Off the field and on to the feed: tackling racism online - Part 1 of 3

Published 30 January 2013

Off the field and on to the feed: tackling racism online - Part 1 of 3

A couple of weeks ago after being subjected to racial abuse, Kevin-Prince Boateng's AC Milan side walked out of a friendly after Boateng was subjected to racist chants by fans of Italian lower division club Pro Patria. Boateng announced that if subjected to similar taunts again he would not hesitate to walk off the pitch once more. The story highlights that the issue that racism, both on and off the pitch, while it has been a widespread problem in the sport for decades, still exists at the highest levels of the game.

Tony Higgins, the spokesman on anti-racism for Fifpro, the international footballers' union, in response to the walk off said that the union "fully understands and supports the actions of Kevin-Prince Boateng and his team-mates". He added: "The players of Milan sent a clear message: if racism does not stop, then football will. We have to draw a line. Kevin-Prince Boateng is also a human being. He is entitled to a working environment free of violence, racism and other forms of discrimination. Imagine yourself at work and someone standing right next to you is constantly insulting you in the worst way possible. Would you accept that?".

While walks offs may be understandable in such circumstances, what of not walking on the pitch at all as a result of abuse on micro-blogs such as Twitter? An offence has still been committed, it is simply a matter of virtual geography. Indeedd the problem is arguably much more visible on such platforms.  This article will take a look at some of the issues surrounding Twitter and racism and consider if the time has come for clubs and more particularly the Football Association to drive forward a tougher stance against racism online.

Social Media and Racism

In order to understand the context of this issue it is useful to look at some examples from the past months of racism online. Racism has been particularly prevalent on Twitter. In March  Liam Stacey, a student at a university in Wales, sent tweets about Muamba after the player collapsed on the field during a game. A senior European human rights official said Stacey's sentence was "too much." Fabrice Muamba, Bolton Wanderers. Stacy was sentenced to 56 days in jail for a "a string of offensive stereotypes and insulting swearwords"

Kyle Bartley of Rangers complained to police after player Bartley was allegedly subjected to racist abuse. The tweets in question came after the team lost 3-0 to bitter rival Celtic. James McClean was also subjected to the following abuse on Twitter "Fuck up your dirty fenian bastard ill make sure you get shot when you set foot back into gods country #FTP". The death threat above was directed to McClean after he was named to the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2012 team despite playing for Northern Ireland as a junior. "Fenian" is often used as a sectarian term of abuse toward Catholics, while the hashtag #FTP can mean a slur against the Pope.

In June Ashley Cole and Ashley Young were mentioned in the following Tweet after Cole and Young both missed penalty kicks against Italy in England's quarter-final loss to Italy at Euro 2012. Afterwards, they were attacked on Twitter by one user in particular who Tweeted the following slur:

"yeah I said it, ASHLEY YOUNG AND ASHLEY COLE ARE BOTH WORTHLESS N****RS AND SHOULD BE DEPORTED TO AFRICA, come do something bout it"

While the examples above give a flavour of the issue posed by online racism, the problem is not just one which concerns abuse from fans towards players. The FA fined Rio Ferdinand £45,000 after he agreed with a fellow Twitter user who called Chelsea's Ashley Cole a "choc ice. (or a "black person who acts like a white person")". Moreover the issue is compounded in a way which it is not on the pitch, as players are increasingly to turning to Twitter as a medium through which they can express their feelings and opinions on the subject.
After a string of offensive tweets sent in his direction following a mistake, midfielder John Obi Mikel quit Twitter, with his team tweeting "Abuse on social networks is abhorrent. Racist tweets towards Mikel are totally unacceptable. Police informed. #CFC supports strongest action."

Although a firm response from players is admirable, on occasion it may be more appropriate for the clubs to issue an official club press statement as they allow clubs to limit damage caused by offensive postings and deal with the matter in accordance with their own policies whilst paying heed to those of the regulating bodies. There is also a risk that the player Tweets will be at variance with the official stance taken by the club. The key issue is one of control, which is why at the very least the initial response should be club led not player driven. This is especially the case where it is not entirely clear if an offence has been committed as highlighted below.

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