Last weekend, several Premier League clubs – along with British television channels Sky Sports and BT Sport – joined forces in initiating a 96-hour boycott of social platforms in order to take a stand against online racism and abuse of players by fans. The decision was taken at last after several players were abused online, racially or sexually – by fans following a poor performance in their team’s last fixture. Examples include Manchester United player Axel Tuanzebe, Tottenham Hotspurs star Son Heung-Min, and Manchester United Women’s player Lauren James. Other players involve Liverpool FC women’s Rinsola Babajide and Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham. As a result, Premier League games were not reported that weekend on social media, and none of the players of the clubs involved posted anything on social media during those four days. According to a study conducted by Manchester United, social abuse aimed at their players has increased 350% since 2019.
I remember hearing about racism for the first time in my life when I was around nine years old, when my parents got me a comic book illustrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr, and the fight he led against racism in the United States from 1955 until his death in 1968. I remember being shocked that people were capable of that kind of hate towards other people. People they never met. People they never talked to or did something with. A hate that was purely based on something they had no control of: the colour of their skin. Fourteen years later, I have expanded my knowledge on so many social topics, yet when it comes to finding an answer to that question, I am still as clueless as that 9-year-old who had just found out what racism was. It was painful then, it is even more painful now.
I do not wish to elaborate on the issues related to police brutality and whatnots. Let us stay focused on the issue in football which, whether we are aware of it or not, goes far beyond what happens on the pitch and reaches everything that is connected in a way or another to online abuse. The most horrifying thing in this entire matter is the fact that the fans who are abusing the players, managers and referees, are doing it all behind a screen.
“If you have never been racially abused, you cannot understand what it is like. You feel helpless.”
– Ian Wright
In a filmed conversation between football legends Ian Wright and Alan Shearer on experiencing racism, Wright reads out loud a racist tweet that was directed at him more than two decades after he retired from the game and became a pundit at Sky Sports. The only thing Shearer could say was that “this man would never come up to you in the streets and say something like that”. This represents one of the biggest flaws of social media: anyone can say whatever they want and be immediately protected by freedom of speech, regardless of how offensive or bullying the words they use. There is no accountability when it comes to such claims, no matter how disrespectful they can be. Adding insult to injury, some people create several fake accounts in order to increase the traffic of tweets and trolls directed towards players, and social media companies are not doing anything about it.
As a huge football fan myself, I can understand that there are players that you do not particularly like because they played for your team’s opponents. Nevertheless, this does not give you the right to abuse them. The same applies to players who play for your team: you can be pissed off with their performance because it probably cost your team the win, but it does not give you the right to go after them as persons.
A thing that always bothered me at school was the fact that in literature classes, the teacher would never separate the author from the person. The same would apply to music artists and athletes. The inability to do this results in the undermining of all the great things the author has created for humanity to come. If we really think that the artist and the person cannot be separated, then we should not preserve anything made by Roman Polanski or Leonardo da Vinci just to cite a few, as they were respectively a rapist and a paedophile. Having revolutionized the world does not give them an excuse to do the things they did. Thus,when we look at their works, we are judging the artist, not the person. There is a thin line between those two sides.
The same approach is required when it comes to football players: they are to be judged solely and uniquely on their football skills and competences, as you would judge any co-worker at work. We are allowed to criticize a player’s performance, a manager’s approach to a game, or a referee’s decision. We are never allowed to go after them personally, even less when it is about things that they cannot control.
“Fascism is cured by reading. Racism is cured by travelling.”
– Miguel de Unamuno
It is easy to say that there is nothing we can do and that companies and football clubs are the ones who have to take action, but racism is something that concerns each and every one of us. Clubs are already starting to join action to word by banning fans and ticket holders for periods of time going as far as a decade.
The cure to ending racism is simple and has been evoked who knows how many times: education.
Education does not only involve going to school and getting a diploma, as we all know that this does not represent in the slightest manner how educated and mature a person is.
Education involves teaching children that the decisions they make and the words they say have consequences and implementing them.
Education means teaching people to take responsibility for their actions.
Education involves that we can never judge a book by its cover, nor a person by the colour of their skin, their nationality, or their religion.
We have come a long way as far as intelligence is concerned, but there is a lot to do when it comes to human decency.
Stand against racism.
Stand against online abuse.