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Should we wash our mouths out?

Swearing is an unavoidable aspect of live football in most cases. But should we, collectively, regulate our behaviour more?

Richard Heathcote

Warning: In the interests of simplicity, this article contains a number of partially censored swear words.

It happens every game.

A referee makes a questionable decision, to the detriment of Reading FC. In reaction, a number of fans will jump up and scream something akin to "F**k Off Ref! S**t decision." If the Pog scores a great goal, a large proportion of Reading supporters will sing "Big F**king Russian" loudly and proudly. Swearing at live football is ubiquitous.

Most football fans never question this.  A large proportion of them would be shouting the expletives themselves. I include myself in this: I enjoy indulging in a chant containing industrial language as much as the next supporter. However, perhaps we should consider whether this is appropriate or not.

After all, there are some people out there who find swear words genuinely unwholesome and unpleasant. Should they be subjected to bad language because others want to indulge? Furthermore, fans may wish to bring their children to the football. Yet there is a widespread taboo against young kids being aware of swear words. Consequently, this particular aspect of football culture may be putting off some parents from taking their offspring to games. In the long term, that could be damaging – where do the next generation of fans come from after all?

Moving away from individual cases, swearing at football could be perpetuating a latent image problem for football fans. Some of my rugby-supporting friends suggested to me once that they found the constant swearing at live football ugly, and indicative of an aggressive tone at games that wouldn’t be apparent at rugby. Perhaps the policing of fans would not be so excessively heavy at times if football supporters were, put simply, politer.

So, because of all this, should there be a change in behaviour? Should we just all stop swearing?

I am inclined, overall, to say no. Being a fan is an intensely emotional experience, and very often the natural response for a lot of us when things go wrong is to use taboo words. For adults who find swearing offensive, frankly I have little sympathy. Bad language is embedded in everyday life and nobody will truly be unaware of swear words by adulthood. Of course, there are degrees of appropriateness. In cases of the occasional "Ah s**t", and a couple of rude chants, I see nothing wrong. But if someone was screaming "c**t" every five seconds at the top of their voice, perhaps somebody would be entitled to tap that person on the shoulder and ask for a bit of calm. It may be a relatively arbitrary distinction, but most of us can sense if we are crossing an assumed line. Nevertheless, although it may be a tad selfish of me, I do not think I should be totally prohibited from swearing because of the delicate tastes of somebody else.

The situation becomes more problematic in the case of children. For the risk of individuals swearing loudly in front of them, I would espouse the virtues of a designated ‘family-friendly stand’. If parents wanted to introduce young kids to football without them learning every word under the sun, a part of the stadium that is of a mellower vibe would be useful. If a parent wants to take their child to Y25, really they should expect a fair amount of industrial language. For mass chants that involve swearing, my (admittedly anecdotal) experience seems to suggest that children generally don’t listen to the chants, and are much more interested in Kingsley, an exciting moment on the pitch or the upbeat goal music. It is unlikely a kid under the age of 10 will come home from a game singing "Everywhere we go" word for word.

Finally, in the case of whether swearing makes football look bad or thuggish, there are a couple of points to stress. Firstly, there is a big difference between occasional bad language and the hooligan image that is, totally unfairly, imposed on football fans still by certain people in our society. Therefore, if there are people that really view supporters as stereotypical thugs because of some instances of swearing, I think that would reveal more about them than us. Secondly, the atmosphere at a rugby match may be calmer and more sedate, but I also find it much more boring. I enjoy watching rugby occasionally, but for me it does not compare to live football. I would gladly accept the occasional F word at a game if it meant I got to experience that excitement.

So, in conclusion, I would largely leave the tendency for some of us football fans to use bad language untouched. Yet I still feel guilty sometimes. For instance, I have in the past loudly shouted an expletive when, say, an attack breaks down, only to turn around and see a child I had not spotted earlier sitting directly behind me. Perhaps the final precaution for fans who want to swear should be a quick scan of who is sitting around them, before launching into a tirade about how appalling the referee is today.