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Part 1 of a two-part article

A fascinating book A-League: The Inside Story of the Tumultuous First Decade by John Stensholt and Shaun Mooney was published two months ago. Even its authors could surely not have foreseen such turmoil that has dominated the past fortnight or so in our football.

A disgusting piece of media was the trigger for a huge unresolved set of issues that have been brewing for many years. News Corp with a long history in Australia of anti-football bias in its senior editorial and ownership ranks is yet to be held fully to account over publication of leaked documents covering 198 banned fans.

However, this outrageous misuse of media power was to be quickly overshadowed by drawing attention to the major failings of Football Federation Australia (FFA) in terms of leadership, policy and governance.

The call for people at the head of the A-League and FFA was challenged by Bonita Mersiades on the basis that it is cultural change that is needed at FFA, in terms of the relationship with fans as well as the game itself.

I agree that there are some deeper institutional and policy issues needing to be tackled. Many fine professionals work at the national body; just one example is all of those associated with our national teams set ups. Also, there are lots of strategies, polices, programs and projects that FFA has got right over its 12 years of operation.

Even so, there is an apparent disconnect between FFA and some external stakeholders including the supporters. Without the latter, there would be no professional A-League. Yet so many fans are expressing feelings of being taken for granted; seen as a ‘metric’ associated with marketing tools to exploit revenue.

For a long time it has been the FFA line to defend and justify lengthy bans on fans alleged to have committed a range of offences associated with A-League games. These have occurred on the basis of evidence given, not tested by any system of natural justice, by police officers and stadium security personnel and through alleged video footage. The latter personnel are employed by the Hatamoto company, in turn contracted by FFA across all stadiums hosting national league games.

Hatamoto is a private profit-making entity beholden to its owners, directors and major shareholders. It has a vested interest in justifying its continuing contract based upon interventions. These include the hand-over of apprehended individuals to police and providing evidence which is largely unchallenged.

The banned fans, many of whom have been publicly named which impinges on basic privacy rights, are alleged to have been involved in a range of offences. However, some have been at the lower end of threatening or unruly behaviour, and even for minor matters such as not complying with small print regulations. A significant proportion has not been banned for alleged violent acts. There are even strong indications of mistaken identity in the case of at least several fans

In Australia, any person arrested then charged with a criminal offence(s) by State or Federal police forces would be able to have their time in court to legally test the evidence on the presumption of innocent until proven guilty. If convicted, there are avenues for appeal.

Somehow, FFA has concocted to sustain a method outside the law. Until well into 2015, the national body stuck with its official line that processes of natural justice do not apply to its jurisdiction, a peculiar stance also when considering that most stadiums are sited on public lands, not private property.

In short, no fair independent panel hearing to test alleged offences with a right for fans to legal expert representation, and examining and interrogating evidence. Then, no formal appeals process to challenge any adverse finding. Does seem like a 'fair-go'?

I am aware that in the past year a 14-page proposal, developed by one prominent ‘active’ supporter, was submitted to FFA outlining an appeals process method. This included representatives on a panel from right across the clubs so as not to reflect bias for any particular case. It appears there was no serious consideration of the concept by senior management.

Despite perpetuating a culture of non-accountability and lack of transparency by FFA for this complex issue, we need to move well beyond symptoms and tackle the bigger picture. Disappointingly, the football media response has not adequately explored the broader context of policy inadequacies. Even if, and when, an agreement for a bans review process is reached between relevant parties over coming months, this will only be a bandaid measure.

Policing of football in Australia is still in the dark ages. A big stick mentality rules for "zero tolerance" based upon confrontation and heavy handed, sometimes clumsy responses by police and stadium security. Relatively minor incidents are often escalated, where police presence and tactics can be viewed as intimidating.

That we still have police in overalls with "Public Order - Riot Police" on their backs walking amongst football fans, non-active included, symbolises much about a failure of police leadership.

The evidence from the best applied research in the United Kingdom shows there are solutions that work for policing of football based upon an engagement framework. To find out more about such an approach, I discussed these opportunities with Dr Clifford Stott in an exclusive interview for Football Today. Dr Stott is a Principal Research Fellow in the School of Law at the University of Leeds. Within the university’s Security and Justice Research Group, he is an international expert in the management and policing of crowds.

My interview with Clifford will form Part 2 of this article tomorrow.

Categories: Opinion | A-League

fan development, a-league, dr clifford stott

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