Andre Gray’s 4-Game Ban Shows That Homophobia is Still Rife in Sport

After scoring his first Premier League goal last month, historic posts on Twitter from Andre Grey emerged that were… shall we say ‘unpleasant’?

The most shocking bemoaned his observation that gay people were ‘everywhere’ – and said we make him sick, that he hopes we burn and die. Really nasty stuff. This weekend saw the conclusion of a Football Association investigation into the matter. He’s been given a 4-match ban, a £25,000 fine, and ordered to attend a special education programme.

My feelings on the incident itself haven’t changed since I first wrote about it – despite the best attempts of some fellow Burnley fans to ridicule or discredit them. And I don’t want to repeat them again. But I would like to take a look at the sentence in more detail. Most of the reactions I’ve seen so far have focused on the impact the ban has on the club. Let’s just say the FA isn’t very popular in Burnley right now. At all.

That’s probably a little understandable – if disappointing. After all, football fans are desperate for their team to be successful, and losing one of your best players for a tenth of the season presents a significant disadvantage. Burnley is a small town that’s been left behind in the last century, and the football club is the heart of the community in a way comparable to few others. That’s usually a very good thing, but I think it can also cloud judgement on very emotive and sensitive subjects like this. As one supporter told me: “I care more about my club than some bloke’s 4 year old tweets.”

But taking a step back what merit does the sentence have, and what effect will it have?

A 4 game suspension is more than I had expected initially. But it’s difficult to argue that its unjust. FA rules stipulate a 5-game ban for homophobic abuse during a game. But there’s no similar guidance for incidents like this, where the comments were made away from the game. Assuming they’d treat offenses during a match significantly harsher, I anticipated he might be made to sit out for 2 games. But I was probably failing to take into account just how vile and numerous Gray’s comments were.

Earlier this year, Coventry defender Chris Stokes was given a one-match ban for homophobic language on Twitter. Commenting on a game between Chelsea and Tottenham, he said: “This game’s embarrassing to watch. Bunch of faggots”.

This was horrible, shocking and unacceptable. But it’s also very different to the Gray incident. Stokes used an offensive term for gay people in a negative context, but it was a throwaway remark rather than an intentional and direct attack on gay people. It’s easy to believe it was a mistake That doesn’t make it any less bad; but it does highlight a difference between his case and that of Gray, whose offenses were conscious, considered, direct, sustained, and extreme.

The FA charged Stokes with 1 breach of the rules, and gave him a 1-match ban. And non-league footballer David Deeney was given a 15-game ban for 9 breaches (though this was reduced to 8 on appeal). They charged Gray with 6 breaches and he got a 4-match ban. So using the Stokes and Deeney cases as precedent, there’s an argument that Gray actually got off lightly.

They’re not always consistent though. England striker Jamie Vardy got away with just a fine and education course when he was caught on camera racially abusing a Japanese gambler at a casino last summer. Some have argued that issuing such a strong punishment for an incident that occurred 4 years ago is unfair. Have you heard of Hinckley United FC? Thought not. That’s the non-league club at which Gray was playing when he shared the ‘makes me sick’ remark. He’s come a long way since then, professionally and personally. And Burnley is the 3rd team he’s moved onto since. Is it fair to punish him – and Burnley – for something that happened so long ago?

I’m yet to be convinced that the time gap makes any difference. He was under the jurisdiction of the FA while he made the comments. And no other crimes are treated more leniently if they were committed in the past. Why should this be any different? Football isn’t a bubble, completely separate from real world consequences. Of course it would have been preferable to have punished Gray when the incident first happened. But if the authorities don’t know an offense has occurred, they can’t take action. The comments were only reported to the FA this year, and that’s why he’s been charged now. It’s unfortunate for Burnley that they’ll be without their star man because of an incident that happened when he was playing for a different side. But the FA has charged and punished the individual, and it’s important that club context isn’t taken into consideration.

