In a high-profile attempt to expose the scourge of racism towards players at all levels of the game, English football will unite to undertake a three-day social media boycott this weekend “in response to the ongoing and sustained discriminatory abuse received online.”
The initiative has the backing of all professional leagues, including the Premier League and Women’s Super League, with the Football Supporters’ Association and Kick It Out, English football equality and inclusion charitable organisations, also signed up to the shutdown, which is designed to cover the full weekend of fixtures, including Manchester United vs. Liverpool — traditionally regarded as the biggest game in the English game. But while the social media boycott is designed to not only raise greater awareness of the targeting of players through online abuse but also pressure social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to enforce stricter measures in combating the issue, those involved in the fight against racism and discrimination insist that the battle is not limited to social media.
Troy Townsend, the head of development at Kick It Out, has spent over 20 years with the organisation, attempting to offer support to the victims of racism at the same time as holding football’s governing bodies to account. And in a wide-ranging interview, Townsend, the father of Crystal Palace midfielder Andros, has told ESPN that Kick it Out is fighting a constant battle that has no end in sight.
ESPN: How significant is this weekend’s boycott of social media? Will it work?
Townsend: It depends what you mean when you say “will it work?” It will work in terms of raising awareness; it will work in terms of football finally coming together on this topic and finally saying that what we are all going to do. But anything surrounding branding — kit sponsors, or brands connected with those football clubs — shouldn’t be on the platforms either. I cannot stress this enough. Football is a minute drop in the ocean in terms of the global use of social media, so what makes football think it can create the global drop in the ocean it wants to create to stop hate crime being allowed on those platforms?
I would like to see sport come together. The biggest sports in the U.S, the biggest sports in this country, the biggest sports in the world, with those global figures… then we might be able to ripple. For now, all we are doing is still creating the conversation.
I don’t want to be negative, as I want to applaud the clubs and the leagues who are doing it — we have to take our part and take ownership of it. But actually what impact will it have, we’ll have to see.
ESPN: So football alone can’t drive the change and force social media companies into stronger action?
Townsend: This is what I want to get people to understand. Football in England is in a bubble, and it controls everything within its environment. This is why football is struggling, as it doesn’t control the social media space. You can’t just flick a switch or wave a wand and everything is great — that is why we are struggling over here as it has little or no impact.
We are talking about our biggest stars being abused, like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, and it doesn’t even register in the countries where these platforms are based. How are we going to influence that? Maybe if we start sharing responsibility across sports that have a global impact, but I’m still saying just maybe, because sport is just one element of this.
ESPN: Have you noticed an increase in abuse towards footballers in recent months and years?
Townsend: The hate being levelled at our sports stars in England isn’t new. People are reacting like ‘I can’t believe they are doing that to our sports stars,’ but I dug up an interview I did eight years ago with Jason Brown, the former Blackburn goalkeeper, and he got pretty horrendous abuse. In the interview, I am saying the same words now as I did eight years ago, which tells us we haven’t moved on at all. We have not gotten better at changing the language and tone.
I would say we haven’t developed at all. It is being highlighted as there are no fans in stadiums and we are highlighting this because we have more time on our hands and the accessibility of phones. But has it increased? I would say no. I would just say that the conversations we would normally have on the way back from a game, or popping into the pub as we do here in England, are just not happening, so the platforms are fueling that instead.
ESPN: Social media abuse has become a major problem, though, hasn’t it?
Townsend: I think what social media platforms have done is collectively given individuals the confidence to be able to speak freely and target anybody. I’ve seen Facebook messages when they are asked for statements from the media and they give generic responses on how many people they have deleted from the platforms or prosecuted in court, and there is never accountability on that.
For anybody who is aware and uses social media, they are always one step ahead anyway — they have another account and have easy access. We are not dealing with the problem; we are not dealing with it collectively enough; and we aren’t holding people accountable for what effectively is hate speech that evolves into hate crime.
ESPN: What can be done to stop social media abuse and ensure swifter, tougher action by social media platforms?
Townsend: We are pressing the government to get more involved, but they’ve been talking about it for a very long time. Again, we are no clearer on when it will go to Parliament.
People in the industry are fed up of hearing the same thing as on a matchday. Players are subjected to the most vile abuse anybody could ever wish to see. The whole conversation here in England on matchdays is to prepare your players for abuse, because one of them — and let’s be honest, it is predominantly Black players — will get targeted.
When you play against a rival club, you get booed in the stadium and you’d get abuse anyway. I’m not saying that is OK, but it is almost part and parcel of what they do.
Leicester City’s Wes Morgan is just one of three Black captains to ever lift the Premier League trophy.
ESPN: What, specifically, do social media companies need to do to help stem the tide of abuse?
Townsend: Black people are always going to be identified by their colour, or by certain emojis that have connotations on their colour and history. That is the area where I feel that social media companies really have to decide what they are going to do in this area.
A monkey emoji, gorilla emoji, an orangutan emoji, a banana emoji has certain significance when directed at Black people. But the message from social media companies is essentially “we aren’t going to do anything about that; we don’t deem them as discriminatory.” That means that they will allow the abuse to continue on their platforms.
ESPN: Kick It Out was founded in 1993. How much impact has the organisation had in almost 30 years?
Townsend: I have to be honest, but I don’t feel that we have the impact. We have been in this space for 28 years, and many will ask what have you achieved in that time? When you are fighting against racism and discrimination, it is an ongoing battle, and I don’t sit there and tick boxes and a list of achievements.
