Rico Quitongo has described losing his race discrimination claim against his former club as a “bitter blow”.
The 23-year-old took Airdrieonians and one of its directors, Paul Hetherington, to an employment tribunal over allegations of racial discrimination.
He claimed he was racially abused by a fan during a game last year, and while the club carried out an investigation into the matter it was later dropped due to “insufficient evidence”.
An employment tribunal hearing in Glasgow examined how the case was handled, with Quitongo claiming he was a victim of racial harassment and victimisation.
However in his ruling published this week, tribunal judge David Hoey said the claims were “ill-founded” and ruled against Quitongo.
Commenting after the ruling, Quitongo said: “This judgment is a bitter blow for everyone who has stood up to racism in our national sport.
“This entire episode has been an incredibly distressing, traumatic, and harrowing experience for my family and friends, as well as myself.
“I have been inundated by a groundswell of support from football fans and players alike during this lengthy and arduous legal process. I am hugely grateful for this solidarity.”
In his witness statement to the hearing in June, Quitongo said he was told on the evening of Saturday September 11 last year that someone had overheard an Airdrie fan racially abusing him at the game that day.
He said he felt “upset and disgusted” after listening to a voice message telling him about the racist slur, and the following day he reported the incident to the club.
The employment judge said the club and Mr Hetherington – referred to as the respondents – could not be held responsible for the alleged abuse as it was said by a supporter and not an employee or someone for whom either respondent was, in law, responsible.
The ruling said: “The allegation was that a spectator had directed racial abuse towards the claimant. This is not an act for which the respondent could be liable in law under the Equality Act.”
Another issue considered was a meeting with club officials on October 12, 2021 when Quitongo – the claimant – alleged he was being threatened with being dropped from the playing squad “because of the colour of his skin”.
The officials said the meeting centred on a media statement and Quitongo’s desire for it to be withdrawn.
The tribunal “did not find that the claimant said if he were to be dropped it would be because of the colour of his skin”.
It considered on the balance of probabilities that this had not been said and the focus was on the statement and the claimant’s unhappiness that it had been issued.
Last October, Quitongo was told he was being placed on two weeks’ leave of absence to help clear his head, and he alleged he was not selected for five games between September 18 and November 6 because of the ongoing situation.
He left Airdrie in January this year to move to Peterhead FC, and he now plays for Queen of the South.
In his conclusion, Mr Hoey said: “The tribunal considered each of the claims and decided that they are ill-founded. It was not therefore necessary to consider apportionment of liability or remedy.”
Quitongo had backing from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Scotland union.
He said he will now take time to consider the lengthy judgment in detail.
EHRC chairwoman Kishwer Falkner said: “There is no place for racism in sport or any other part of society.
“The EHRC supported this case through our legal support scheme, which seeks to improve outcomes for victims of racial discrimination and harassment.
“We hope that this is an opportunity for football clubs across Britain to better understand their duty to protect their employees and handle allegations in line with the law.”
Fraser Wishart, chief executive of PFA Scotland, said: “The tribunal ruling in the Rico Quitongo case is bitterly disappointing for the player, his family and friends, as well as all those who have stood up to racism in Scottish football.
“With a litany of racist incidents in Scottish football over the last few years, there a real danger that we’re heading back to the bad old days, and any movement in that direction must be stopped in its tracks.”
Margaret Gribbon, solicitor at Bridge Employment Solicitors representing Quitongo, said they are carefully considering the employment tribunal’s 130-page judgment.
She said: “Rico was strongly committed to pursuing this legal claim to ensure that no other footballer experienced what he had.”