Football is a microcosm of today’s society and the racism that goes on within the game simply reflects the wider societal race problem in the UK. While systematic and institutional discrimination remains firmly imbedded within our society, sport obtains the power to condemn and eradicate racially abusive slurs and behaviour, setting its own example.

Words by Harry Smith

As with all sport, football is a compartmentation, meaning wider issues such as racism are more identifiable in part rather than in society and therefore plausibly more preventable. 

Players and coaching staff have taken the knee before kick off across all four tiers of English football since July, initially in show support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite the gesture, that serves as an important reminder of racism in football and today’s society, there has been a tidal wave of online racist abuse directed at footballers across social media platforms.

Last season, 287 of the 2,663 football fixtures played in England and Wales featured at least one incident of hate crime, while arrests for racist or indecent chanting rose by 150%, according to the Home Office. This season, the absence of fans from stadiums means that racism has simply migrated online, with more players targeted and receiving racist abuse on social media than ever before. 

Crystal Palace’s Patrick van Aanholt is the latest player subjected to racism online, as last month saw many other players exposed to such discrimination. Manchester United forward Anthony Martial was racially abused on Instagram, following a disappointing 1-1 draw to relegation bound West Brom, while his teammates Marcus Rashford and Axel Tuanzebe have also suffered discriminatory slander and hate-speech online.

Among other recent targets of racial abuse are Chelsea defenders Reece James and Antonio Rudiger. Swansea’s Yan Dhanda, an Asian footballer, also received racist abuse on social media following an FA Cup defeat to Manchester City. 

Social media companies are under pressure to do more to tackle racist abuse directed at football players on their platforms and many have called for legal action to be taken.

The No Room For Racism campaign, that has received the full backing of the 20 current Premier League teams, raises awareness, educates fans, and works to enforce greater ramifications for racial abusers online. While FIFPro, the world players’ union, have called on public institutions to urgently instrument protection against any form of racism on social media platforms.

Quicker removals of abusive comments and direct messages, improved personal identification, and banning of offenders across all social media platforms, are just some of the measures that have been proposed in order to eliminate abusive behaviour online.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, has said it is horrified with the abuse footballers have received on social media and is working with the charity Kick It Out, which fights for equality across all levels of football, to help prevent the issue. Instagram have also declared that they will begin banning abusers who send racist content to footballers through direct messages (DMs) – before now, Instagram would only seek to ban accounts who were abusive in the comment section or on posts.

Despite social media companies pledging their active engagement and cooperation in combating racism online, people have said measures must still be taken further.

Many are calling for an improved identification system on social media platforms. This would help with identifying the abuser, locating evidence, and sanctioning them. Although, social media companies have been highly resistant to surrender their precious user data in the past and have been even more reluctant to share identification and personal details with law enforcement authorities.

Racial abusers believe they can be abusive online and not be caught or face the consequences for their actions – this sort of crowd anonymity is something that football has worked hard to abolish in stadiums over the years, but it is now resurfacing online.

Lately, the Football Association (FA) has been under pressure to do more in stomping out racial abuse directed at footballers online and as a result of this, the English football’s governing body recently called for action from the government to prevent racist abuse on social media. 

There are now immediate plans to bring in new laws that will make social media companies accountable for their users online safety and behaviour. Holding social media platforms responsible for racially abusive users means that they could face sanctions and fines running into the billions if they do not act when encountering racism on their sites.

At its best football can be a catalyst for social change and defy the root causes of racial injustice in this country. However, if it is to promote equality and elicit change through its power, then social media companies must cooperate with English football’s governing body and the UK government. Only then will measures be taken further and English football work to eliminate racism and protect it’s players online.

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