Racist football supporters

Football fans
Football fans at a game (Photo credit: Tembela Bohle)

Back in the 1970s and 1980s racial abuse aimed at Black footballers in Britain was a common occurrence. Spectators could be heard unashamedly bellowing vile and degrading racist abuse at Black players in full view of those around them. In those days, this was the norm. Today, across the UK, it is rare to hear racist abuse at football matches. It is not, however, the case that racism in football has been abolished, but rather, that is has gone ‘underground’ through the use of social media. In the privacy of the home, on phones and other devices, the abuse continues. Amidst cries for something to be done about this, we recently saw one man arrested for posting racist abuse on social media. Could this, therefore, signal the beginning of the end for the racist abusers on social media, or, will they simply find alternative ways to perpetuate their vitriol?     

According to a BBC report in December 2018, former professional footballer and England forward, John Barnes, openly criticised the response of football authorities for their inadequate response to the long-standing problem of racism in football. In 1988, John Barnes had to backheel a banana off the field of play while playing in a game between Liverpool and Everton at Everton. He went on to say, “for any Black player in the 1980s it would have been the same old racist chants, and bananas on the field.” The sad thing though, was that Barnes claimed this was something that was an accepted part of society and football.’

Today the racist abuse continues unabated. A recent study by Inside World Football (2021) found that 43 percent of players in the English Premiere League experienced racist abuse on social media. Rather disturbingly, during the six-week period when the data was being gathered, 50 percent of the total online abuse recorded was received by just three players. Ian Wright and Jermaine Jenas, also former Black footballers, speaking with reference to the racist abuse aimed at Marcus Rashford, have argued that social media companies are not vigilant enough. For well over a year, the level of racial abuse on social media aimed at Black players in Britain has been increasing. It seems there was no way of curtailing the abuse which reached a crescendo in the last few months following England’s penalty shootout defeat in the Euro 2020 final.

Despite the frequency of racial abuse on social media, it seems, the UK authorities appear to be fighting back. A football fan in the UK was recently sentenced to two months in prison for cyber racism against West Bromwich Albion midfielder Romaine Sawyers. According to an Australian media house, the West Brom fan, Simon Silwood, 50, was jailed by Birmingham Magistrates’ Court for a racist Facebook post that targeted Sawyers in early 2021. He blamed it on a misspelling on his device and said his post autocorrected “buffoon” to “baboon.”  Silwood claimed he made a mistake when his message said ‘’Sawyers should win the Baboon d’Or” – a sarcastic reference to the Ballon d’Or trophy, following his team’s 5-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Hawthorns on 26 January.

Although this is just one case, perhaps it can send a powerful signal to those who hide behind a computer screen or other devices and post racist messages anonymously. Things must not, however, stop here. John Barnes, former English footballer of Jamaican descent, is correct in his assertion that football cannot rid British society of racism, but the sport can tackle racism on social media by punishing those who hurl such abuse at Black players. Whilst the Duke of Cambridge, who is also the president of the Football Association, has praised those who have spoken out and called for an end to the “despicable” abuse, continued stiffer penalties might be the only way to ensure that racist supporters do not go unpunished.

Tony Talburt Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in Black Studies at Birmingham City University in  Britain.

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