Fans planning to attend matches this season are concerned they will witness a player receiving racist abuse, a Sky Sports News/YouGov survey can reveal.
Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of supporters from a representative sample of over 1200 British fans shared their concern in a Sky Sports News survey on racism in football conducted by YouGov, with 32 per cent stating they are fairly concerned, and 30 per cent saying they are very concerned about a player potentially receiving racist abuse at a game.
Burnley captain Ben Mee, who earned plaudits for condemning a 'White Lives Matter' banner flown over his team's game with Manchester City last season, reacted to the survey results by saying the fight against racism continues.
"It surprises me, that figure [of 62 per cent] is a lot," the Burnley skipper told Sky Sports News.
"We are trying to do all we can to help with that and get those numbers down, and to support the fight against racism. We want those numbers to be lower and we want people to feel comfortable whenever they enter a football stadium."
Kick It Out chief executive Tony Burnett said he is not surprised fans are concerned about racist abuse directed at players but is cautiously optimistic about the future.
"I'm not overly pessimistic about it because I think I see the kind of shoots of progress in football when it comes to inclusion and inclusive behaviours in and around football. And I see some real positive progress," he told Sky Sports News.
"I think this is a moment in time. It's not a great set of stats, but I'm looking forward to seeing the next set in a couple of years' time showing that we've made massive progress, and people feel a bigger sense of belonging around being in the game."
The survey also revealed fans are split on whether they would know how to report racism in a stadium, with 43 per cent saying they know how they are able to report it, against 45 per cent who do not. At the same time, most supporters say it is likely they would report racist abuse if they witnessed it a game compared with 32 per cent who said they would not.
The country's first dedicated football hate crime officer, West Midlands Police's Stuart Ward, says more needs to be done to raise awareness about how fans attending matches can report abuse at stadiums.
"I think everyone knows they can always report something to the police. On a matchday, you'll always have a police officer or numerous officers on the ground," he told Sky Sports News.
"You have stewards that you can report these incidents to - that's if someone who's witnessed it or the victim actually feels comfortable there and then to report it. If they don't, there are other avenues that they can go down - they can call the police [by telephone] on 111 later, they can report it via Kick It Out, they can report it via the FA.
"And if it's in the West Midlands, within a football ground, it will always come back to myself to investigate. We always encourage victims to report it as soon as possible really, so it gives us the best opportunity to collect that evidence and identify the offender."
More than two-fifths of respondents (41 per cent) said they had heard racist language at stadiums themselves, with 14 per cent admitting to have used such language themselves.
A majority of respondents (60 per cent) also said they think current punishments for racism in stadiums are not harsh enough, with less than a fifth (18 per cent) saying that they feel they are about right.
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Former England goalkeeper David James insists there must be tough sanctions and a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of abuse at grounds.
He told Sky Sports News: "Football stadiums are a place where people should come and enjoy a game of football and not be subject to racist comments, sexist comments or homophobic comments. They should be a place where people feel free and I think the maximum penalty, whatever the law has [at its disposal] should be used."
Head of UK football policing Mark Roberts believes reduced security at many grounds may have contributed to fears of incidents of racism and hate at football matches.
"I think what we've seen over the last few years is a reduction of police in stadiums. Now, this isn't a bid for us to get officers in the stadiums for the sake of it, but the best sanction and the best deterrent for someone engaged in racism in a stadium is to see immediate action, that person arrested and then suffer a sanction at the court," he told Sky Sports News.
"Now, what we've seen is more than half of games now throughout the leagues are police-free. We know some clubs are struggling to resource stewards as we move into the season.
"So we need that focus, when people commit these offences, those around them see an immediate response, immediate reaction, and a hefty sanction at court to deter others from engaging in that sort of behaviour."
YouGov also surveyed more than 500 ethnically diverse football fans on behalf of Sky Sports News, with almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of those planning to attend a match this season expressing concern about experiencing racist abuse at a stadium - 34 per cent said they are very concerned, with 39 per cent stating they are fairly concerned.
Some 92 per cent of Black supporters are concerned about witnessing a player receive racist abuse at a game this season, while 90 per cent of fans from an Indian background say they fear witnessing another supporter receive racist abuse.
