Football has always been a game of fine margins. One split second decision or key moment can take a team or an individual player from heroes to villains. There has always been a sense of collective pride amongst fans, a shared identity. You win together and lose together. If something happened on the pitch regarding a specific player, the fans would let you know about it. Players would expect a bit of stick from the other teams fans, or even their own. Of course this would sometimes go too far, but more often than not the final whistle would be the end of it for those involved.
Following the rise of social media to the cultural phenomenon it is today, this has changed. Mistakes are magnified, little is forgotten, and every comment which may have gone unheard in the stands previously is now there for all to see. No matter how hateful it is. This opens up footballers, managers and even pundits to a whole new world of abuse. Social media platforms on match days are a sea of unregulated hate, full of nameless, faceless accounts that can expect minimal accountability for their actions. Despite the anonymity and irrelevance of these accounts, the hate can be hard to ignore and possibly sticks in the minds of people for a very long time.
Liverpool and Scotland star Andy Robertson writes: ”When you’re at a stadium and you’re away from home and people shout, I’ve got no problem with that, that’s part and parcel of football. You know the away end loves you and the home end hates you. And then after 90 minutes, I believe there’s a respect that is left there. But when you’re behind a computer, behind a phone then it’s cowards, and they’re just trying to act the big man behind the screen and wouldn’t say anything to your face.” (BT Hope United, 2021)
Many prominent figures within the game, particularly the younger ones, are users of social media. Understandably so as it is a great way to stay connected with the club’s fans and build your personal brand. However in its current state it is a minefield, and it is difficult for players to use it and avoid the waves of abuse they receive on it. With little opportunity to escape, it is important not to play down the mental impact this could have on those affected. Beyond impacting their confidence to actually play the game, there are a multitude of psychological issues repeated abuse can cause. It isn’t something that should have to be dealt with, but over the last few years it has become a big issue. Yes they could choose not to be on social media, but they shouldn’t have to do that. Hate should not have the opportunity to win.
Our friends over at BT Sport agree that enough is enough. The Hope United team is a great initiative set up by them ahead of this year’s European Championships. Aiming to better equip people in the fight against online hate, the team is managed by Rio Ferdinand and Eni Aluko and features prominent players such as Marcus Rashford, Lucy Bronze and Jordan Henderson. There is no time like the present for such a project. As the home nations head into a massive summer of international football, it is imperative that we build our footballers up to realise their potential. Not take any given opportunity to break them down and take cheap shots for a few likes on social media. Due to its size and global prominence, football has a tendency to magnify pre-existing issues in society. Because of this, initiatives like Hope United are crucial in countering this process.
Offering online workshops to educate and improve digital skills, the program aims to not only improve people’s understanding of online hate and how to combat it, but show solidarity with those who are victims of abuse and share personal experiences of the impact it has. Award winning para-athlete Rebecca Sellar says: “I’ve been a victim of online hate. I had people make memes, poke fun, laugh about my disability, without any thought to how that would’ve affected me. I lost my confidence in myself, I wished I was somebody entirely different, and it took me a long time to build backup from” ( BT Hope United, 2021)
Manager of Hope United Rio Ferdinand recently found himself in the sporting headlines, due to being subjected to racial abuse in person whilst broadcasting the Wolves vs Manchester United game last weekend. It was the first time in a year that fans were allowed back into the grounds and it took less than an hour for an isolated incident to spoil the occasion for everybody else. This shows that despite all of the work which has gone on over the last 12 months to combat hate within the game there is still so much more to be done. Rio believes that education is the key to progress, and says that part of the problem is that perpetrators are punished without education, and therefore lack the awareness of the effects their actions carry.
Education is indeed a massive part, but there is more to it. Particularly in the form of online hate. Alongside the issue of education, the behaviour is enabled from the top down. The social media platforms have a corporate responsibility which is being neglected. There are tools available to block and report troll accounts which may end up in a ban by the platform, but there is nothing in place to stop that person creating a fresh account and carrying their behaviour on where they left off. It is also so easy for people to not be held accountable. Anonymity is a huge problem, as Ferdinand touches upon on the Hope United site. “Being able to hide is a problem. Being able to be faceless is a huge problem. The moment someone’s identity and details are available it becomes a different game.“
Hopefully the toxicity which can be found in the online football community can be used as an example for these platforms as to why reform is so badly needed. Initiatives like Hope United can be at the forefront of raising awareness and pushing for this change. Education and keeping the pressure on the social media companies will be essential if anything is to be done. Social Media should be about bringing people together, building connections and sharing successes. Not enabling hate and breaking people down.