In 2021, football needs to turn words into action when it comes to discrimination | Sanjay Bhandari | Football

The turn of a year is traditionally a period of reflection and resolution. This year, lockdown has amplified that feeling as we consider a seismic 12 months and catch glimmers of hope.

Last Christmas, I wrote about the need to make 2020 a year of teamwork across football as we fight racism and discrimination. Nobody could have anticipated what transpired. The Covid pandemic and the death of George Floyd have changed us. Initially, Covid created a resurgence of community spirit most vividly symbolised by the weekly clap for carers ritual. That spirit has frayed over time with frustration and individualism rising. But football has consistently demonstrated real leadership with clubs’ continued work in the community exemplified by Marcus Rashford’s stellar work on child food poverty.

The death of George Floyd has returned racial inequality to the front of public discourse. Again, football showed great leadership, players symbolically taking a knee to call for action. The Football Leadership Diversity Code has now been adopted by 48 clubs setting gender and ethnicity recruitment targets for coaches and senior leaders. Long term, this is potentially a game-changer.

What should we expect in 2021 and beyond? As the Nobel laureate Niels Bohr said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

Football does not exist in a vacuum. It is affected by broader social and economic trends. These send conflicting signals but two major themes are likely to dominate as we enter a post-Covid and a post-Brexit world. The end of the first world war and the Spanish flu pandemic presaged an age of hedonism in the roaring 20s and there are predictions that our current forced contemplation of mortality may trigger a similar era once the shackles are off. Happier people tend to hate less.

It is tempting to believe that now Brexit is done, social divisions will heal. I am sceptical. I tend to think of Brexit as more symptom than cause – it reflected divisions that have been percolating for years. The usual backlash against rising demands for racial equality has commenced – look at some of the responses to players taking a knee. We await more detail on the government’s new equalities policy but initial noises worryingly resemble a dog whistle.

But there is reason to hope that football can rise above the noise. I sense a real mood to turn words into action and football has an opportunity to lead. We need to focus on three key areas in 2021: using data to monitor change, tackling online hate and aligning on education.

By committing to the Football Leadership Diversity Code, the game has made commitments to better reflect society. Over the next few years, we need to help football meet those commitments with talent programmes and hold the game to those promises using data to track progress. We intend to use our partnership with Sky with its global technology capabilities and broadcast platform to play our part in doing this.

Social media is the battleground of hate. It is partly a technological and partly a behavioural problem so we will need technological and behavioural solutions. That needs to involve Twitter, Facebook, the government, law enforcement, football clubs and governing bodies. The government can play its part by accelerating the Online Harms bill, regulating big tech, creating a duty of care on social media providers and creating rules around transparency. But we cannot just wait for that. There are things we must do now.

Clubs and players have enormous followings which can be a force for good (ask Rashford). But with great power comes great responsibility to take care. The vicious trolling of Karen Carney was grimly predictable in the febrile tribal culture of social media that rapidly escalates to misogyny, racism and other forms of hate. It was completely avoidable.

The recent abuse of QPR’s Bright Osayi-Samuel and Bournemouth’s Junior Stanislas led to more calls for the removal of anonymity. But anonymity at which level? Anonymity on the face of social media can serve a vital protective purpose (for example, if you are gay in a country where homosexuality is illegal). The real issue is how quickly account verification information is revealed to law enforcement and action taken once that anonymity is abused. This is the heart of the problem.

There are gaps in the system between football, law enforcement and social media which contribute to the culture of impunity. Current processes are largely reliant on complaints and targeting high-profile prosecutions. But the culture of social media is set by the repeat offenders who spread hate little and often. We need to be proactive. We need to go trawling, not whale hunting. We monitored social media posts in the summer with the PFA and an AI company called Signify. I believe that football needs to invest in monitoring solutions to identify and pursue the serial and serious offenders.

What if we could identify the top 10 offenders every week and create an accelerated evidence pathway to law enforcement? The question is who pays for this kind of monitoring. Last summer, several clubs balked at the cost of a pilot scheme. The cost for an entire season across the leagues is likely to be in the region of 0.5% of the aggregate transfer fees spent during the pandemic. This is a question of priorities. Football needs to invest in real solutions or the players will continue to pay the price.

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Finally, it is a truism and a refrain that education is key to countering discrimination. But educating whom, about what and when? Most people know that hate is bad but they may not realise the impact it has. There are many education providers across the football ecosystem. It is time we got aligned and focused on driving measurable outcomes.

The financial success of English football over the last 30 years has been built partly on slick marketing. But players and fans are now cynical of the PR machine. Above all else, in 2021 football needs to build on the statements of intent from 2020 and commit time, energy and resources to convert that intent into action.

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