After years of official efforts to stamp out racism, sexism, and homophobia at English soccer matches, players in England’s top league are now facing an astounding amount of racist and homophobic abuse from a newer source: social media.
This season alone, fans published more than 134,400 abusive posts against players and clubs on social media and other internet sources, according to a new report from Kick It Out, the game’s top anti-discrimination organization. The report, according to The Guardian, examined Twitter, Facebook, message boards and blogs over the course of the 2014–2015 season; it found that the vast majority, 88 percent, of the abuse takes place on Twitter.
Black players in particular are subjected to the worst of the abuse. Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, who has consistently faced racism from fans and even club officials throughout his career, has been the subject of more than 8,000 discriminatory messages on different platforms, with 52 percent of those posts racist in nature. Half of the roughly 1,700 discriminatory posts about Arsenal forward Danny Welbeck were racist; 60 percent of the discriminatory posts aimed at Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, meanwhile, were homophobic.
In total, racism (28 percent), sexism (25 percent), and homophobia (19 percent) accounted for the majority of discriminatory posts aimed at players or specific clubs.
Law enforcement, which can prosecute such abuse under England’s hate crimes laws, and the Football Association, English soccer’s governing body, have taken major steps to rid the sport of discrimination in stadiums in the past two decades, at times banning fans and suspending players who exhibit racist, sexist, or homophobic behavior. Incidents still occur — a group of Chelsea fans were recorded using racist chants on a Paris subway in January; some Arsenal fans this week sang a homophobic song during a match — but they have become much rarer and are often quickly condemned and dealt with by clubs, the FA, and police.
And yet the abuse persists on social media, highlighting the unique challenge social networks can pose to leagues across the world. Twitter, Facebook, and other networks have provided a more direct connection that allows teams and leagues to engage with fans and build broader fan bases; it has given players a way to personalize themselves and provide fans a window into their off-field lives. But they have also created an avenue for the sort of (often anonymous) abuse and hatred that has largely been eradicated from the stadiums themselves.
This sort of abuse no doubt affects fans and others in the sport as well, and it has been a problem too in American sports, where online discrimination against athletes may be more rare than it is in England but certainly still exists. Hockey player Joel Ward, for instance, faced racist abuse from opposing fans during the 2012 NHL playoffs; similar incidents have occurred since, and instances of social media-based homophobia and sexism undoubtedly occur too.
Kick It Out has called for the formation of a new task force to address online discrimination, with the goal of persuading law enforcement, social networks, and anti-discrimination organizations to find “creative solutions” to continue fighting against discriminatory abuse English soccer. Twitter may be a focal point, given that it has already faced calls to address its shortcomings in preventing abusive, discriminatory, and threatening behavior in the past. Perhaps, given that many of the tweets featuring racism targeting another black hockey player, Montreal’s P.K. Subban, last year were retweets with added commentary, public shaming and strong statements from teams and leagues themselves could be effective in reducing the instances of discrimination.
“It is really shocking,” Kick It Out director Roisin Wood told The Telegraph last week. “We knew there was an issue but even we were shocked by how many the players have received. For one player to have received over 8,000 abusive messages is phenomenally awful. You cannot accept players getting that level of abuse so we want to bring this expert group together to see how we can address this.”