Things Have To Change

Above: Team GB taking the knee at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: Getty Images

Catherine Paquette observes that football still has a long way to go before it gets rid of its racist, ableist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic problems.  At the end of this week, a released PFA report on social media abuse was then followed by a controversial tweet that demonstrates that these are mainstays of football, and a reality in many women’s and men’s player’s existence (8/8/21).

The English Professional Footballers’ Association put out a report on Thursday, August 5th about the propensity of abusive targeted social media messages sent during the 2020/21 season to current players in the Premier League, the English Football League, the Women’s Super League, and to former players from the top divisions of English football. 

The numbers clearly show that racist, ableist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic social media messaging is commonplace for top-flight men and women footballers.  The last year saw an increasing trend in these types of abuses, with online discrimination worsening as the pandemic continued.  

In the Premier League, racist messages intensified in the second half of the season, with certain athletes being increasingly targeted with abuse.  However, homophobic messages remain the greatest type of abuse directed at Premier League players, with the December 2020 period being the worst as it coincided with anti-homophobia campaigns.  Racist messages were second followed by ableist and xenophobic comments.  When one dropped down to the English Football League the ratios changed, with racism being half of all discriminatory messages followed by ableism and then homophobia.

In comparison, the Women’s Super League faces different types of targeted abusive messaging.  As one would expect, sexist comments followed by sexual harassment make up for the majority of abuse WSL players have to contend with.  Homophobic messaging is as prevalent as sexual harassment.  In the past season, every club in the WSL except for one has had a player discriminated against online, with 15% of WSL players being the target of abuse. 

The lower the profile of the league, the less Twitter acted on and removed abusive messages directed at players.  While 27% of all abusive posts are removed for Premier League players, this number drops down to 17% in the EFL and only 12% for the WSL.  The majority of this abuse is homegrown.

This problem is not new.  The report clearly shows the well-known fact that social media companies do not do enough to stop discrimination and to shut down abusive accounts.  It was this lack of action that lead the PFA, in conjunction with Premier League, WSL, and EFL teams and players to take action earlier this season to highlight the growing issue.  Over the course of the weekend of 30th April 2021, English football boycotted social media companies in an attempt to demand change.

However, for change to occur, it must take place not just with social media companies but also within football itself. The PFA report came out an hour before Juventus Women put up a post of one of their players portraying themselves in a racist manner against Asians – a tweet which Impetus has made a conscious decision not to re-publish here on the grounds of it being offensive. Juventus have since apologized and put out the following message as a response:

However, as sincere as this explanation may be, it highlights a greater problem. At least two to three individuals were involved in the tweet: the player, the photographer and the social media manager (of which the latter two could have been the same person.)  How the picture and its posting could have passed through a number of individuals, without any of them realizing its severity is concerning.  

Even more disturbing is that the tweet stayed up for almost 30 minutes during which nearly every single reply was a request for deletion.  On a day where Lionel Messi became a free agent, it is revealing that this would be the topic to overtake the Twitter thread of women’s football. 

The tweet is not a huge shock though to those who follow football.  It was less than two years ago that Serie A chose to create an anti-racism campaign through the use of artwork with monkeys.  They did this without consultation of individual clubs, and like yesterday, received quick condemnation and cancelled the advertisements.

English football is not without its outrageous moments as well.  You only have to go back to 2015, when upon their return to England after a third-placed women’s World Cup campaign, the English FA put out the following tweet: 

Reducing a group of players to non-football-related titles without afterthought or knowledge of its blatant sexism follows the same lack of awareness and insensitivity to misogyny as the Juventus tweet and Serie A campaign did to racism.  It demonstrates a greater problem within institutions still blighted by the inability to identify and combat serious problems that propagate hate towards some of their players.

While some would say that the English FA has since improved, the recent numbers put out by the PFA show that not nearly enough is being done.  For football to change there must be a collective effort, with clubs and federations leading the way. 

In their conclusions to tackling systemic abuse problems in football, the PFA identifies clear solutions.  They highlight that abusive accounts can be identified and brought to justice, that clubs do have the power to sanction fans for hate crimes and that all involved in football must use their social platforms to deal with issues.  However, for any of these solutions to be effective though those working in social media at institutions of power in football must be properly vetted and properly trained to combat the problem of hate, not create it.

The actions of Juventus Women’s Twitter feed at the end of last week demonstrate that we are still, sadly, a long way from that occurring.

This is the final part of our series of articles we’re republishing between Christmas and New Year to share once more some of our material from 2021 that makes Impetus who we are.

The first part featured Jean-Pierre Thiesset‘s interview with Selma Bacha from February:

Part Two was our look back at Kieran Yap‘s analysis of Australia’s performance in reaching the semi-finals of the Olympic Games in August:

The third part saw us re-publish Abi Ticehurst‘s article looking back at the massive missed opportunity that this year’s Women’s Football Weekend turned out to be:

Part Four was Ben Gilby‘s account of why a guy born and bred in South-West London has been a massive fan of The Matildas – Australia’s national team – since before 2010:

Yesterday, we re-shared Kris Goman‘s article on the social media abuse faced by the USWNT before and during the Olympic Games:

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