In early May 2021, the English Football Association, English Premier League, English Football League, and Women’s Championship came together to boycott social media for four days. This meant the Premier League would be silent across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in an era, the COVID era, where most fans followed the games on the social media platforms if they weren’t able to stream or watch it. FIFA and UEFA also announced that they would not be posting across those four days, as did seven-times Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, England and Wales Cricket Board, and the International Tennis Federation.
So why did some of the biggest sporting bodies, athletes, and teams across the world unite to boycott social media, a platform that lets them reach out to their beloved fans, earn money through sponsorship, and much more? The answer was simple. For far too long, the athletes who give it everything on the field and track for the teams and country were victims of vicious, vile, racist, and abusive messages, including death threats whenever their performance on the field/track wasn’t satisfactory.
Social media in today’s world is one of the most powerful tools built by mankind. The reach and capabilities of this one tool are far greater than a lot of communication platforms over the years. And as Voltaire said, ‘along with great power, comes great responsibility.’ And that responsibility lies not only with the tech giants who own and run these media platforms but also the users using these platforms daily. What gives a man from North London the ability to racially abuse some of his country’s brightest football stars while representing the country trying to bring national pride and glory? Well, a lot of it goes to anonymity, and that social media has also given a voice to the people. A voice that should have been used for the greater good is now widely used to spread hate with the confidence of getting away with this kind of behavior without facing any real consequences. Fake accounts, private networks have also helped this, as these so-called fans post abusive comments from different parts of the world, with no real way of really tracking them down.
When Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, and Bukayo Saka missed their penalties in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, the three colored footballers were subject to massive online racist abuse for their role in England’s loss in the final. Three youngsters, all under 23 years of age, are in a period where their experiences will shape their careers. Do these “fans” actually want these players to build their careers on this abuse? This kind of behavior can easily lead to the players’ taking a backseat from the spotlight and maybe even the sport. A prime example of this is that of former Tottenham Hotspur manager Ryan Mason. Mason, who suffered a horrific injury in 2017 in a match against Chelsea while playing for Hull City. Mason fractured his skull and was rushed to the hospital immediately for surgery. After a successful treatment, Mason had 14 metal plates and 28 screws in his skill, and along with the risk associated with the injury, Mason was subject to countless abuse online, which eventually led to Mason retiring from the game at 27 years of age. Although the injury was a major factor in Mason’s case, the abuse received was also significant and showed the abuse’s mental toll on these players.
Athletes are generally always put on a high pedestal; they’re the crème de la crème of society, right? ‘How can Virat Kohli do something wrong?’ ‘It is impossible for Lionel Messi to put a wrong put forward.’ The fans build-up and hype these stars in their successful period, and when things get a little challenging, these people ruthlessly abuse their stars for not performing to their standards. Performance is a different matter, the very first thing is, we fail to see these athletes as human beings, and we hype them up so much that we think they are invincible. And when they do stumble, everyone is ready to pounce. “Oh, I am so angry Messi missed that penalty!”, “I cannot believe Kohli couldn’t take the catch; he has let me down.” These are the things that go through a fan’s mind before they go ahead with their online abuse. We never do take a moment to think about these players, the human beings who serve their country and teams selflessly day in and out. No one ever wonders about the pressure that takes its toll on their minds from the expectations or the toll from all expectations to perform at the highest level every day along with the online abuse. Very few probably understand that as much as they are upset and angry about Kohli missing a catch, no one is more upset about it than Kohli himself.
A recent study by Pickswise concluded that LeBron James was the most abused athlete in the world. The DailyMail submitted a report that stated that the English football team received 12,500 abusive comments throughout Euro 2020. The abuses faced by these players are often a mix of fandom, rage, grief, and scapegoating. A lot of this abuse comes from fans targeting players on a sense of belonging. Human beings probably find it better to reject people who seem to be different or can be made out to be different from them so that, they seem to be the superior ones and can begin to conjure up reasons to put the athletes down. A lot of abuse thrown at the footballers in Europe, especially in England, is based around calling the athletes’ immigrants.’ In India, Muslim athletes bear the brunt of abuse from their own countrymen. From pinning their hopes and dreams on these athletes, people also throw all their frustrations out on the same group. When there’s a victory, it’s ‘us’ who won; when there’s a loss, it’s ‘them’ who lost the game for us.
Lewis Hamilton was one of the latest athletes to be subjected to online racial abuse after his win at his home Grand Prix last weekend at Silverstone. Hamilton, who is the sport’s only black driver, has been subject to a lot of negativity over the years. Along with the racial abuse, which he has acknowledged has been around since he was 12, he also receives a lot of jeering and trolling for his dominance. Hamilton, who has won four consecutive titles since 2017, receives major trolling on social media platforms for apparently making the sport ‘too boring’ by winning week in and out. An athlete, who is at the peak of his career, performs sublimely every week, is targeted for winning, and it was this that played a role in the abuse received by Hamilton post the 2021 British Grand Prix. The season had finally seen Hamilton’s Mercedes start as the second best team on the grid and with Hamilton falling behind, the so called fans were finally happy with the end of the dominance. After Hamilton crashed with his championship rival, that took the latter out of the race, Hamilton was once again subject to vile abuse fuelled by the fact that he had won.
One can ask, why aren’t these perpetrators being caught? The answer to that isn’t a simple one; first off, as mentioned before, most of the people function through fake accounts, which make it difficult to verify the person. Another reason is that these abusers are based worldwide, a Premier League study at the end of last season showcased that more than 70% of the abuse the Premier League teams and players received were from social media users outside the United Kingdom. Being based all over the world, it makes for a tricky situation when it comes down to the legalities, trying to use law enforcement and pursue them when cross-country laws, rules and regulations arise. Another method these abusers use is by using ‘bots’, automated accounts created just to spew hate. These challenges normally take up days of the officials’ work trying to track down these abusers and find the authentic profile in a sea of fake accounts, vpn hidden profiles, and bots. Though, the social media platforms do take action, and thousands and thousands of accounts get banned or suspended for abusive comments. But that is not enough. The authorities and these media companies must come to a solution that builds a safe environment for the players and fans without being subject to any sort of abuse or discrimination.
Inevitably what happens is that the social media channels will distance themselves from the abuse to absolve themselves of the blame. The abusers continue to remain hidden behind anonymous usernames and will find other ways to put out their negativity in the world. The fact is that, the underlying problem still exists and will continue to do so, unless necessary steps are taken to eradicate it. There needs to be zero tolerance for his kind of behavior. Various media platforms, including social media and its rise, have led to a massive increase in the visibility and popularity of sports over the past few decades. The radio, television, internet all have given players and fans a platform to reach out to each other, but the misuse of these channels throws up a serious question of where the line must be drawn. Should players and teams boycott social media altogether? Should there be a filter to check the content before being put out? Should athletes turn off comments from fans? All of these have their own shortcomings and pros, but it is paramount that a way is found out quickly to stop this kind of abuse towards players online. And it is not just players, celebrities; politicians are also subject to abuse online, as the abusers make use of the different tools to hide behind their I.Ps. The social media giants are the only ones who can do something about it right now, and the question should be asked, is this kind of behavior something their companies align with? Or will they wait for more athletes and people worldwide to boycott social media until it begins to hit their pockets?
Because, if we don’t put an end to this, it won’t be Rashford or Sancho who missed that penalty; it will be us who missed the goal to be better human beings.