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Can A Social Media Boycott Fight Racism Online? The English Soccer World Hopes So

Sheffield United's English striker Rhian Brewster joins other players in taking a knee against racism ahead of kick off of the English Premier League football match.
Mike Ergerton
AFP via Getty Images
Sheffield United's English striker Rhian Brewster joins other players in taking a knee against racism ahead of kick off of the English Premier League football match.

The online world of English football (soccer) is surprisingly quiet, despite a busy weekend of important matches.

A win Saturday brought Manchester City one step closer to its third league title in four years. West Ham United is vying for its first top five finish in years, while Liverpool fights for its own spot, which can guarantee the clubs a coveted place in international competitions.

But from Friday through Monday, the football world's official social media feeds on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will be silent at this crucial point in the season.

The silence — from players, coaches at the highest level, owners, journalists and even the Premier League itself — is part of a boycott aimed at protesting a steady and growing stream of racist online harassment and abuse aimed at Black and brown soccer players in the U.K.

Organizations and people involved in British rugby, cricket, netball and Formula One are participating in the boycott as well.

How bad is the problem? One football club, Manchester United, released its own analysis, saying that it had found a 350% increase in online abuse directed toward the club's players between September 2019 and February 2021, according to the BBC. Eighty-six percent of those posts were racist, according to the study, while 8% were homophobic or transphobic.

When it comes to what these social media platforms are doing to fight these online attacks, Musa Okwonga, a British author of three books about football, a soccer commentator and contributor to The Ringer, argues that they are not doing much.

Twitter, for example, released a statement in February saying it was looking for new ways for users to report abuse and starting initiatives like the #StandUpToHate campaign. But players — like Manchester City's Kyle Walker, who shared a screenshot of a racist message he received after his club won the Carabao Cup last weekend — are asking these platforms to do more.

Black and brown players have received threats; they've had bananas thrown at them. In one instance, during a match between a French club, Paris Saint-Germain, and a Turkish club, İstanbul Başakşehir, players elected to walk off the field after a Black coach said a referee used a racist slur to refer to him.

And while a social media boycott is a short-term action, Okwonga believes it's a start. "When celebrities leave social media, they disempower those platforms," he says.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke to Okwonga on All Things Considered about the history of racism in U.K. football. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Would you walk us through the types of messages that professional soccer players of color are getting on social media on a regular basis?

There are roughly two categories. One category is actually the use of emoji. So, whenever players make a mistake on the field or [are seen] excelling or having a good time on Instagram, monkey emojis will appear beneath the [pictures]. And this happens endlessly to a lot of people. The other thing is the repeated use of the word n***** throughout matches. This happens after games, whenever a player is excelling, whenever a player misses a big [shot], you'll see that word everywhere.

So, whether people are winning or losing, there's still abuse?

Yes, they're still abused. Absolutely. It's the visibility. Professor Ben Carrington, who covers the overlap of sport, football, social issues, talks about this. He says that actually for some football fans or racist fans who watch football, they use this racist epithet as a form of social sanction, a bit like a kind of digital whip. So, when you see a Black player excelling on the field or enjoying themselves off the field, you send them that to put them in their place.

A prominent player named Kyle Walker recently shared some of the racist abuse that he's received. And then he added a question aimed at the likes of Facebook and Twitter saying, when is it going to stop? So have any of the social media companies said or done anything to address this?

Not really, no. I must admit I was a bit skeptical [of the boycott]. But then I came around to it because what I think it does is very interesting. When major athletes — and this is not just football boycotting, it's netball stars and cricket stars and Formula One drivers. When celebrities leave social media, they disempower those platforms. They remove the legitimacy.

Back in 2016, women in sports media in the United States made a similar effort. They asked male friends of theirs to read some of the tweets directed at them. And they videoed it and put it up online and the men couldn't do it. What is it about sport that encourages this kind of behavior?

So, I think, first of all, when you see someone like LeBron James or Megan Rapinoe do something amazing on the field, we tend to say they have a "sporting" intelligence. It's regarded as something lesser. So athletes, whatever they do on the field, they [are seen] as a lesser form of a professional. When people watch sports, generally, we're encouraged to view athletes as acting on instinct and that they're acting for our entertainment. So there's also an element of ownership. When you look at an athlete performing for you, whatever they're doing is lesser because they regard it as a lesser form of the species, even if they're like, you know, multimillionaires.

So if we take that context of ownership and the context of, let's say, racism in America, where you've had Black people who were owned until generations ago, you have a situation where people are like, "We're used to them performing for our benefit so we can say what we like to them."

And we look at the patriarchy all across the world and the way that women are viewed as almost the property of a lot of men, because it's, generally speaking, men online that [direct] this abuse to women and to Black people, that sense of entitlement is already bad. But when you're behind a screen, the safety of a computer screen from hundreds of kilometers away is magnified.

I do want to point out that racism isn't a new problem for English soccer. And it's not just online. I mean, there have been cases of players using racist slurs on the field, referees using racist figures on the field, fans being thrown out for doing things like throwing bananas at a Black player. Has the Premier League done anything to address this?

It has taken steps. It's banned players before. They banned Luis Suárez for an incident of racism against a fellow player, the Liverpool player against Manchester United. In some cases they've banned people from football grounds for life. So, they have taken some steps. But there's still more these companies can do. If you're making the kind of profits that these companies are making, you can afford to employ more people to address online racism.

There are people who will be listening to our conversation. They'll be like, so what? It's just words, emojis, block it, don't look at it. Why does this matter?

I think when people say that if people are going to "so what," I'm thinking, do you actually like women? Do you actually like Black people? That's a serious question, because, if you had a friend that came home and said, "I got raped at work today," [you wouldn't say], "oh, go in the other room," you wouldn't say that.

Why is it acceptable then for footballers to receive rape threats in their place of work? It's not acceptable. Do you actually care about the person being abused? You've actually got to listen to the pain it causes them. So I actually have got to ask them to go a step further and interrogate their own motives for wanting to turn away from it. Because as we know, not only in America but in Europe, people are very quick to avoid difficult conversations about racism and sexism and the rest of it.

Jeffrey Pierre and William Troop produced and edited the audio interview.

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Jeffrey Pierre is an editor and producer on the Education Desk, where helps the team manage workflows, coordinate member station coverage, social media and the NPR Ed newsletter. Before the Education Desk, he was a producer and director on Morning Edition and the Up First podcast.