At the end of last week the bookmaker Paddy Power published a tweet which contrasted the £10,000 fine given by the Football Association to Millwall in August for their fans’ racist chanting with the £50,000 fine imposed on Huddersfield Town for wearing an oversized sponsor’s logo on their kit in a pre-season friendly. I retweeted it, suggesting that Millwall’s minuscule fine would make no impact on the behavior of fans at a club already synonymous with racism.
What followed was a barrage of personal abuse from Millwall fans, some insisting I was unfair to suggest they all behaved as unpleasantly as the club’s stereotype would suggest, and others absolutely reinforcing that stereotype. My tweets are now protected to avoid further abuse, which means people can’t see or reply to my tweets unless I have approved their request to follow me; within hours I had about 100 follow requests from people identifying as Millwall fans, who expected me to give them the approval they needed to send me their abuse. For these people it was not enough to write abusive comments about me, they wanted to make sure I saw the abuse – and they expected me to volunteer for it.
At the end of last month I published a book, They Don’t Teach This, the product of a year of effort not just by me but by my ghostwriter and publishers. Within 48 hours of my tweet Amazon had received and duly published dozens of one-star reviews by people who had neither bought nor read the book, reviews that were mostly not themselves racist but whose authors were clearly motivated by tribalism, bitterness and hatred.
I have worked too hard on my book just to sit back and accept that these people, who can’t take the truth about their own club or who themselves embody it, can destroy its chances of success by spewing their hate while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. Some of what has been written about myself and my book is defamatory; it is intended to put people off buying my book, and I intend to make sure they understand the consequences of such hatred.
I don’t want to earn a reputation for litigiousness, but sometimes the law is the only solution. In 2017, having exhausted every avenue possible within the FA’s internal structures without finding anyone who would take my case seriously, I took them to an employment tribunal. They had no choice but to take me seriously then. Whistleblowing procedures were put in place, UK Sport acted, and the FA was forced into a very public and humiliating apology. Everything shifted once I took a legal route. It wasn’t a fun thing to live through, but sometimes it is what needs to happen.
It is time to take action over online abuse. Black footballers occasionally retweet examples of the racism directed at them on social media, but Twitter and Facebook aren’t doing enough to stop it. If anything Twitter actually needs it: fury and controversy are what draws people to the site. But we can find out who these people are. All it takes is a court order to release their names, and they’re in trouble. There are laws in place to stop this stuff, and people who don’t understand the moral argument against racism have to understand that there will be legal consequences.
Perhaps the most effective solution would be for black, female and BAME-background athletes to take collective action. If the Professional Footballers’ Association is committed to protecting players’ interests, they should also be looking at this issue. Perhaps they could assemble a legal team specifically to take on the likes of Twitter and force them to identify the individuals who racially abuse their members so they can be pursued by police or the courts. Footballers need to step up and make sure that even if the FA or Twitter aren’t going to do anything, we are.
Millwall’s trivial fine shows that the FA still isn’t taking the issue seriously enough, and clubs are very obviously failing to police themselves. In Italy, Cagliari recently insisted they intend to “identify, isolate and ban” those fans who abused Internazionale’s Romelu Lukaku, but this is a club where black visiting players have been consistently abused for years. Maybe they will go on to punish one or two people, but when you hear racist chanting it’s not because a couple of people are doing it. No club ever bans 100 people or more, not when these are the very people who are there every week, the hardcore fans on whom the club depends. They want the ultras to come, whatever they do once they are there. But close their stadium or sections of it, show them they will lose money and, in time, sponsors if they don’t act on racism, and it will happen soon enough. When Uefa wants to act on financial fair play or on match-fixing, it does it and does it well. It needs to apply the same kinds of solutions to this problem.
Deterrents can change culture. Just look at Chelsea, where a transfer ban has transformed the club into one where a young English manager is appointed to help young English players such as Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, who wouldn’t have had a sniff otherwise, find a path to the first team. The club have been forced to reassess how they work; they have brought in Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, Jody Morris, and Claude Makelele, a group of people who used to play for the club, and completely changed how they go about their business. That’s what rules do in the game.
In the case of racism, the culture of fans thinking it’s OK to abuse players at games or online can and must be changed. If people, when they hear fans around them racially abusing players, understand as a result some or all of the ground will be closed the following week and none of them will be able to watch their team, they will self-police.
It is up to national associations to regulate behavior at grounds, but online it is not clear whose job it is. It’s time to bring players together and start talking about our options. People are being abused like dogs on the street, and it needs to stop. There isn’t really a culture in Britain of leaping into legal action, but that must be our next step. Once players understand their rights and act to protect them, they’ll discover how much power they actually hold. And maybe then, at last, people will start to listen and change.