"It's evident, looking at these numbers it's evident to see that much more needs to be done across football to make the Beautiful Game more enjoyable and comfortable for everyone," Nilesh Chauhan, co-founder of Aston Villa fans group Villans Together told Sky Sports News.
"We know and we can see that people from all backgrounds want to be part of the game, but the statistics show there are issues that are stopping some from attending matches.
"It's important supporter groups stay active and help change people's perceptions of the game. We must continue working alongside anti-racism organisations to help them consolidate on the work they are doing to create more awareness of the reporting schemes that are in place."
A quarter (25 per cent) of diverse ethnic supporters say they have personally received racist abuse on social media when discussing football, and 47 per cent have witnessed a player receiving abuse online. Nearly half (46 per cent) think racism on social media has increased the level of similar abuse in stadiums.
A third (33 per cent) of those who attend games have personally experienced racism at a match, with this figure rising to 43 per cent when looking at fans who tend to go to a stadium at least once a year. Of those who do not plan to attend a stadium this season, 13 per cent say the main reasons are concerns over witnessing or receiving racism, with sentiment highest among Black supporters (23 per cent).
Football Association equality director Edleen John says more needs to be done to create a culture where all supporters feel welcome at football grounds.
"We can't have a system or a mechanism in place whereby people are feeling so fearful of going to enjoy a sport that they actually feel they have to stay at home because they're not sure how to report abhorrent behaviour, they're not sure that action will be taken," she told Sky Sports News.
"We need to create a culture and a mechanism by which people are aware that reporting leads to action, and that action means people who are behaving in an inappropriate way will not be welcome in the stadium, will not be able to watch the football match.
"And actually, individuals who are behaving in a proper, appropriate, welcoming way are the ones that we want in the stadium supporting their relevant teams."
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden added: "There is no place for racism anywhere in society and the net is closing in on those who perpetrate vile abuse.
"The Premier League has rightly introduced tough new lifetime bans for anyone found guilty of discrimination and the police already have a range of powers to identify and pursue those who try to use anonymity to spout hatred.
"We will continue to work closely with the police and football authorities to clamp down on deplorable racist behaviour wherever it might take place - be that in stadiums or on social media. Our Online Harms Bill will also make it even tougher for offenders to abuse others and hold social media firms to account if they fail to act."
Speaking to Sky Sports News ahead of the season, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said: "Anti-discrimination is a big priority for us at the Premier League and all of its clubs. We won't tolerate anti-discriminatory behaviour or racist behaviour in our grounds or online."
The English Football League told Sky Sports News: "The EFL takes the issue of tackling discrimination, in all its forms, very seriously, but we must always strive to do more. Both within the EFL and across the wider game we are committed to working collectively as we are stronger when we all work together against discrimination.
"Nobody should feel concerned about going to a football match for any reason, but most of all because they are concerned they will witness a player receiving racist abuse or experiencing racist abuse personally. We do not accept racism or any form of discrimination and abuse in our game.
The EFL also said they are continuing efforts to lobby Government on the Online Safety Bill and ensure that "its drafting is robust."
Livingston assistant manager Marvin Bartley, who also works as an equality advisor for the Scottish FA, says he "totally understands" why 73 per cent of ethnically diverse fans fear experiencing racism in stadiums.
He said: "It doesn't surprise me. We've seen it on social media and now it's creeping into football stadiums and back into society. We could have nipped this in the bud if the social media companies would have been a lot harsher with their punishments.
"People now think it's OK and they can get away with it. They can say what they want, do what they want without repercussions. It's spilling into football stadiums and people aren't feeling safe.
"They wouldn't go into their offices and say these things so they should know it's totally unacceptable to say it in football stadiums. It doesn't seem people can understand that. It seems once I've got my team's football kit on and I go into the stadium I can say what I want. We need to eradicate this from football."
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Kick It Out reporting racism
Kick It Out is football's equality and inclusion organisation - working throughout the football, educational and community sectors to challenge discrimination, encourage inclusive practices and campaign for positive change.
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