They say football is the most important of the least important things. I’d go as far as saying it’s a microcosm of society, and the ideals it can hold. And the dark underbelly of racism is never too far away, no matter how many steps forward we think we’ve made.
Call me a glutton for punishment, but I’m a lifelong England fan, and I’ve been aboard the merry-go-round of disappointment at major tournaments for a long time now. Sometimes, we get further than at others at major tournaments, but the inevitable fall from grace as we get dumped out of the Euros or World Cup is expected now. If you’re not old enough to have been alive in 1966, this journey comes part and parcel of being English.
We qualify for tournaments, we play football – of varying degrees of quality – and we don’t usually win the biggest of matches. I’m unfortunately very accustomed to this equation. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept everything that comes part and parcel of being an England football fan. Racism will always disgust me and so the treatment of the black England players who missed penalties at the Euro 2020 final was horrendous. But it shouldn’t just shock me as a black man, it should shock everyone with any semblance of what equality should look like.
Racism, of course, isn’t new and the history of it in the UK and abroad could fill a lot more space than what I’m afforded here. It’s the ways it presents itself that has changed over the years. Social media, although often a force for good, has also given a platform to hate and ignorance. The culprits are in the minority, but the fact that they are there at all shows us that there’s still work to do.
But how much of that work is technological? Social media platforms, where much of this bile has presented itself in recent days, have taken steps to remove abusive messages. But where to next? There will be some soul searching taking place inside and outside of the technology world to look at ways to evolve, and rightly so. An important element is the link between the virtual world and the real world. Maybe it’s time for real identities to be linked to online personas so that more people can be held accountable for what they post, and be punished accordingly when they show this level of hate on social media.
Can the platforms do more? Yes. But they can only move at the pace at which the technology allows. The algorithms that do the lion’s share of moderation are better than they used to be, but they can’t yet catch everything. I read an interesting piece by Zoe Kleinman at the BBC about the current state of play with regards to the bots that read and moderate the things we post, and right now, the tiger doesn’t have nearly enough teeth.
Technology will help us, but if we are to win this battle – or at least see lasting progress, the revolution will have to be led by people. It shouldn’t just be enough to tut or shake our heads at the sight of racism, it needs to be tackled head-on. It needs everyone who encounters racism to challenge it. It needs every decent person to call out the racism and the racists. They have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and they need to feel like they’re on a road to nowhere.
The England team that played at Euro 2020 did us proud. And as the op-ed by England manager Gareth Southgate said at the start of the tournament, the team realises that what they do to represent the nation is bigger than football. Seeing them address racism in a really visual way by taking the knee before matches was an optic that everyone needed to see.
The bottom line is that social media platforms didn’t abuse Bukayo Saka, people did. And it’s the racist people that need to be addressed, not just the platform that allowed it. As we’ve seen over the years, there’s no silver bullet, otherwise we would have fired it a long time ago and cured one of society’s greatest ills overnight. But there are steps we can take. And that involves everyone joining in the battle to challenge racism, not just those who have been personally aggrieved.
Jermaine Dallas is Senior Copywriter in the London Creative team.