We educate very well; we remind players of their responsibility; and while at times we have to call out the industry, we don’t have the influence on the industry. Sometimes it is like banging your head against a brick wall.
We put together an end-of-season report each year, so fans and people connected with the game can write to us about incidents, and we log those and then challenge the football authorities on another case and another case and another case. We put out our stats at the end of the year, and last year was the seventh year on the spin that those stats went up and racism was the highest form of discrimination being recorded to us.
People may not see our significance, but it is a constant battle. We are a small charity who are battling against the wind, I would say, but it is important that we are relevant now as we were back in 1993. Anybody who has worked in this organisation knows that we aren’t doing it for pats on the back and plaudits, but we are almost going into battle every single day.
ESPN: How much of an impact has the Black Lives Matter movement had on Kick It Out’s role within the game?
Townsend: We gained traction the minute BLM was being spoken about in this country. The circle starts with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, and how football embraced the Black Lives Matter slogan, taking the knee. And all of a sudden, there was a wave of traction towards Kick It Out and “why do we need Black Lives Matter when we have had Kick It Out in this country for so long?”
I saw that as people not really supporting everything that we do. People didn’t want to hear it, or listen to it, until they saw that Black Lives Matter was in the title.
Shaka Hislop questions why UEFA hasn’t renounced racism in the same way it has the European Super League.
ESPN: Do the football governing bodies do enough to combat racism within the game?
Townsend: They [the Premier League, English FA, EFL] do work with us, I can’t deny that, but I don’t think they really like the tough questions, the questions in regard to accountability, where they may have let down a club or a team or a player. I don’t think they are open and receptive to the tough questions that need to be answered.
In England, we have “No Room for Racism,” and UEFA have “Say No to Racism,” but what are the details behind the slogan? Where are the solutions and what are we doing to change the mindset and attitudes of many?
We had a high-profile incident recently when Rangers played Slavia Prague and it was proved that Glen Kamara of Rangers was called a “f—ing monkey,” but the player who said it was wearing a “Say No To Racism” logo on his sleeve.
When push comes to shove, whether you are starting the abuse, writing the abuse or watching the abuse on the pitch, you aren’t saying “say no to racism” or “no room for racism,” and you are not thinking about Kick It Out. Until we get that trend and constant abuse going downwards instead of upwards, as it seems to be, then we are fed up with T-shirts, we are fed up with hashtags and fed up of slogans. We all have to be accountable for that, and we have to be stronger in our messaging and eradicate it from our game.
My thing is always about protection of the victim, and this isn’t something football does well at all. How do you protect the victim when they have been victimized? How do you protect their reactions, and protect them from the ongoing questions they have been asked, or the ongoing questions they ask themselves?
Why? That is a simple question they ask themselves. Why? Why has somebody decided that I am the person they are going to target because of the colour of my skin?
Shaka Hislop offers a passionate statement on the drive for change in his ESPN+ series, “Show Racism the Red Card.”
ESPN: How challenging is your role when you learn that a player has been racially abused?
Townsend: Although we are an organisation, this is my dedicated work and I am somebody who will automatically reach out to individuals as much as I can. That process might be directly, but sometimes because of the nature of the abuse, you don’t want to reach out directly because you want them to have the comfort of the people closest around them first. So I’ll reach out to clubs, and if I have personal relationships, of course I reach out, but effectively, we are deemed as part of the issue as well.
Even from a player’s standpoint, they may not be clear on what we do or can we do anything for them that takes away the pain. The job is hard enough as it is, the identification of so many players who actually say, “What can you do for me, I’ve been abused on social media, I have shared some with you, but there is more still waiting in my DMs.”
They ask, “Can you influence social media companies; is there a way I can be protected on this?” The worst part for me is that for the most part the answer is no.
ESPN: How can that change?
Townsend: One of the things I’m putting in place is an advisory board — a players’ advisory board — that will have players from across the leagues from different backgrounds. Ex-players will be involved as well. So when people ask for my solution, I ask for players to be more into Kick It Out. They hold us to account, and they challenge us and provide us with advice — maybe back in the changing rooms, the players are talking about this topic and they want the advice. So players help us move forward as an organisation and help us unlock this new understanding of what we do.
We always get criticised — “You are only a T-shirt, aren’t you?” — and I get told by so many players that “oh, you know, we get told to put these T-shirts on,” and I actually turn it back on them and ask well, what do you want to learn about the organisation? Well, what do you want to know; did you ever think to reach out to us?
But we have to take part of the blame along the way. Hopefully the advisory board, which will be announced very soon, will give us that wider reach in terms of discussing the things the players are talking about.
Let’s start having this open and honest conversation. I have no fear about being criticized; I think that half the problem is that football doesn’t like criticism. I have no fear about being criticized, as I have always been looking to do better and trying to do better.
People think this is an easy job and an easy ride and we are loaded with money, that we are funded by all the footballing bodies, but we’re not. We are a small charity with a limited workforce that covers right across the game. We are punching above our weight on a daily basis.
I say to people, if you really want to understand our day-to-day, come and work with me. Come and look at the stuff that I see. What our reporting officers see on a daily basis, every form of discrimination. Come and see the impact that this small charity has on the big space that is football and you’ll see how easy this job is for any of us.