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Abuse on Social Media and Beyond Should Inspire Action

The research published by Kick It Out on football-related hate crime on social media details unsurprising levels of abuse but also reveals that more needs to be done by the fans who proclaim to love the game.

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He should keep a low profile and stop drawing attention to himself.

He knows what type of response he'd get, so why do it?

It's only words and he's rich anyway. I wouldn't mind swapping positions with him.

Players of all colours get all sorts of abuse I'm afraid.

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These are some of the most common responses to incidents of racist abuse on social media. Each one plainly and conveniently ignores that no matter what a high-profile black football player does, he will most likely experience racial abuse at some stage. Play well, play poorly, mention another club, reject a contract, offer an opinion, be loud, be quiet, celebrate against a former club, share your faith, make a joke, or just say "hello" once in while. It doesn't matter what is said or done, racist abuse will come.

Kick It Out, an organisation promoting equality and inclusion in football, has recently published research into the abuse on social media within the confines of the Premier League — the source of most of the complaints Kick It Out receives. The research was posted on Kick It Out's official website and is worth going through. The seeds of investigation into discriminatory messages can be found in the 2012/13 season when the organisations began to deal with incidents of social abuse that had never been dealt with before.

The research was conducted to measure the volume of discriminatory posts directed at all Premier League clubs and players between August 2014 and March 2015. Therefore, the figures shown below are to be considered as the best estimate of ‘direct abuse' only.

Mario Balotelli depressingly was in first place as a target for abusive messages on social media with more than 8,000 aimed at the Liverpool striker. Over 52% were of a racist nature. For those who think Mario Balotelli's high-profile persona make him a target, consider the far quieter Danny Welbeck who received 1,700 abusive posts, of which 50% were racist.

Abuse related to gender and sexual orientation is also hugely problematic. Players are often met with homophobic insults designed to "belittle" their masculinity in a sport — like most male-dominated sports — that has grave problems in that area. 60% of the 1,600 discriminatory messages Daniel Sturridge received pertained to sexual orientation. Was it a coincidence that these three players were the examples used by Kick It Out to highlight the findings on player abuse? Definitely not.

Types of discrimination

The distribution of the messages when broken into the different categories of discrimination read as follows:

Race (28%)
Gender (25%)
Sexual Orientation (19%)
Disability (11%)
Antisemitism (9%)
Islamophobia (5%)
Age (2%)
Gender Reassignment (1%)


A look at the gender distribution of discriminatory mentions reveals a large proportion of abuse from men. 78% of mentions come from men and 22% originate from women.

It's unsurprising that abuse related to race, gender, and sexual orientation are the three most common forms when broken down into different types. The easiest identifiable differences are routinely seized upon to attack other people in society. Roughly a quarter of the players in the Premier League are black, and as there are no women playing in the top flight or any players who have followed in the footsteps of Robbie Rogers, race will probably continue to rank first as the source of abuse aimed at players.

Perhaps social media reveals what many people really think behind the cloak of anonymity. Maybe the tribalism that permeates through the game tends to create a distortion of reality where anything will be wielded to make a point. As an extension of the football stadium, social media platforms are part of the arena where our heroes and rivals can be deified, harangued, and castigated far too easily. Is this the truthful and foul reflection of people today or just a revelatory glimpse into what was always there?

Discrimination is undoubtedly a complex issue. Fans with different skin tones, ethnicities, beliefs, genders, sexual orientations, and club loyalties engage in discussions and arguments with each other perhaps more than usual. The discourse on social media can be depressing, but it doesn't have to be. Connecting with people from all over the world should be one of the greatest gifts of the Information Age, not another layer of muck to wade through.

Social media platforms have famously not been as quick or interested, to be frank, in dealing with various forms of abuse its users encounter. It has, however, grown enormously since the dominance of Friendster and MySpace at the beginning of the 2000s, and sanctioning users should now be a swifter process. David Conn makes the point that, in a climate where incidents of abuse are steadily rising season on season, geographical legal restrictions and limits set by anonymity on police powers are barriers to effective change.

The unfortunate truth is that many people can do more. Yes, clubs, football association, police, and internet companies can improve in this area, but forget about what is or isn't being achieved elsewhere for a moment ... do your part. If you see abuse online, report it. If you witness abuse in the stands, say something about it and make sure the stewards are alerted to the presence of offenders. Call people out.

So many people today claim that they don't see colour, gender, religion, sexuality, or race — a point of contention best left for a later date — but refrain from taking a stand against those who clearly things differently in the worst possible way. We can all do a little bit to make following football a more inclusive, comfortable, and enjoyable experience with less abuse and greater solidarity.

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Fans can make a difference in combating discrimination, but cannot change the thoughts of other people who are determined to see the world in certain ways. However, there could be instances where a bystander may pause for thought or join you in at least trying to do something. It's not their problem, their responsibility, and their fault someone else is in a bit of bother. This is especially true when your experience as a fan is relatively free from trouble. Do people care enough about discrimination when it doesn't affect them?

Don't wait; set the standard for what fans will tolerate beyond the usual expletives, club-biased ripostes, and statistically-informed barbs. Challenging perceptions, examining your own beliefs, and trying to understand how discrimination marginalises others outside of football would be excellent preparation for being part of the solution to a growing problem.

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