Imagine you’re a prominent black footballer. Once, the racist abuse you received would have come from the terraces, and as soon as you escaped the terraces you escaped the abuse. But now the abuse comes home with you. Comments flood your social media accounts. Sometimes you turn on your phone after a game to hundreds of notifications. Sometimes thousands. It doesn’t stop. Abusers tag your name alongside hateful single-word insults. Or send you grotesque images. Or post pictures that suggest the type of violence they would like to visit upon you. It is relentless.
When you first start receiving the abuse, you find it disturbing, but soon you adjust. You report it to the social media companies, hoping for help, a solution, but their responses disappoint you, and the attacks continue. This is just how your life is now, as it is for the Watford forward Troy Deeney and the former Juventus star Eniola Aluko. It is a tax on your visibility as a well-known black footballer. But it is different for your friends and family. They see strangers calling you a monkey beneath the family portraits you share on Instagram and they are horrified and confused. How could someone who’s given so much to the game he loves become so despised by its fans? Your family become afraid of the fury, of your position under this hateful magnifying glass. They worry that, one day, someone might put down their phone and try something far worse.
Nowadays, racist messages can be fired at black football players with the precision of missiles. Social media has been weaponised and online racist abuse is spiking. Brandwatch, the digital consumer intelligence agency that has carried out research for UK anti-racism charity Kick It Out, recently provided a sobering set of statistics. Examining the year between November 2018 and 2019, it found an overall increase in abusive coverage towards football teams online, with some social media platforms (including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) experiencing an increase of 600-900%.
Taking a sample of racist abuse directed at a handful of prominent black players, the results were concerning if not entirely surprising. The abuse, in the form of images, insults and threats, appears throughout the year, but surges around major matches. For example, in November 2019, the abuse directed at Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool was 27,000% higher than usual, a spike that might be attributed to the game played between the two teams. In August, after he missed a penalty against Crystal Palace, the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford was called the n-word repeatedly on Twitter and subjected to racist photos. (“It seems to me like things have been going backwards rather than forwards,” he told the press later.) This was a couple of weeks after his teammate, Paul Pogba, received racial abuse for missing a penalty against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Other players have been targeted after similar events: a missed penalty, a poor pass. But, notably, Brandwatch found no strong link between the quality of the performances delivered by a black player and the level of racist hatred they later received. Often just playing is enough to ignite anger online. When Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings was the subject of racist chants during England’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria, the accompanying online abuse directed at him rose by 86%. In the case of Rashford, who also played in the game, it rose by 3,000%.
What is behind this surge in racist internet abuse? Aluko, who has won 102 caps for England, is in little doubt. She encourages us to examine the current social climate. “Look at Trump, Brexit and Matteo Salvini,” she says. Salvini, the prominent Italian politician who until September this year was deputy prime minister, has gained popularity for his embrace of far-right rhetoric. His rise, notes Aluko, has been accompanied by “a lack of interest” from the authorities in holding clubs to account for racist chants at their games or social media companies for racist messages online. For Aluko, this disinterest is a symptom of the acceptance of prejudice in wider society. A prejudice that surges online.
Deeney encourages us to look even further back in time. “Brexit has brought racism to the surface,” he says. “But look back in history. For some people’s parents and grandparents, racism was normal. And they’re going to teach their children that it’s acceptable.” Deeney rejects the argument that the abuse he receives, which has often been difficult to bear for his friends and family, is just light-hearted fun. “The thing that’s getting to me at the moment,” he says, “is that people say it’s banter, but banter is meant to be a jokey term of endearment. If you’re insulting someone because of the colour of their skin, their beliefs, their sexuality, how is that banter?”
Professor Ben Carrington, a British sociologist and expert on the often fraught relationship between race and football, contends that a significant segment of the white public has a long tradition of condemning outspoken black athletes. In his view, social media is merely the modern version of that. “The online abuse is a form of social sanctioning,” he says. “It’s a formal disciplining of black footballers, and it also sends a warning to the other black public figures that if you want to speak out on certain issues around racism and politics, then there’s a cost.”
He cites the example of the famously brash Jack Johnson, a champion American boxer of the early 1900s, whose behaviour – no more wayward than that of his white counterparts – attracted furious criticism from large sections of the white audience and commentariat. He notes that Johnson’s true sin, in the words of the great historian WEB Du Bois, was his “unforgivable blackness”.
In the modern context, a grim image arises: that, in the hands of a bigoted football fan, social media is a form of digital whip with which the user can lash the backs of unruly black footballers. “What is unique to these black players is the manifestation of that abuse,” says Carrington, “and even sometimes the level of the abuse. It’s designed to keep black people in their place.”
That immediately raises the question of what such a place might be. “It’s knowing your place within the racial order,” Carrington explains. “One of the problems is with the language. We’re happy to talk about diversity and about race relations, but these are euphemisms for talking about white supremacy, a founding ideology of the west. A hierarchy of races with white Europeans at the top, and invariably with black Africans at the bottom.” Aluko knows about this all too well. And, to illustrate this, she tells a story about what happened when she returned to Italy every time she visited her family in London. “Turin is not a big airport”, she says, “so they know me, they see me coming through there all the time with Juventus. And every time I come through, they stop me and search my bags. And each time I say, ‘But you’ve seen me here so many times.’” Each time, she says, they say they are just doing their jobs, but she points out that it is more than that. “It’s their way of telling you that no matter how well you do, this is your place.”
