In a video with B/R Football, released in 2020, then Montreal Impact manager Thierry Henry shared his experiences dealing with racism on the pitch. Henry discussed being spat on when he took a corner versus Valencia, hearing monkey noises directed at him and match officials ignoring his complaints about supporters. The video is under five minutes long, but there’s a strong chance that the Arsenal legend could tell story after story for as long as people could stomach listening.
He isn’t alone in his struggles. It feels almost weekly that a professional footballer receives racial abuse because of the color of their skin or where they were born. Sometimes, teammates support the abused player. Last week, Valencia walked off the pitch after defender Mouctar Diakhaby allegedly heard racial slurs directed at him from Juan Cala, of Cadiz. Other times, as shared by Henry, the player is alone in their suffering.
“We need to make people aware that we are in pain,” says Henry. “Enough is enough.”
These are only a couple of examples of on-field abuse. Over the years, leagues around the world have launched anti-racism campaigns, whilst Clubs have issued lifetime bans to supporters identified as aiming slurs at players. Some players like Henry have started their own initiatives to combat it.
Abuse, Just in a Different Way
A newer generation of football fans probably think that these problems originate with the growth of Social Media. Not so. Henry was spat on by Valencia supporters in 2003. He started his anti-racism campaign in 2006. In that same year, Twitter was born and with it came a new, anonymous way for people to direct their hate.
On March 26, the 1998 World Cup winner quit social media. In an interview with CNN Sport, he said that “it’s not a safe place and it’s not a safe environment.” With his announcement, he also gave readers a call to action. Henry said, “Basically, I did what I felt and I hope it can inspire people to do the same thing if they feel the same way.” Also in his statement, he stressed that having social media isn’t of necessity a bad thing.
Thierry Henry… Others Will Follow
Players like Tottenham loanee Gareth Bale publicly supported the idea of the masses leaving the internet community to pressure tech companies. Henry’s former club Arsenal even responded with the announcement of a social media task force to help. All over the internet, it takes just a few seconds to create an online persona where you can send hateful messages to anybody. Equally a few seconds later you can delete and be gone forever. This has an iron grip on the football world, but hopefully this will start to weaken.
Social media abuse towards players is at a breaking point. Hopefully we are now at the moment where real change will begin.
For many people, both in the game and out, deleting social media isn’t possible. It’s become a needed resource for marketing, business and connecting. Even though we’re in the, hopefully, waning days of a pandemic, it’s use as a means to strengthen communities and connect families apart, isn’t something easily thrown away. Outside of pressuring tech companies, there are small daily steps to take to reduce the mental strain of social media toxicity. Some are practical, some are tried and true and another is an acquired skill with long term benefits.
Before those, it’s important to note that none of these pieces of advice are meant to justify how people act. Also, if a serious life threat occurs, consider professional support.
Ways to Minimise the Problem
Anyone that has scrolled through the replies on a club’s official account have seen a specific type of user. Their name is a combination of a club legends name, a trophy-winning year and/or the club’s initials. Their photo is likely the picture of a current player, club legend or obscure player that converted a mid-season game winning header in 1994. Often these accounts are those of loyal, highly committed, decent supporters, but sadly the other side of the coin is the anonymity that such handles can bring.
Tech companies create notification systems that produce dopamine in the end user. It’s a chemically linked reward system embedded within the brains of humans. Similar to pulling a lever on a slot machine and seeing bright colors and fun sounds. That pop-up on the bottom of the screen is a strong motivator for some. This will cause a minority of social media users to type anything to get a reply or like. Insults, racial abuse, comments about family members of a player, etc. You name it, and it’s likely been shared online.
A practical option is to consider avoiding comment sections all together. Not seeing comments does not take away the experience of consuming social media. Scrolling and reading the curated list of teams and players of your choosing will remove most of the anxiety involved with having a presence online.
Tried and True
A way that Facebook, Twitter and other outlets give you some content control is through blocking, reporting and muting a user. It shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of everyday people to make it easier for multi-billion-dollar tech companies, but when over 300 million people have a Twitter account, it’s tough to keep it clean. When there are instances that go beyond respectful differences of opinion, then the option exists to cut the user out of your digital existence. Report and block. Life is tough enough without receiving threats or other online abuse.
Don Miguel Ruiz is the youngest of 13 children, born into a rural family in Mexico. He completed medical school and became a surgeon but most people know him for the 1997 book The Four Agreements. To do this next part justice, give his book a read. It’s insightful, easy to read, short but also challenging.
In a podcast interview, fullback Bianca St. Georges of the National Women’s Soccer League shared the mindfulness teachings from this book. Professional women’s footballers also receive online abuse, and added to it is the usual comment of their profession not being real. In addition, they are paid fractions of their male counterparts and have less support from the parent club.
The four agreements are from ancient Mexican Toltec wisdom. One that applies to a social media society is not taking anything personally. Do not read that as being told to just get over it. On the contrary, this piece of wisdom, and the book as a whole, is about reframing what society views as normal.
When people receive online attacks because of a missed goal, errant pass, gender or color of their skin, the problem lies within the person that types and hits send. Whether it’s the fact that they aren’t as successful in their own lives. Maybe their racism or misogyny are generational. Quite possibly they’re regurgitating something they saw on television or online.
None of those are validations for the actions they’ve taken, but this frame of mind from the person reading the abuse can help diminish its stronghold on your emotions. Anonymity also means that the person typing likely sees you, or an opposing club’s player, as only a piece of digital space.
Combine this practice with the practical, or the tried and true, and the power vanishes from the abuser’s phone or keyboard.
What is happening online is not ok, it devalues a valuable social resource. From the eyes of Henry, and the countless other footballers, these occurrences get multiplied by the thousands. When they talk publicly about this abuse, the football community needs to listen and take part in the action.
If you are struggling with what you are seeing on social media at the moment, why not take a break from it or even consider removing social media completely. Your life is more important, and remember it is always your choice whether to read or not.