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Ponsonby: Time to punish clubs for troublesome fans?

There is no appetite among the clubs but will a season of unruly behaviour see Holyrood intervene?

Strict liability: Will clubs face punishment for fan behaviour?
Strict liability: Will clubs face punishment for fan behaviour? SNS Group

Pitch invasions, flares going off, objects thrown at players, targeted sectarian singing and seats and toilets trashed in grounds.

The litany of anti-social and frequently criminal behaviour that has been witnessed this season would all be caught by the introduction of strict liability. Clubs would be held responsible for the actions of their fans leading to fines, as well as possible ground closures and point deductions.

STV News has revealed that SNP backbench MSP James Dornan has launched a move to introduce strict liability in Scottish football, and hopes to present potential legislation to parliament before the summer.

As club chief executives sit privately with their heads in their hands, the hope that this will all go away seems forlorn. Self-policing involving dialogue with supporters groups, putting in place measures to limit bad behaviour, taking security seriously and constant liaison with the police is manifestly failing.

https://stv.tv/news/politics/1436827-msp-moves-to-impose-strict-liability-on-scottish-football/ | default

Is strict liability now inevitable as a bludgeoning instrument to replace what softly softly has failed to do?

Clubs will argue that trying to address societal issues by punishing football teams is to miss the point. Bad behaviour inside a ground often has its genesis in behaviour learned outside a ground. Why punish the club and the 99.9% of supporters who behave themselves? The answer to that lies in the failure of the status quo.

For those MSPs attracted by strict liability they might consider the history of the now repealed Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Those who opposed it said it wasn't needed as the law prior to its introduction was perfectly adequate to deal with 'offensive' behaviour.

Lawyers pointed out that if everything deemed offensive is to be deemed criminal then free speech would be at stake. Indeed there was evidence that when charges under this law were brought to court, sheriffs were less than impressed with what was prosecuted.

https://stv.tv/news/politics/1435746-minister-warns-football-clubs-they-must-deal-with-disorder/ | default

Strict liability will not worry most clubs if the sanction calls on them to get their cheque books out on a regular basis and pay a fine that will never compromise their liquidity. Closing part of a ground would be a far tougher proposition, and would be financially more onerous. Arguably though, bad behaviour will not change if the penalties are financial.

What would appear to be a more appealing sanction is the points deduction. Can you imagine the effect on badly behaved fans if their team lost the league by one point having been deducted two points under strict liability? That might just start to concentrate minds.

It is easy to see that the more draconian sanctions under strict liability might lead to supporters questioning what they do and sing during a football match. Indeed, whereas fans are always loathe to 'grass' fellow fans, that culture could change if the sanction regime led to a bare trophy cabinet.

Any introduction though could lead to the already derided authorities being besieged by even more criticism.

https://stv.tv/sport/football/1432464-strict-liability/ | default

Why did Club A get fined X for an offensive banner but Club B was only fined Y? Indeed, why was the banner deemed offensive when it was an expression of opinion? Why are some banners caught by strict liability and others not?

Is all singing which refers to religion and religious figures automatically sectarian? Are all expressions of support for political causes to be deemed illegal? Is it all right to support Scottish nationalism but not Irish nationalism or Ulster Unionism? You get my drift. A strict liability regime could become a charter that leads to constant aggro between clubs and those charged with policing it.

And all of this before the armies of conspiratorially inclined keyboard warriors set out to prove the new rules are being applied in a discriminatory fashion.

Directors are loath to bite the hand that feeds them and rarely will you see a full-blown assault by a chief executive on the conduct of their supporters which is clearly unacceptable. But it looks like the days of hoping a day old story will be just that or a week-long controversy will blow over in time are over.

Some MSPs are circling. Football might not get the chance to put its house in order. But legislators bearing blunt instruments should ask, will it do more harm than good?

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