Last month the governing body of the US National Football League considered banning the use of the N-word on the field, on pain of a penalty. Several black players criticised the suggestion, including the Superbowl-winning cornerback Richard Sherman. ‘It’s a pretty common word in the locker room... But once a white person says it, it’s a derogatory term.’ Banning it ‘would be almost racist’, Sherman said, as it would discriminate against black players who used it between themselves.

The organisation Kick It Out, which campaigns against discrimination in English football, is holding a debate in Manchester tonight on the Y-word. Since the early 1980s, at least, some supporters of Tottenham Hotspur have referred to themselves as ‘yids’. The nickname, if it can be called that, is supposed to have been adopted as a defence mechanism, a way of positively embracing the perceived Jewish identity of the club, and throwing it back in the faces of opposition fans, some of whom targeted Spurs with anti-semitic songs. Most Spurs fans, including many who use the word to describe themselves, are not Jewish.

In October last year, three Spurs supporters were arrested by the Metropolitan Police and charged with a racially aggravated public order offence for using the words ‘yid army’ at a match. On 7 March, the CPS announced that the charges were dropped and the case discontinued. The next day, the fans’ defence team released a statement calling the arrest ‘unnecessary and unwarranted’.

In April 2011, the comedian and writer David Baddiel and his brother Ivor, Jewish Chelsea-supporters, wrote a short film called The Y Word for Kick It Out. The video demanded that anti-semitic abuse in English football be taken seriously. Both brothers have spoken about hearing aggressive anti-semitic shouts at Chelsea matches, and the film showed similar chants from fans of other clubs.

What wasn’t clear was whether such abuse could be equated with Spurs fans talking about themselves or their favourite players in, apparently, a positive sense. The club’s position was that ‘the distinguishing factor is the intent with which it is used i.e. if it is used with the deliberate intention to cause offence.’ ‘Yid army’, the club claimed, was not intended to cause offence, and the authorities should instead target unequivocal anti-semitic abuse such as that described by the Baddiel brothers. The Metropolitan Police seemed to agree, publically confirming in November 2012 that Spurs fans wouldn’t be punished for singing ‘yid army’.

But last September, the Football Associaton released a statement:

In light of the historic and contemporary use of the term, The FA considers that the use of the term ‘Yid’ is likely to be considered offensive by the reasonable observer... use of the term in a public setting could amount to a criminal offence, and leave those fans liable to prosecution and potentially a lengthy Football Banning Order.

Some confusion followed. ‘Hate speech should be prosecuted,’ David Cameron told the Jewish Chronicle, ‘but only when it’s motivated by hate.’ Some provincial police forces reassured representatives of Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust that no action would be taken for chants of ‘yid army’, even after the three fans had been arrested by the Met. The Met seems to have changed its position in response to the FA's line. In October it told THST that the arrests had been made in response to the findings of a community impact assessment in Haringey. A Freedom of Information request asking to see the assessment, or any other policy document relating to the Y-word, has gone unanswered by the Met for more than four months. A request for comment for this article also went unanswered.

If, when and how such words may be used is a complicated question, not ultimately to be resolved by people to whom they are never applied. It is unlikely that the FA's role will come under scrutiny in tonight's debate. The FA asserted, apparently without having consulted the police or the CPS, that simply to utter the Y-word could be a criminal offence. In doing so they went way beyond their remit as a non-government body whose job is to regulate football clubs and football players, not to interpret or enforce the criminal law. But they may find that easier than engaging with structural issues around race in football, such as the fact that following the recent sacking of Chris Hughton by Norwich City, none of the 92 managers in the Football League is black.