By Philip McCready
Britain, it is often said, has a punitive culture that is evident not only in penal sentencing
and governmental policy but within society generally. My own research into restorative practices carried out by a community-based restorative justice organization in a Loyalist area of Belfast in Northern Ireland has also often supported this punitive culture as interviewees posit a desire to see young people involved in anti-social behavior controlled and punished if not by police then by paramilitaries. As we move the debate on the role of restorative justice away from an intrinsic connection with the formal criminal justice system and enter the sphere of civil society I often think about the untapped markets in which restorative justice can operate.
For example what role, if any, could restorative justice approaches play in a sporting context? The punitive culture of civil society is also evident within professional sport as any misdemeanor or foul play be it on a football pitch, an ice hockey rink or a basketball court is met with demands from fans, coaches, other players of censure and harsh punishments to be handed out on the aggressors. It is not only the players and officials who face punishments but also supporters when their behavior is deemed to have fallen below an acceptable standard.
Nigel Owens is a Welsh Rugby Union referee widely acknowledged as one of the best referees in the world and is also the first openly gay man to referee at the highest level. At a recent game officiated by Owens between England and New Zealand at Twickenham there was alleged homophobic abuse directed at Owens from the stands. As a result of an open letter written by an upset England fan who was near the area from which the abuse is alleged to have originated the Rugby Football Union has launched an enquiry. Keith Wilson from South Yorkshire, a member of the crowd in England’s 21-24 defeat, wrote: “As a lifelong rugby fan, a straight man in his 60s, I could not believe that a bunch of men half my age watching a rugby match in the 21st century could be capable of hurling such nasty, foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic abuse at an openly gay match official. My equally disgusted son is in 30s but next to him, hearing this vitriol, was a little boy; I felt ashamed.” (The Guardian, 13th November 2014)
The Rugby Football Union, in launching the investigation, stated it’s condemnation of all forms of abusive behavior. “The RFU condemns all forms of discrimination and aims to ensure that all people, irrespective of their age, gender, ability, race, religion, ethnic origin, creed, colour, nationality, social status or sexual orientation, have a genuine and equal opportunity to enjoy rugby union in whatever form, on or off the pitch, at all levels and in all roles. We take any allegations of any abuse very seriously and are investigating this matter.” (The Guardian, 13th November 2014)
So what will happen if the RFU investigation concludes there was homophobic abuse and then identifies the perpetrators? The punitive culture present not only in sport but in British culture general dictates that the perpetrators may be subject to a subsequent police investigation but at the very least they will most likely be banned from attending England Rugby matches for a considerable length of time. However, could this be an opportunity for a restorative approach that can serve to educate the perpetrators of the harm their actions had not only on the victim, in this instance the referee Nigel Owens, but also the community, in this case the other spectators at the game. The components for a restorative process are present with the victim, the offender and the community all identifiable and with the stated aim of the RFU being to eradicate all forms of abuse then it is argued that merely banning individuals will not necessarily lead to a cessation in discriminatory attitudes. Restorative justice approaches may be a conduit to respond more effectively to the underlying issues that manifest as discriminatory abuse rather than superficially simply responding to specific harmful incidents.
Riach, J., 2014, RFU investigates alleged homophobic abuse aimed at referee Nigel Owens, The Guardian, 13th November 2014