Carrington refers to white supremacy as “18th and 19th-century race science, which has filtered into culture and into politics,” and, as Deeney can attest, into football. Deeney is primarily targeted on Twitter, followed by Instagram. Every day, his account is populated with racial epithets and images of monkeys. While he has grown used to it – “It is what it is,” he says – he remains concerned about the effect the abuse is having on his family, who are not so used to the often grim nature of life in the public eye. “That’s the hardest part,” he says. “I’m a little bit old-school and I think the man of the house is supposed to protect the family, not put them in danger. But by me going out to provide for my family, I genuinely put them in danger of online abuse.”
When asked what the social media companies are doing about it, he is unequivocal. “The powers that be genuinely don’t care,” he says.
Iffy Onuora – a former player and international manager and now a regional coach and equalities executive at the Professional Footballers’ Association – agrees with Deeney’s bleak assessment. “We’re being strung along,” he says of the social media companies’ reactions. “They say all the right things at the right times, but they’re not serious… Ultimately it’s a business model that involves as much traffic as possible, and they’ll do anything that will hold that.”
Twitter was routinely identified by players as the platform where they received the most persistent abuse. The site has also come under criticism for its handling of racism in a political context, most notably its reported reluctance to ban the accounts of white supremacists. Twitter itself has defended its position, noting the difficulty of the task and that it is putting less of a burden on users to report abuse. It states that over 50% of potentially abusive content is now proactively flagged for review by its teams. When contacted for comment, Twitter UK reiterated its firm commitment to working with a range of partners to address this issue. The chairman of one of those partners, Sanjay Bhandari of Kick It Out, is cautiously optimistic. “There are no silver bullets,” he says, “so there isn’t one single initiative or plan… but there is one single mindset and that is about collaborating more” – with social media companies and football’s governing bodies.
Shireen Ahmed, the writer, activist and co-host of the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down, identifies a key reason for what she sees as a lack of urgency by social media companies to address online racism. “The head of the organisations that make the decisions are white men, and they will never empathise fully because they simply cannot,” she says. “They can never, ever fully understand what’s happening. And I’ve learned this about my work on anti-oppression in sports, be it with Muslim women, or with women of colour. If the people at the decision-making table are not affected by this, then they’re less likely to care. And that’s a fact. Because they will never be moved in the way we need them to be.” Ahmed points to organisations such as the Footie Black List, which celebrates African and Caribbean achievement in British football. “We find people of colour again helping and healing their own communities, because no one else will do it.”
Ahmed’s concerns echo those of others – that it is black people who, despite being the victims of racism, are constantly expected to solve the problems that racism presents. What is more, the player is often more judged for the dignity and maturity of their response to abuse – how elegantly they conduct themselves, how well they play through the pain – than the person racially abusing them.
What is too rarely discussed is the devastating impact that racist abuse, whether online or offline, can have on footballers. Roberto Carlos, a World Cup winner with Brazil, heard all manner of insults in the course of his career, yet it was racism that affected him most. When playing in Russia for Anzhi Makhachkala, he had a banana thrown at him by a fan of a rival team, an action that reportedly reduced him to tears in the dressing room afterwards.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, of Liverpool and England, notes that there is a significant difference between racist abuse and other types of derogatory comments that he receives from the stands. “Racist abuse is more personal,” he says. “Obviously we can’t control what colour skin we are, so it’s unfair to be mocked and to be victimised for something we can’t control… You get used to the hostile environment at Old Trafford and European away games, and in big stadiums and finals, but it’s a whole different feeling when there’s a racial feel about it.”
Alexander-Arnold has thankfully received very little online racist abuse. He was there with Mings and Rashford during the game against Bulgaria, a fixture that was nearly called off due to bigoted chants and Nazi salutes from a section of the crowd. Gareth Southgate, England’s manager, emerges with particular credit. “He was asking the players if they felt comfortable to carry on or not, even though he knew it wasn’t directly his decision to make,” says Alexander-Arnold. “For him to make those kinds of decisions under that pressure, to handle that situation, was obviously massive.”
The recurring theme seems to be that white executives – be they on the boards of football clubs or social media companies – need to do more to bring about progress in this area. They can do that both by hiring more non-white colleagues and by being more outspoken about it themselves. Southgate has been applauded for his efforts precisely because – despite stating that “I’m a middle-aged white guy speaking about racism, I find it a difficult subject to broach” – he still persists in broaching it. The England manager is in the minority in that when racist incidents do occur, often the most striking thing is the silence of senior white figures within the game.
Their loud and swift condemnation of this abuse, and their equally swift action, are essential if we are to move forward. The internet may be relatively new, but racism is a system that is centuries old.
Still, when the PFA’s Onuora looks at the united front that England players, both white and black, produced against Bulgaria, he sees room for optimism. At its core, he says, “football is a meritocracy… On the pitch is the purest form of engagement, comradeship, competitiveness, togetherness. The great thing about England against Bulgaria was the solidarity. I played in an era where, if I got racially abused, people would not even mention it after the game. And these people – the Harry Kanes – they mentioned it before the game.”
Though aware of the significant work to be done, Onuora remains hopeful. “If we can extrapolate that spirit out into politics, into wider society, that togetherness from a group of people who have more in common than they will ever have apart, then we could do wonders.”