Football isn’t politically correct. It’s not an ideal location for discourse, and it’s not the best place to hear enlightened views about modern society. It’s a sport where telling the referee what you think of him is encouraged by most, and expected by all.
Abuse is part and parcel of the game. From the stands to the sofa, telling a player that they’re shit is a wonderful piece of catharsis that allows many to go about their week with an unclenched fist. But where do we draw the line?
Just think of Gary Lineker and anything he’s ever tweeted, and the very first response to everything he puts out there. The ‘shat on’ joke is tired enough, but it’s only ‘banter’. If that was the extent of it, it would probably be harmless enough. Of course, that’s only the surface, and it’s a minor example when compared to some of the incidents that made the headlines over the past few years.
Alcohol is the most common factor when it comes to abuse that definitely crosses the line; like the man who told Lineker’s son that it was a pity that he didn’t die while he had leukaemia; or the guy who made jokes about Fabrice Muamba as he lay dead on the pitch following a cardiac arrest.
All of the ism’s are present, and that’s without denying that racism has started to become less prevalent in modern football in the UK, reflecting changing societal attitudes and a move away from the roots of the game. There’s still an undercurrent of pure hatred that probably manifests itself more vividly than it used to in days gone by.
Despite the corporate sheen found at most Premier League clubs, they can’t seem to sanitise the fans in the way they’d probably like to. Football was one of the last holdouts for regressive thought, which is partly because of the culture of the game, as well as some of those who played it in the past. It further blurs the lines regarding acceptable behaviour.
You won’t see a banana thrown from the crowd in England, and there’s little chance of a stand erupting in monkey chants. Instead, people go home and send abuse while basking in the warm, safe glow of their smartphone. Being unable to handle drink is a major part of it but there’s also a clear cry for any kind of contact, even if it’s just people telling them that they’re sick.
It paints a sad picture, although many of the victims wouldn’t see it that way. Issuing death threats to random members of a family takes a certain frame of mind, and that’s why alcohol often tends to be the root cause. Then again, some people really just don’t care. After all, what’s nine weeks in jail as long as they have the right to speak their mind?
Men send just under 70 percent of the abuse, and it isn’t surprising to see them in the majority (actually, it’s more of a shock to see just how many women decide to take it too far as well). No matter their gender, most people probably wouldn’t act the same way in a public setting, despite the bravado shown in the video linked above.
Football Twitter is slightly different to the rest of the social media sphere, but they’re still real people found beneath the avatars of late 2000 Premier League stars, which shield them from being judged in the same manner that they enjoy. It’s clear that a minority of the public will cross the line when using social media, no matter the subject. It seems like some people just don’t think of social media as being real, but the repercussions can be all too serious if the police get involved.
The government has taken steps to ensure that people who send abusive messages are prosecuted but it’s hard to draw the line between abuse and banter for some fans. Legislation that has been in place since 1861 will be used if you issue a credible death threat, and it’s open to interpretation depending on the message itself.
A simple way to look at it is, if it’s scary, you’re probably in trouble, but there’s a chance that you could explain away anything vaguely humorous by arguing that is was simply misjudged. The CPS have released revised guidelines, which make it clear that they plan to increase sentencing if they can prove a message was sent in a threatening manner.
I contacted Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card to get a feel for the work done to combat racism in recent years. Kick It Out have conducted excellent work researching the true extent of social media discrimination, showing that Premier League clubs and players have to put up with a lot. I asked them if they had any opinions on the legislation. Kick It Out said:
“For a couple of years Kick It Out has been concerned about the levels of discrimination on social media. There is always more which can be done to combat this serious problem but it requires a joined-up approach from the government, the police and the social media platforms themselves.
“Our own recent statistics for the 2015-16 football season showed an 18 percent increase in football-related discrimination on social media, so it is an area which requires greater attention and it’s why we have been working with the football authorities, the social media platforms and the Ministry of Justice as part of a ‘Social Media Expert Group’ to address this problem in football.”
