By Trevor Wilkes
During the first weekend of May, the English Football Association (FA) — the governing body of football in England — declared a social media boycott for all its members in response to systemic online racial abuse. The boycott included the leagues throughout the varying tiers, the teams, the managers, the players, and the supporters. That the boycott happened over the May Day weekend was merely a coincidence, but we must not overlook the significance: they chose the weekend because it was a weekend of congested games across the country, meaning the largest possible numbers for the boycott.
The boycott was meant to show major organizations and players have had enough with the recent surge of online racial abuse. It was to tell the social media companies whose platforms host this abuse that something must change.
How do we take on football’s broader racism problem is a question that needs answering. Our solutions must go beyond further reliance on the good graces of Big Tech. The boycott is a step in the right direction; we should support any and all anti-racist activity of those opposing racism. Nevertheless, we should complicate the idea that social media be empowered to police us. We can’t allow ourselves to slide into thinking Big Tech will fix things if they get better at monitoring abuse. We must find a way to use the boycott as a stepping stone towards transforming society altogether from top to bottom.
A history of racism and resistance
Following the 2020 mid-season break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players and teams started to take the knee to protest online abuse following the kick-off whistle to both criticism and praise. This collective and direct action demonstrates a demand for change. Although diluted over the past months, the stand against racism and for human rights is gaining traction in the footballing world.
English football is no stranger to racism. We saw it with a banner that said Burnley White Lives Matter during a Burnley and Manchester City match, and we saw it with more and more egregious and violent racist acts throughout the years.
In-person racism is a lot easier to deal with on a punishment level; players can fight back, players can walk off, and fans can do more as well. Fans can report those guilty of hurling abuse. It is more concrete when this happens: fan X utters abuse, and fan Y can report it to the steward, who has the power to escort fan X out of the grounds. The team and league can manage in-person abuse much more effectively than if committed online.
In fact, Chelsea banned six fans, and one for life after supporters levelled racist abuse at Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling during a match with supporters in attendance. This is just one incident that had black and minority players saying that soccer is “going backwards,” back to the 80s, when white nationalist groups would infiltrate violent hooligan firms and racism was the mainstream at football matches.
The problem of social media
Online abuse has existed for a long time, but it parallels the violent in-person abuse and has taken on new heights during the pandemic. Barely a week goes by without an online attack on Black or racialized players. Players and managers have had enough, with many outright leaving social media and others posting their direct messages for the world to see.
“It’s terrible that it obviously still happens and I receive the messages that I received,” Chelsea FC’s Reece James told the Premier League. “It made me very upset and angry when I got them, and I think we can do a lot more to help put an end to it.”
Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha says he is “scared” to open his Instagram direct messages. He also said he removed various apps from his phone to avoid seeing the abuse. Zaha says that “For Black footballers, for instance, being on Instagram is not even fun for us anymore.” The English FA has enormous clout, and the boycott is a step in the right direction, but more must be done to address the comfort of Black and racialized players.
While their pushback is crucial, we can’t leave players on their own to protect themselves from abuse that seems like it will never stop, let alone slow down. We have to stand with them and go beyond collective weekend-long social media boycotts, and while a step in the right direction, ultimately futile if the boycott stays within the football community.
Yet, we also can’t let Big Tech be the arbiter of acceptable speech and rely on them to solve the scourge of racism. Social media giants like Twitter and Instagram have a monopoly on how clubs communicate with fans outside of the match, and so it is tempting to demand they improve or intensify their monitoring. And maybe there is a role for them, to some extent, for example, in dealing with trolls and bots whose only purpose is to send abuse. But empowering them in this way, as we’ve seen, is a double-edged sword. It can just as quickly be used to stamp out left-wing views and anti-racist content and obfuscate what needs to be done: transform society altogether.
Canada is no stranger to racism
Racism in football is not just a European phenomenon. Recently, Alphonso Davies, a Canadian international player for Bayern Munich, was the victim of online racist abuse. The abuse stemmed from his public relationship with fellow Canadian international Jordan Huitema. Comments ranged from racially abusive, supportive, and decrying the racial abuse; however, the abuse was bare and plain to see.
Justin Morrow of Toronto FC was named the Executive Director of the Black Players Coalition of MLS (BPCMLS) and took it upon himself to shape the conversation around racism in the Canadian context. The BPCMLS seeks “to help bridge the racial equality gap that exists in our league by lobbying for initiatives like implicit bias training, cultural education courses, and diversification hiring practices.”
Tej Sahota, a TFC BIPOC Fan Coalition member, claims that Toronto FC’s motto “All For One” needs to include the supporters because the fans of Toronto FC best represent the diversity of Toronto and Canada broadly. Sahota suggests some cultural changes need to be made, noting, “sometimes that feels like something that Toronto FC loves to market and loves to hang their hat on, but they don’t do their part in understanding that there is some discomfort in there.”