Imagine two players committing exactly the same offense, and one of them getting off because he’s a better player and thus more important to his club? It would be outrageous. Football fans so often cry foul when there’s a perception that officials give more favourable decisions to the big teams and players – yet some are effectively advocating a similar principle being applied in this case.

When Burnley signed Gray, they took responsibility for him. They knew about his past, and that there was a greater than average risk of there being skeletons that could emerge. It’s the club’s responsibility to know exactly what/who they are signing – and there are multiple ways his tweets could easily have been discovered as part of a due diligence process. That’s true for any business acquiring any asset – you weigh up the benefits and risks to make a judgement as to whether it’s a smart buy.

For a relatable comparison, imagine buying a house with a dodgy wall. If it falls down a year down the line, you suffer – even though you’ve done nothing wrong, and the mistakes were made by someone else years ago. But if you do a thorough and complex survey and identify the risk, you can take steps to repair it and prevent it from becoming a problem.

And let’s remember that knock-on effects for clubs are often used in football to put the emphasis on clubs to educate individuals, and protect the game. When Lazio fans aimed racist chants at a Napoli player, the club was fined 50,000 Euros. Liverpool and Manchester United were fined around £45,000 each when their fans sang offensive songs and other disturbances. In neither of these cases was it the club itself that committed the offense – but the mere threat of punishment like this puts the onus on all clubs to stop it happening again. There’s a real and tangible incentive for all clubs to educate their staff and supporters.

I imagine there will be conversations happening at clubs across the country this week about the importance of equality and tolerance, and also of the consequences of sharing controversial content online. That’s the legacy of significant punishments like this.

The only even remote complexity I see in the ‘but it was 4 years ago’ arm of the discussion is his claim that he’s a changed man.

Some have argued that banning somebody after they’ve reformed their character is problematic. It sends a message, they say, that it doesn’t matter if you work hard to change for the better because you’ll still be punished anyway. And the FA has shown it can act compassionately, deciding against a ban for Jake Livermore, who took drugs to deal with the death of his newborn child.

It’s clear that Gray is a different person from the one who was involved in gang culture, culminating in a facial stabbing which leaves a scar across his cheek to this day. But the extent to which he’s changed isn’t clear.

His apology last month insisted that he’s significantly reformed, and that the attitudes he held back in 2012 couldn’t be further from who he is now. But that’s pretty much all we have – words. You don’t get to just say you’ve changed, you need to prove it. And so far that hasn’t happened.

His most recent ‘questionable’ tweets were sexist and racist sentiments shared just 2 years ago. And surely he knew that he’d once upon a time wished gay people would burn to death? If that was me, I’d feel terrible about it every day. So why hadn’t he gone back and deleted the tweets? And when they were brought to our attention, why didn’t he make any commitment to demonstrate how much he’s changed?

The FA charged and punished Gray for ‘bringing the game into disrepute’ and it seems evident that they were keen to make an example of him.

Just this week, Stonewall released a report containing some pretty alarming stats on LGBT attitudes in football:

  • 72% of football fans have heard anti-LGBT remarks at games over the last five years

  • One in five 18 to 24-year-olds say they’d be embarrassed if their favourite player came out

  • Young people are twice as likely to say anti-LGBT language is harmless if it’s just meant as ‘banter’

The message is clear – football has a homophobia problem. And although there have been a few small-scale campaigns to change this, it still appears that it’s largely a forgotten issue the game wants to lock it away in the cupboard under the stairs.

So this incident was always going to be important. If they let it go, or issue a lenient punishment there would be perception that football is continuing to ignore the homophobia problem that is so clearly rife. But taking a strong stand would send a clear message – that homophobia is unacceptable in any context, and football is an inclusive sport.

And ironically, many of the fans complaining at his punishment are inadvertently emphasising the reason why the ban is important. “Some bloke’s 4 year old tweets.” Many continue to downplay his comments and trivialise, even if unintentionally.

And that’s why sending a big statement like this is important. But let’s be clear that this isn’t just about sending a message. It’s a fitting punishment for an offense Gray committed, first and foremost.