Darryl Rigby, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service and guest columnist for World Football Summit, looks at rising racism in football, the role played by social media in exacerbating the issue and whether players taking the knee has had the intended impact.
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of now-convicted policeman Derek Chauvin last year highlighted the racial inequality and institutional racism that still exists in society. As a result, the Black Lives Matter organisation – a group that aims to shine a light on these issues and enforce change – rose to prominence, and around the world protests began to take place in support of the movement.
One of the arenas the BLM movement received a strong show of support was football, and in England players from the Premier League and EFL started to take a knee before every match to raise awareness and display solidarity against racism – both within sport and across wider society.
This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen professional sports stars taking the knee, of course – the gesture originated in the US when American footballer Colin Kaepernick did the same in 2016. Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest against police brutality against black citizens in the States. Kaepernick was ostracised, but the gesture has since become a symbol of anti-racism within sports.
However, almost a year on, it’s fair to say the message has lost quite a bit of its early momentum. As well as the Tokyo Olympics releasing a statement saying taking the knee will be banned when the games take place this summer, some international football teams recently ditched the pre-match gesture with the president of Poland’s FA saying it was the “last topic of interest”.
Elsewhere, second-tier English sides Brentford, Bournemouth, Derby and Millwall all committed to ending the routine, stating that taking the knee had now become nothing more than a “hollow gesture”.
M footballers have also spoken out against what they feel has become an empty statement. Wilfrid Zaha in particular has been vocal about his opposition, and the Crystal Palace winger became the first player in the Premier League to opt against taking the knee when his side faced West Brom in March.
Zaha, who has been the target of racist abuse in the past, believes it has changed nothing in football with players still subjected to racism on social media. The former Manchester United man says more needs to be done in terms of education if we’re to rid the game of the vitriolic abuse black and other minority players receive on a regular basis.
“There is no right or wrong decision, but for me personally I feel that kneeling has just become part of the pre-match routine and at the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse,” Zaha said when explaining his decision.
Analysing the impact of BLM protests in football
So, is Zaha right in his assessment that players taking the knee has had no impact whatsoever? While he can only comment on his own personal experiences, Zaha isn’t the only player who believes the gesture has had little to no effect. In fact, there’s mounting evidence that suggests the racial abuse of players has actually gotten worse.
A study by the PFA found there was an increase of racial abuse directed at players whenever they tweeted anything in support of racial equality. Commissioned by the PFA and supported by the Kick it Out campaign, the study looked at the Twitter profiles of 44 current and former professional footballers and examined the online activity in the lead up to ‘Project Restart’ – the resumption of the 2019/2020 season.
The research revealed three players were targeted in around 50 percent of the abusive messages – Zaha, Raheem Sterling and Adebayo Akinfenwa. Researchers then looked at the data to see if they could spot any pattern that explained why these particular players were targeted so frequently, and the results were worrying, to say the least.
The researchers were able to directly attribute the abusive messages to the players’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement, as there was a sudden spike in incidents whenever these players spoke out about the organisation and/or racial inequality.
Social media and how platforms can help
The football world united across the weekend in boycotting social media, challenging platforms to do more to stop online discriminatory abuse.
— Premier League (@premierleague) May 4, 2021
In this increasingly digital age, social media has become one of our primary sources of communication and while it’s undoubtedly brought with it a number of positive changes, consequently we’re paying some hefty social taxes for the privilege.
Sitting behind a computer screen gives many social media users a feeling of untouchability, and this leads to some believing they can get away with saying the most nasty and hurtful things online. Until social media companies do more to crack down on this behaviour then players will continue to receive racist abuse on these platforms.
Thankfully, it looks as though the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram will have no choice but to take these issues more seriously, as pressure is now mounting for them to act. Over the weekend, clubs from the Premier League, English Football League, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship went dark in a joint-effort to force social media companies to clamp down once and for all. A joint statement by the group said the idea behind the boycott is to “emphasise that social media companies must do more to eradicate online hate.”
Moreover, a number of high-profile players have stated their intention to leave social media sites until they become safer, more inclusive environments. That includes France legend Thierry Henry, who said: “I realised that if I came off social media, I’d had enough in fairness, it would create a little wave. Football is powerful. The press is powerful and if we come together and the strength of the pack can achieve something.”
Henry is right, football is powerful, which is why this will send shockwaves through the world of social media. These platforms rely heavily on high-profile celebrities to attract more users, so with many promising to stay away until the issues are tackled, it looks as though the days of simply kicking the can down the road are over for Zuckerberg et al.
With football coming together in the UK to boycott social media in protest of online abuse, this week's #WFSPoll asks if it will lead to change.
❓ Will social media boycotts force social media platforms to change their policies to stop the online abuse of athletes?
— World Football Summit (@WFSummit) May 3, 2021
Although much of the responsibility for tackling racist abuse of players online is the responsibility of the social media companies, the police force is starting to acknowledge it needs to have more involvement as well, and recently the UK’s first football hate crime officer has been commissioned.
With the aim of stopping racist abuse in stadiums and online, PC Stuart Ward of West Midlands Police has taken up the first-of-its-kind role. After a few months in the job, the officer has been busier than expected considering grounds have been empty due to the ongoing COVID restrictions.
“It’s unacceptable. If you’re walking down the street and you’re abused, it’s an offence. If it happens online, it’s still an offence,” said Ward. “For many years, people have thought they can hide behind a laptop, they can type something and think there’s going to be no consequences, no comebacks – but there will be comebacks.”
Since being appointed, the officer has already made several arrests, so thankfully it looks as though the days when social media users could racially abuse players with near impunity are gradually coming to an end.
What’s the conclusion?
Although it’s clear more is now being done to eradicate this cancerous issue that’s blighting our beautiful game and shining an ugly light on society, if we’re to rid football of racism then the solution will require a multi-pronged attack.
Not only do we need social media companies to start taking the abuse of its users more seriously, but it’s crucial we get to the root cause of these issues and ask ourselves why so many people in our society still harbour these vile and hateful views, and why they have no qualms about voicing them.
Education is clearly an important step in tackling the problem, therefore it’s crucial for governments to also shoulder their fair share of responsibility and do their best to fix whatever it is that’s broken in our society, because until we tackle these problems at grassroots level then people will continue to hold racist views, whether they’re able to voice them on social media platforms or not.
This article was written by Darryl Rigby, political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service.