BIG MAD SPECIAL REPORT - Sabrina Speaks on Soccer (5.7.21)

This week my friend Sabrina Dorronsoro tackles racism in European soccer.

This post was written by Sabrina Dorronsoro, a decidedly un-sportsy kinda gal that's taking on the world of #sportz in a creative effort to get more readers. If you are picking up what I’m putting down, you can find my rantings about creativity, community, curiosity and more in my bi-weekly newsletter: Facts & Feelings.

Today, we’re covering soccer and racism - a truly fitting topic for the daughter of a first-generation immigrant from Mexico. Enjoy!

Last week, soccer players across Europe decided to take a stand against the rampant abuse they face online. Prominent players across Europe fought back with a complete social media blackout.

The boycott began on Friday, April 30 at 15.00 GMT and ended at 23.59 GMT on Monday, May 3. And it’s not the first time soccer stars have leveraged their superstar status across social media in the name of ending hate speech online. 

Just two years ago, a group of soccer players ran a similar campaign: #Enough. The social media boycott ran for 24-hours in an act of protest against online abuse. While the efforts got plenty of coverage and vocal support from big names, the message didn’t stick.

Players across the sports spectrum continued to bear the burden of racist online abuse. We’re not talking some low-level shitposting insults here either. These comments were (and continue to be) explicitly aggressive. These anonymous keyboard warriors went as far as to target family members of athletes.

So, we find ourselves in the same hellish landscape we were in only a year ago. And again, players are using their social media presence to fight back. 

In a recent internal analysis of online harassment, Manchester United found a 350% increase in abuse directed towards the club's players, with 3,300 posts targeting players during the period September 2019 to February 2021. Of those posts, 86% of those posts were racist, while 8% were homophobic or transphobic.

A joint PFA and Signify study identified more than 3,000 explicitly abusive messages aimed at Premier League players during just the final six weeks of last season -- 56% of which were racist. Of the players surveyed, 43% said they had experienced targeted racist abuse.

When the players hit the field, these same sentiments leap off the screen and into reality. For a long time, football fans threw bananas onto the field as a sign of disrespect to black and brown players. While there are fewer bananas today, monkey chants have become more prevalent. 

It makes me sick to even write that. 

So while a social media boycott may seem like a short-term action, it’s about players taking back their power. Musa Okwonga, a British author and soccer commentator, believes it's a start. In an interview with NPR he noted he was skeptical about the blackout at first but he came around when he realized the power in this action.

"When celebrities leave social media, they disempower those platforms,” explained Okwonga. “They remove the legitimacy." 

What Needs to Change?

Just days after this most recent boycott ended, Manchester City player, Raheem Sterling, was once again subjected to racist abuse online. An Instagram user sent Sterling a string of monkey and gorilla emojis as a comment in reply to his post celebrating the club’s achievement of heading into their first ever European Cup Final. 

Facebook, who owns Instagram, made a public statement against the racist comment and quickly deleted it. But if the past is any indication, Sterling will be the first of many examples. The recurrence of these events begs the question: what can we actually do about it?

After reading lots of BBC articles, I’ve boiled it down to three key players. These are the people and companies in power that have the resources and status to affect real change.

The first, and most obvious, is tech companies. They own the platforms after all. 

Here’s the thing, though. I am the first person to bash our alien nightmare Mark Zuckerberg. Hell, I’ll even take a stab at Jack Dorsey. But the truth is, this is a REALLY complicated ask. Not impossible. But definitely complicated. 

As an example, let’s look at blocking words or emojis that are discriminatory. While well-meaning, an offensive emoji can also be used in a non-offensive context, and across global platforms words and emojis can have different meanings in different communities or territories. 

Maybe we could verify the person behind the account is actually a person? A mandatory verification process would be needed. But what personal information will they ask for? Passport details? Social security numbers?  There is such a vast mistrust over social media platforms' use of personal data which makes that a hard sell. And, doesn’t that pose a threat to people who legitimately need to protect their identity online?

Tech companies shouldn’t get a pass here but we need to recognize that the answers to these problems aren’t going to be fast ones. That being said, I think Zuck and Jack could dedicate a slice of their combined revenue to figuring this out.

Then there’s the soccer clubs themselves. What can they be doing to better protect their players from seeing these targeted comments and replies? The issue with the current approach is that players themselves have to see the abuse, then report it. But at that point, isn’t the damage already done?

We have the technology needed to step in here - from AI to open source data. We just need a proactive investment from soccer clubs and associations. Some of soccer’s governing bodies laid out the changes they would like to see in a letter to Facebook and Twitter in February. But without any action from their end, it seems a bit more like a shitty game of “you’re it.”

Based on my research, these teams are doing what they can to protect their players. But you can’t defend yourself from hate speech when you’re asked to maintain a public presence as part of your job. Either someone needs to step in or we may see more soccer players, like former Arsenal striker Thierry Henry, step out.

And lastly, there’s the UK Government. They have previously threatened social media companies with "large fines", which could amount to "billions of pounds" if they fail to tackle abuse on their platforms. 

Most recently, the government vowed to press on with plans for "groundbreaking" new online harms legislation later this year to make tech companies legally responsible for the online safety of their users, and make them accountable to a regulator.

Sound good? I think so too. 

Unfortunately, in the true spirit of government, these are all words. The laws mentioned above are set to take ages to pass. Not to mention that this legislation is long overdue, and will almost certainly be watered down the longer we wait. Especially US-based tech companies have their way and threaten to invest elsewhere.

So really, the question becomes: how can we pressure these powerful organizations to make big, complicated changes?

For now, the answer is social media. What comes next? That’s up to the big bosses. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

The fact of the matter is, social media feeds off celebrities using their platform. It’s a way for users to connect to otherwise untouchable figures. It’s a promotion tool for sports associations, with big names drumming up support for big games. It’s a platform for players to connect with their fans.

What isn’t it? Regulated. 

While the blackout is a visible step in the right direction, actions speak louder than empty newsfeeds. We need policy change. We need to pressure every governing body to do more. We need to trust those in power to protect the same players that generate profit.

But for that to happen someone has to make the first move. It’s a shitty chess game with unreasonably high stakes and, as always, a tiny percentage of rich assholes are running the show.

The cynic in me says we’ll be waiting a long time for meaningful change. 

That’s what’s got me BIG MAD.

Love Always,