From Manchester to Philadelphia: The Use Of Bad Language By Association Football Fans

Something of a storm broke out this week in the American soccer blogosphere following an article by an American Manchester United fan decrying what they claimed was the use of excessive foul language in chants by Philadelphia Union fans at the latter’s friendly with Manchester United this week.

A retraction of the initial blog piece on EPL Talk’s main point (when it became clear the author had misheard “Come on the U” (or something similar) for “Fuck You”) didn’t stop 283 comments discussing the principle of the use of bad language at games by supporters on both sides of the Atlantic. Many pointed out that worrying about offending an English team with foul language at a game of Association Football made little comparative sense, given the reputation of English fans to come up with a vast array of offensive chants.

But how true is it, as the implication of some of the commentary had it, that English football culture is one that tolerates or even welcomes bad language at games?

I’ve been digging through the Football League’s recent fan survey (polling 36,000 supporters) this week for unrelated reasons (there’ll be more to post from it), but in this context, I thought the following chart on “Attitude towards bad language at football matches” might be of some interest (click on the chart to view it full-size):


What we see is this: about half of all fans don’t mind bad language “as part and parcel of going to football matches”. A good third or so say “it doesn’t stop me going to games but it is something I’d prefer eradicated from the game.” Perhaps not surprisingly, 15% of those on the terraces say “it adds to the matchday experience”, while only 6% of those in Family areas agree with that (some might be surprised at how low that 15% is, actually).  7% of fans are either deterred themselves from going to more matches or deterred from taking their children because of bad language. Digging deeper into the survey, 18% of supporters with children under six say they are deterred from taking their children to games.

Interesting numbers: a large number of fans at Football League games shrug off bad language, a substantial minority would like to see it eradicated, and small numbers both love it so much it adds to their matchday experience or are so concerned about it they don’t take their children to games. A complicated picture of the experience of bad language thus emerges in English football culture (at least from this statistical sample), one that depends a lot on whether a fan is there for a family experience or not in general.

One could question the wording of the survey, of course, as the phrasing of it as the use of bad language being “part and parcel” of going to games, and not really defining what is meant by bad language (I don’t think I have to specify how far this range goes), makes for very malleable interpretations. Overall, it’s perhaps surprising that such a large chunk of fans would actually like bad language eradicated, rising to 45% of supporters in Family areas.

Now, this is only in the Football League, the level below Manchester United in the Premier League, if we’re still relating this to our initial prompt. That league’s own fan survey (the most recent one I could find online came from 2008) phrases the issue differently. Instead of asking those broader questions about whether fans would like bad language eradicated from games, or asking how it impacts their decision to bring children to games, it simply looks at how offensive fans find chanting:


The survey also notes, unsurprisingly, that older fans are much more likely to hear something they define as “offensive language/chanting”, 47% of those over 65 years old. On a sidenote, it’s rather alarming to see that the trends on “abuse about sexuality” and “abuse about gender” are going the wrong way, though the latter is partly explained by the changed phrasing explained in the footnote above.

The Premier League says that “Once supporters are at a Premier League match, have they witnessed any examples of poor fan behaviour? Encouragingly, in the vast majority of cases they haven’t”, but it would be far more useful to have the more detailed analysis of the Football League’s survey on this issue.

As for how this all relates to the American side of the pond: I couldn’t find any surveys of Major League Soccer fanbases, but it sure would be interesting to have some statistical comparison rather than just anecdotes.

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