At many clubs, protests relate specifically to football matters: poor performance on the pitch, the wrong choice of manager, inflated ticket prices. These are issues which are important to fans, but the negative effect on supporters when clubs get it wrong is largely confined to a disruption of normal match day activities and doesn’t seriously blight people’s lives.
At Blackpool FC, the breakdown in the relationship between the Oyston family and the supporters has caused far more damage than simply depriving fans of their match day fix or that feel good factor which comes with being a loyal supporter. For some Blackpool fans, protesting against the owners has turned into a legal nightmare as the Oystons have chosen to pursue individuals through the courts.
Imagine you have just received a letter from a solicitor informing you that his client intends to seek financial damages from you for comments made on social media. You remember posting comments on a football message board about the way your club is being run, you got into a heated discussion with another supporter and made your points very forcefully. Now you’re being threatened with legal action for the comments you made - comments which you thought were commonly held opinions. This has to be a joke, right?
For too many Blackpool fans, this scenario is not a joke but a frightening reality. The stress and pressure which even the threat of litigation brings causes distress, health problems and can divide families.
Legal action is a serious business. Even in cases where the person accused is not guilty of anything, there are still months, even years, of waiting and uncertainty as well as massive financial costs which accrue as each day passes. The average person knows very little about the complexities of the law and so to be faced with the prospect of legal action can be terrifying. The families of those being targeted also suffer enormously under the strain.
The true human cost of all this litigation by the Oystons is largely hidden from the public and so it is easy to underestimate the devastating impact.
Some individuals have lost their jobs, businesses are in jeopardy, relationships with partners have broken down and health has suffered. As a direct result of the stress, some of the people caught up in this situation has been seriously impacted - two cases of cancer, a stroke victim, depression, loss of a baby and an attempted suicide all in the last twelve months. This is the outcome of the decision by the Oystons to pursue those who have spoken out against them - real people with real lives being devastated as a consequence.
Football fans are entitled to voice their concerns about the way their club is being managed. Supporting your team, sometimes through several generations in one family, brings a passion and intensity which is not evident in other pastimes. Football is a passionate game and for some fans, the passion can spill over.
Most owners and chairmen of football clubs come in for some form of criticism, even abuse. Whilst it is never acceptable for people to resort to extreme abuse or even violence, people in positions of responsibility need to be aware of the reactions they are likely to provoke by their behaviour and by the decisions that they make. Owning a football club is a privilege and with that comes the great responsibility of looking after a community asset and ensuring that its supporters are consulted and treated with respect.
Supporters of a football club are like a big family and even when we do not know the individuals involved, the injustice and distress caused to those being pursued by litigation makes most of us feel angry and under attack. Pursuing fans via legal action for comments or actions triggered in the heat of the moment is not only a gross overreaction but is also likely to perpetuate the problem and incite further trouble rather than provide a resolution.
Football clubs and the football authorities sponsor and support anti-bullying campaigns as part of their community based initiatives. It is not clear what the difference is between the type of bullying targeted by those campaigns and the sort of financial bullying which allows wealthy owners to take supporters to court. What is clear is that most people who are aware of the threats and litigation, which have been going on for over two years now, find such tactics to be unacceptable. Being the subject of legal action is life-changing in a wholly negative way both for an individual and the extended family.
The Oystons' decision to react to public criticism via the threat of legal action represents a moral line crossed and is the main reason that so many life-long Blackpool supporters have vowed never to return to Bloomfield Road while the Oystons are still there.
Football fans are real people with real lives - decent, hard-working folk, the majority of whom have never been on the wrong side of the law. Supporting your team and wanting what is best for your club and community should never come to this.
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