It’s a stiff reply, but they noted that numbers are growing, no matter what the Social Media Expert Group have done so far. It’s always going to be a tough ask when it comes to such a delicate issue, while the police have had trouble in the past when trying to track down users through Twitter itself.
They also looked into Euro 2016 and they recorded over 22,000 more abusive tweets to add to the Premier League tally. England’s display against Iceland was bound to draw at least a few tanked-up experts to the fore, and somewhat justifiably so depending on what they actually said. Most players have received abuse in some shape or form, no matter their background. It’s considered to be part and parcel of the modern game.
General abuse is found everywhere and there’s no way to curb the vast majority of what passes for humour on social media. The modern variant of troll is in their element thanks to the very nature of the medium, despite the work done to win the hearts and minds of the overall public.
For some players, the torrent is pretty constant, and reputations always seem to play a part. It’s not just the abuse itself but the sheer amount of vitriol spat their way. For Raheem Sterling, nothing is sacred, including pictures of his children on Instagram. Diego Costa and Sterling head the KIO list with over 8,000 specific mentions which can be classed as discriminatory, but there’s still a lot of ex-professionals and lesser known players who can often be caught in the crossfire from time to time.
Stan Collymore has spoken frequently about the lack of support he’s received after being abused by a long time by a particularly ardent troll, and the numerous death threats he’s been sent over the years. It’s not the same as getting a bullet in the post but it was still serious enough for him to question whether Twitter and the authorities were doing enough to stop the threats and racism directed his way.
Threatening to throw people in jail is obviously a strong step, but what are they supposed to do when people are sending messages saying they hope your children die? It’s a tough situation, and deep down it’s obvious that the players don’t really deserve it.
All Sterling really did was to make an obvious move to a team where he could win more trophies. It seems like more of an obvious decision thanks to the powers of hindsight, but he still isn’t forgiven by the vast majority of fans. Diego Costa will always ruffle feathers. His style led Kurt Zouma to say that he likes to ‘cheat a lot’ in a hastily withdrawn comment that was explained away because of tiredness from a drugs test. Right.
On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that Costa always tries to stay on the right side of the rulebook, and it’s a rare sight to see him leaving the field early due to a decision from the referee.
At least they’re being picked on for perceived flaws. It’s progression compared to the past but the players back then didn’t have to deal with a steady stream of abuse directed their way after they left the stadium each Saturday. It’s hard to say which set is better off in that respect.
The line between banter and abuse is getting ever more warped each year as we continually redefine acceptable behaviour in all walks of life. Football is no longer untouched and high profile cases will only cause legislators to extend their powers in response. It’s indicative of the society we live in for the most part, but there’s no reason why we have to bow down to a vocal minority that want to spoil it for the rest of us.
Of course, some players dish out abuse themselves, and it’s interesting to see that it’s widely condemned by nearly all corners. Media training means that it’s a rare occurrence and most players know better than to start spouting off about anything that could be deemed too controversial.
Education is probably the way forward for all, but time spent in the classroom will only get you so far. Throwing them in jail still seems like a waste of public money to me. It might help to eradicate the actions but not the thoughts and motivations that drove them to reach out in the first place.
Football fans have always had their fair share of negative press, and it’s sometimes been justified through times of institutionalised racism and hooliganism. Even so, the modern football fan is far removed from decades passed, as evidenced by the beatings meted out by Russian ultras in Paris.
Some people will never change and numbers of abusive social media messages have continued to rise since last year in the Premier League. It’s also going to be tough to find a way to eradicate abuse without further alienating supporters.
Alcohol appears to be a common factor, but going to the pub is usually part of the pre-match ritual, and it’s unfair on the vast majority that manage to behave themselves. The government have given reasonably clear guidelines as to the amount of jail time (if any) you can expect, while they’ve been sure to sentence people reasonably strongly in some of the high-profile cases listed above.
Either way, just be careful the next time you start tapping away at the keyboard furiously after a bad result. Footballers are humans, laws exist and decency is a wonderful virtue, on both sides of the smartphone.
By James Milin-Ashmore. Follow @jamoashmore