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Tottenham’s report on the Y-word reveal changing attitudes about its use in football

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The Y-word has been used as a means of deflecting anti-semitic abuse from other football fans over the past few decades, but times are changing and it appears opinions on the use of the word are as well.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Barclays FA Women’s Super League Photo by Kate McShane/Getty Images

At the beginning of the 2019-20 Premier League season, Tottenham Hotspur began an in-depth study over one of the more controversial aspects of Spurs fandom — the use of the “Y-word.” Five months later, Spurs have released the results of that study on their website.

The study was done with the participation of 23,000 Tottenham season ticket holders and One Hotspur members, and examined the historical context of the Y-word, how it has been used in the past, and its status as both an endearing term for Spurs fans in a football context, and as an anti-Semitic slur. What’s interesting about this particular study, however, is that it’s becoming very clear that attitudes and opinions about the use of the Y-word are shifting, and while the club stopped short of issuing any recommendations, it appears that more and more Spurs fans are becoming uncomfortable with the Y-word’s use in the terraces.

First, some context on the issue is helpful, especially for newer Spurs fans. The use of the Y-word by Tottenham supporters was popularly embraced in the 1970s and ‘80s as a reaction to anti-semitic abuse from fans of other English football clubs directed at Tottenham supporters for being a “Jewish club.” By embracing the word and chanting it at their own players (and themselves), Spurs supporters tried to take the sting out of the slur, reclaiming and embracing it as a positive. The intent, according to those who use it, is not to offend Spurs’ Jewish supporters, but to celebrate them and deflect antisemitic abuse.

Over the past decade, the word and its use in a football context has begun to be re-examined. The vast majority of Spurs fans are not, in fact, Jewish even though Spurs has a deep historical connection to the Jewish community in London. That has led to a disconnect among segments of Spurs fans who believe the Y-word is losing its important context to the counteracting of anti-Semitism in the ‘70s and ‘80s, becoming simply a “Spurs thing.”

Several times, the FA has expressed discomfort with Tottenham fans’ use of the Y-word, Spurs fans have been arrested and charged with abuse for using it, and the club has spent a lot of time studying the issue. This report is just the latest, but it’s the most comprehensive one I can remember seeing, and the statistics are fascinating.

While I would strongly encourage everyone to read the report in full on Spurs’ website, there are a couple of particularly interesting conclusions that I want to highlight. The first is an acknowledgement of a pretty distinct split between the appropriateness of the use of the Y-word in a football context and its use outside of football. 83% of fans who do not use the term outside of football say they don’t use it because they consider it “inappropriate” or “offensive.” However, even those who do use it regularly in a football context admit that there’s a darker side to the word.

Conversely, when respondents were asked if they used the Y-word in a footballing context the number rose considerably, even though 94% of the total response base acknowledged that ‘some people consider the Y-word to be a racist term against a Jewish person.’

Of the total number of respondents, 33% answered that they ‘regularly’ use the term in a footballing context, while 41% answered ‘occasionally’.

These figures are more evenly split among Jewish respondents with 36% ‘regularly’ chanting, 30% ‘occasionally’ chanting and 34% choosing not to chant the term.

— Report, tottenhamhotspur.com

Secondly, there is a clear correlation between age and use of the Y-word in a football context. Specifically, regular use of the word in a football context drops precipitously among older Spurs fans — the younger the fan, the more likely they are to regularly shout the Y-word while watching or referencing Tottenham as a club.

Image source: tottenhamhotspur.com

Extrapolating this further, there also seemed to be a correlation between younger users of the Y-word and those who were not aware, or only marginally aware, of the contextual use of the word as a means to deflect antisemitic abuse. Younger supporters were more likely to say that they just thought using the word was just “something Tottenham fans said,” while a not-insignificant percentage of Y-word users even think use of the word attracts antisemitic abuse from other supporters.

Respondents were also split as to whether the use of the Y-word actually continued to deflect anti- Semitic abuse in the present day, as was the intention for fans originally adopting the term in the 1970s and 1980s. Of those that did feel it deflected anti-Semitic abuse, it was the 18-24 age bracket that were the most likely to agree with this sentiment (almost 70% within this age bracket believing it does deflect anti-Semitic abuse), in line with having a greater propensity to chant the Y-word.

Of those respondents that stated they do chant the Y-word in a footballing context, whether ‘regularly’ or ‘occasionally’ (74%), one in five of them did, however, feel it actually played a part in attracting abuse from rival fans.

In total, 30% of respondents felt the use of the Y-word played a role in attracting abuse from rival fans, with the number rising to 37% among respondents that are Jewish.

It would therefore appear that the history and the motivations behind why fans adopted the term in the first place are being lost over time, with many fans today using it solely as a means to identify themselves as a Spurs supporter.

— Report, tottenhamhotspur.com

The written answers from supporters in the club’s report are especially illuminating, and present a nuanced view on use of the word. More supporters are expressing discomfort at the continued use of the Y-word in a football context, or at minimum are acknowledging that the issue is a lot more complex and deserves additional study.

Perhaps most interesting is that nearly half of total respondents said that they would like to see use of the Y-word be either eliminated or reduced. That number is a bit lower — 42% — among Jewish supporters, perhaps acknowledging the positive frame of reference that the word has been used historically.

The club doesn’t make any recommendations in this report — it is simply reporting the data it compiled over the past several months, but it does acknowledge that opinions on the use of the Y-word are shifting, and that the club is willing to adjust its views on the word’s use.

Sentiment around this term appears to be changing among the fanbase – there is a recognition of the offence the Y-word can cause and that a footballing context alone does not justify its continued use.

This consultation has shown that a particular number of our supporters are offended by the term and almost half of all respondents indicated a clear desire to see fans use the Y-word less or stop altogether.

We pride ourselves on being an inclusive and forward-thinking Club and these findings indicate the awareness our fans have of current sensitivities and a willingness to reconsider the appropriateness of the continued use of this term.

The club will be holding a series of focus groups with supporters going forward in order to further discuss the results of the report. It certainly appears that change is coming, though the club is going to take its time and carefully process things before making a final decision on what to do. I don’t expect that any official proclamation from the club is imminent concerning use of the Y-word, but it is gratifying to see Tottenham listen to and acknowledge the wide range of opinions and how they have changed over time as they continue to grapple with this highly divisive issue.