Scottish football chiefs 'not taking responsibility' for sectarianism
Scottish football bosses are in denial about sectarianism in the sport, a new report led by a Belfast academic has claimed.
While the government review identified positive steps which had been taken, it concluded the problem had not been stamped out, with high-profile derby clashes, like this Sunday's meeting between Celtic and Rangers, often seen as flashpoints.
The report, led by Dr Duncan Morrow, said discussions with the Scottish football authorities had been "frustratingly circular" because of their reluctance to take responsibility for the issue.
There was a belief among bosses at the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) and Scottish Football Association that they were being singled out and used as scapegoats, the report said, which meant cultural changes "will not occur".
The report said: "The current focus on football has become inevitable because it is the most obvious area of Scottish life where the expression of hatred on sectarian grounds is tolerated, normalised and yet simultaneously denied."
The report detailed how the SPFL and Scottish FA believed the "public perception of sectarianism at football was not the same as the reality."
By saying this, the report added, the Scottish football authorities were "distancing themselves" from the problem.
It added: "It needs to be clearly kept in mind that Scottish football is very much part of Scottish society and needs to take full responsibility for tackling the offensive and abusive behaviour that occurs within the commercial spaces (stadia) that they own, operate and govern."
Dr Morrow's report, which comes five years after an independent group was set up to tackle Scottish sectarianism and two years after it published its original recommendations, also told how the Scottish football authorities believed sectarian singing was not a problem at matches, again blaming "public perception" and the media for using terms like "battle" and "war" ahead of derby matches to intensify feelings between rival supporters.
They said there had been no cases of mass sectarian singing in the past year.
Football bosses also rejected results of a survey conducted by international players' union FIFPro, according to Dr Morrow.
It found that 32% of Scottish players felt they had been threatened by fans on matchdays and almost a quarter had experienced discrimination by fans on matchdays.
The SPFL and Scottish FA said categorically they did not recognise the findings, instead asserting that footballers in Scotland were not exposed to the same levels of abuse as players elsewhere in Europe.
Dr Morrow identified social media as another problem where football-related sectarianism came to light, often used "in an extremely aggressive and sometimes intimidatory manner".
However, the report acknowledged positive steps had been taken with an investment of £30,000 from the Scottish FA, matched by the Scottish government, to extend helpful steps taken by Supporters Direct Scotland, encouraging wider use of supporter liaison officers.
The football authorities also explained they were working closely with Active Scotland to examine responses to unacceptable conduct, including sectarian behaviour.
Dr Morrow said for next season there must be properly monitored proof of a measurable reduction in sectarian singing at matches, reports of abuse of players and aggressive and intimidatory social media linked to sectarianism.
But, he said he remains "seriously concerned that the primary concern of the authorities remains to avoid responsibility rather than to take action".
Dr Morrow also called for a review of hate crime laws.
He added that the issue of sectarianism in Scotland could be addressed through "active leadership and concerted effort".
He said any hate crime review should consider how incidents of sectarianism could be integrated into a broader approach, adding the emphasis should move from historical blame to ending structures and attitudes that have traditionally underpinned sectarianism.
Celtic face Rangers in the Scottish Premiership this Sunday. It will be the fourth meeting between the sides this season. The Glasgow rivals are also due to face each other in the Scottish Cup semi-final next month.