Changing the often-overlooked, everyday things, like longer pat-downs for people of colour compared to the white match goers, racialized fans having tickets checked more often than white fans, and changing how racialized fans view supporter groups — will go a long way in shaping the culture into something more comfortable and inclusive.
The supporter section at BMO Field is primarily white, which Mike Newell claims is because many racialized fans have a view of supporter groups that leaves them uncomfortable. He, along with the club, is doing more to change the culture of the club. The supporter group Red Action 117 that calls BMO Field home seeks to change the image of modern groups with a simply stated Facebook bio: “Love Football—Hate Racism.”
Football is a sport of culture, and Stephen Attong, a Toronto local, acknowledges the complex nature of the sport in Toronto: “lots of kids, especially in racialized communities, hold soccer in such high regard and deserve to see pathways for themselves in the soccer industry, whether it’s on or off the pitch. BMO Field can often just seem like an offshoot of Liberty Village, which in itself can be void of culture, whereas other pockets of the city are bursting with young players who don’t have access to regular game time because of multiple barriers.”
Organizing around challenging the everyday racism of fans, as well as the racist policies imposed by stadiums, teams, and other institutions will work toward the project of addressing online abuse as well. If we stand up to in-person racism and get to its roots, there will be a momentous effect online; these things aren’t separate, and we saw them acting concurrently when fans were still in the stands. Allowing Big Tech to kill off accounts unilaterally will not foster an environment conducive to change. We must challenge racism head-on, help win people over and follow in the steps of players like Wilfred Zaha and Justin Morrow: we have to do it together.
A nuanced approach to awareness and inclusion is needed to change how supporters view and treat racism. Toronto FC can be a leader of that change in Canada. Some are hopeful as well as weary about that possibility: “I do think Canada Soccer / MLS / TFC have been trying their best to have an online presence that reflects progressive views,” said Attong, “since this has really amped up during the pandemic, it’s difficult to say whether or not it will translate into an equally inclusive matchday experience when crowds return. However, I do have faith that it will be a positive atmosphere when fans are back in the stands.”
To transform football, we must transform society
A study confirms a racial bias in sporting commentary, with Black players frequently cited as having “pace and power” while white players have “football intelligence.” This upholds the pre-existing structure of racism within the game. Eurocentric ideals of social cohesion play a massive part in the underlying ideas of ethnic belonging and sport. The politics of nationalism in Europe and North America help to supercharge xenophobia and racism off and on the pitch.
The historical roots of racism, founded in centuries of capitalist colonialism, imperialism and systemic oppression, are structurally reproduced and experienced daily. To understand how racism operates in football, we must understand how racism operates in our wider society. We need to educate ourselves on structural racism, but we must also go beyond education and confront the structures of racism in places like the labour market, in housing policies, and in access to sport. We can begin to address racism in football, but we can’t eliminate it in football if we don’t confront racism in our education system, workplaces, and neighbourhoods.
It is hard not to be cynical when you remember that these clubs are businesses, and under capitalism, the brand is essential; anti-racism is “in” right now, and rightfully so. A new generation of fans and players have entered the culture, and they do not tolerate any forms of racism; they have a voice both online and in person. This new generation is a tidal wave that matches this influx of online racist abuse with anti-racist action. Moreover, this new generation can help move the needle, organizing in different spaces to tackle racism head-on.
More often than not, we see players speak out on behalf of others and those in charge simply not doing anything. And if they do actually take action, it is rarely enough. The FA, UEFA, and FIFA have enormous structural power, and beyond a few (ultimately lenient) punishments and anti-racist buzzwords, they do not seem to want to make any drastic changes. This is then deferred to the ones in charge of running the clubs, and we can’t allow the rich owners in their ivory towers off the hook either; these are individuals who often make their money at the expense of low-wage racial workers.
Owners often remain uninvolved in matters such as these, save for the rare and lacking public statement decrying a recent incident of racist abuse. The players are left to fend for themselves and to find alternatives to their safety and comfort. Other than internal investigations and inquiries, clubs don’t seem to want to overextend themselves in matters such as structural change. This change needs to happen from both the top-down and bottom-up; a difference in the grassroots level of football and a change in the upper management of FIFA.
We live in a racist society, and because of this, football reflects racist beliefs. The challenge is to transform both society and the culture of football. As the most widely enjoyed sport in the world, football has enormous global power to change and influence the dominant narrative in our communities. We must challenge all forms of racism in the game. FIFA, other governing bodies, and many of the rich club owners have shown they are not serious in addressing this.
To tackle racism in football we have to empower players, fans and managers to address racism. This means organizing our fellow fans to demand top-to-bottom changes. Stamping out racism takes more than love and well wishes; it takes action, organizing, and anger. We can’t let football devolve and stray off into something cruel and unrecognizable. We must change it into the progressive and inclusive cultural giant it should be.
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