hooligans they would be treated with extreme prejudice by stadium owners, since the owners would rightly think that it would damage their own reputation and certainly the scope for selling products to their peaceable customers during the game. If a few heads were accidentally broken in the process, I think owners would be confident that the jury would side with them in any court case.
In Europe one is generally left with the impression that the stadium owners and managers are afraid of offending the fans. Football is too central to “the community” to impose severe restrictions which might inconvenience the majority of decent fans. Likewise with racist abuse. In America, I would guess, if racist abuse were a systematic problem among fans of a particular team, the owners would threaten to move the team to another location. Of course, that would never even be considered in Europe.