Opinion

Enough is no longer enough for football in battle against online abuse

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Last night, former French international Thierry Henry’s social media presence vanished after he revealed that he would be disabling his accounts in a stand against online trolls.

It was a hugely powerful move that resonated with so many, yet left others pleading with the Arsenal legend to use his platform to raise further awareness on the subject. 

When it comes to social media, the ongoing battle against anonymous cowards and tech companies have reached feverish heights, raising serious questions around how football, and broader society, can globally tackle this issue. 

Recently, two separate incidences of racial abuse via social media made headlines in Australia when Western Sydney Wanderers forward Bernie Ibini and Adelaide United young-gun Kusini Yengi revealed that they had been targeted.

It prompted widespread outrage from both the players and the football fraternity at large, all the while making us wonder how we are still confronted by these conversations in 2021. 

But the examples don’t stop there.

Last month, Adelaide United captain Stefan Mauk revealed that he had received death threats and comments suggesting that he “kill himself” following the Reds’ controversial match against the Central Coast Mariners. 

In November last year, former Melbourne Victory midfielder Josh Hope called time on his professional football career, blaming constant "abuse" from A-League fans on social media. 

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Hope revealed it had taken away his love of the game. It left many of us shaking our heads in disarray, questioning how it could come to this.

And who could forget, when three-time A-League Championship winner Sebastian Ryall revealed in his book ‘How To Die Today’ that he had tried to commit suicide multiple times after being subjected to relentless public and online ridicule.

Which begs the question, how many lives must be lost or be left hanging in the balance before we realise that the systemic issues we face in the real world and online, are bigger than the sport we love? 

This week, Professional Footballers Australia together with a number of high-profile W-League and A-League players banded together to create a moving video, calling out the insidious behaviour. 

“Football is our beautiful game but there’s something ugly going on.” They said. 

“Hate, discrimination, racism, abuse. Whether it’s in the stands, online or face-to-face, people should never have to experience hate, abuse or discrimination. Enough is enough.”  

It’s a phrase we’ve heard time and time again but what we’ve rapidly learned is that it’s no longer enough to say it’s enough.

Federations have faced sanctions, fans continue to be banned, a referee was suspended, powerful video messages have been created, and players have walked off of pitches or taken to their knees to show their solidarity but beyond it being the right thing to do - has it really affected critical change?

What is the use of raising banners, supporting campaigns and reacting with contempt and condemnation if it is not followed by decisive action that produces consequences for the social media platforms and the online perpetrators?

Are the football administrators in this country really doing enough to combat these issues? 

I am not convinced they are. 

In the UK alone, the Premier League recently launched its No Room For Racism Action Plan and the FA publicly called on the government and social media organisations to act more swiftly in the fight against racism online. 

When I spoke to human rights advocate Craig Foster, who is also spearheading the #RacismNOTWelcome campaign, his position was clear. 

“Football needs to move beyond just articulating a message, to understanding how to influence broader social change.”

“What football needs to decide, is it only interested in change within the sport or broader social change? I happen to believe that sport, and particularly football, has a responsibility to support broader social change.

This week, I had the opportunity to interview Communications Minister, Paul Fletcher who is one of the driving forces behind the Online Safety Bill which is currently before Parliament. 

The Act aims to give the eSafety Commissioner greater powers when it comes to holding social media platforms and online trolls to account and it’s something that I am fully in support of. 

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After passing through the House of Representatives recently, the bill is now due to go before the Senate, with Minister Fletcher remaining hopeful that it could be approved in the coming months.  

What a moment that will be for people like Sonya Ryan, whose 15-year-old daughter was brutally murdered in 2007 after she was groomed online by a 50-year-old serial paedophile posing as an 18-year-old musician.

Sonya conceded that time will never heal her wounds but through sheer courage and will, she managed to turn this incomprehensible tragedy into positive action and introduced Carly’s Law into Australia which protects children and young adults online. 

She revealed to me that it's now going global after meeting with representatives in Texas. 

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Thierry Henry’s move to disable his accounts was important because, not only is he an iconic sporting figure but his combined following of over five million people begins to remove traffic from the social media economy, which benefits greatly from sport and its identities.

Imagine if Cristiano Ronaldo, who boasts a collective following of over 360 million followers on social media - the most followed sportsman or woman on the planet - was to do the same and the impact that would potentially have on the pockets of those in Silicon Valley?

So now, when it comes to taking a stand, let’s not just do it with our words, but with action too. 

It’s why I’ve decided to follow in Henry’s steps and suspend both my Twitter and Instagram accounts tomorrow until the Australian Online Safety bill is approved by the Senate.

My profile and reach may be small but without action, we won’t ever see change and if we won’t stand for injustices in life, then we most certainly shouldn’t stand for them online. 

Furthermore, it’s incumbent on Australian football administrators to realise that our sport is more than just a game and that it has a moral and ethical responsibility to protect its most valued constituents through more than words. 

To the social media platforms, I leave you with the following: we understand that your creations were never designed to be a conduit for such ugliness but the longer you continue to sit idly by, the faster you’re becoming complicit accomplices.

The time for excuses is over and if you won’t protect your users, we won’t support your platforms. 

And finally, to the trolls out there: you know the names and the faces of those who you have racially vilified, abused and threatened but I am pleased to say that with collective people power and the passing of this bill, we will get to know yours too. 

This is goodbye from me for now but in the meantime, let’s all start to #BeAccountable for our actions online.