Protecting football against online hate

There have been racist and homophobic comments found on professional athletes and organizations’ social media accounts following Euro 2020. The problem is not a new one, and most agree that there needs to be a way to stop this activity. Stopping online hate in football is a very difficult issue to solve, but not everyone is aware that there are sensible and viable solutions currently available.

Sabina Mihutescu

Sabina Mihutescu

The Euro 2020 problem

The European Championship was a welcomed sight for many, and in some ways represented a return to some semblance of normalcy. People from all over the world tuned in to watch the most talented European players compete in front of supporters (even if it was in a reduced capacity) for the first time in months.

Despite this unification in the spirit of competition, there were familiar unwanted off-field distractions from the main spectacle of the games. Once again, rainbow colors supporting the LGBTQ+ community during pride month drew the attention of irate individuals who felt the need to attack players online for their demonstrations of solidarity.

In the wake of the final, in place of what should have been a celebration of England’s achievement of participating in a first major final in nearly 60 years, there was a storm of racist online comments that came from “supporters” because of missed penalties by young black Englishmen. It is disheartening to know this to be a normal occurrence on the back of lost matches.

The recurring social media abuse of athletes

In general, football generates 4 times more hateful comments than the overall average of online toxicity. This is only amplified when a team loses. An analysis of data by Bodyguard showed that hateful comments made up 5% of all comments following a victory, but that increases to 15% after a loss.

Nearly 80% of these hateful comments are insults and hatred directed at players and staff, while LGBTQ+ phobia and racism also account for 10% of these unwanted messages. It is true that these can be removed after the fact, but by then the damage is often already done.

Racism should have no room on the field, no room in the stadium, and no room online. Unfortunately, reports show that racism has been on a constant rise in the last few years, with new peaks reached since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sanjay Bhandari, Chair at Kick It Out, English football’s equality and inclusion organisation, explains that:

“With the pause of the football season earlier this year due to Covid-19, we have seen people using social media to deliver hate messages, especially when they cannot attend games.”

Kick it Out also ran a poll on YouGov with over 1,000 football fans, and this showed that 71% of people had seen a racist comment online directed at a footballer.

What is the impact of online abuse on athletes?

Though the problem is widespread, online abuse has become so common that the lasting effects are rarely discussed let alone addressed. Each time an incident occurs, there is usually a media storm that calls for a stop to hateful attacks online, and then a collective decision to move onto another issue.

The problem may largely disappear from the public view, but the lasting impact of those involved continues long after the cameras and headlines are off. Online abuse of players leads to many of the same problems as would be expected for the average person because they are human.

Anxiety, stress, self-doubt, performance drops, and even financial loss can affect athletes in the same way that abuse hurts everyone else. In most instances, there is massive exposure to the public for these athletes, so the abusive comments are amplified and plentiful.

So, how does racism in sports get fixed?

Some players and companies have decided to boycott social media, but there are plenty of missed opportunities to connect with fans and sponsors alike with this decision. These players and organizations that stop interaction through online avenues may lose out on new fans and sponsors through no fault of their own.

It is true that these comments can be removed after the fact, but by then the damage is often already done. There is a need for real-time preventative moderation so as to limit the impact on players, staff, and clubs alike.

One of the main challenges is the creative ways in which people find their way around keyword moderation solutions. This can usually be remedied by human moderation, but apart from the psychological distress caused by the exposure to this amount of toxicity, the cost and manpower proves a huge obstacle.

For one person to analyze a month’s worth of comments (close to one million), it would take 166 eight-hour work days. This just illustrates the magnitude of the task at hand.

A sensible and viable solution to online abuse in sports

Apart from the ideal scenario of abuse being eliminated from the internet, it seems that a real-time and preventative solution needs to be put in place. Bodyguard started by protecting individuals from online hate, so we know that there is nuance to the way people communicate online. What upsets and affects one person is not necessarily going to upset or affect another.

This is why Bodyguard offers a solution that is customized to the needs and wants of the players, coaches, and clubs. We are able to use a contextual approach that allows us to eliminate up to 95 percent of the toxic content received online, while understanding that the person affected should be the one in control of their moderation parameters.

Bodyguard can be catered to protect players, staff, and their loved ones, or we can protect everyone in a community so that clubs can create a safer and more positive online space for their supporters. This customized and multi-tiered solution, coupled with our experience in the sporting industry, creates a solution that helps foster positive online spaces for players, coaches, clubs, and their supporters.

This type of online hate benefits no one, and the victims of these cyber attacks should not be forced to go silent online to avoid these interactions. We want to be sure that people feel safe enough to express themselves online without fearing the abuse that could follow. Athletes and coaches are human first, and Bodyguard’s sport solution helps maintain the health of these people.