Game over for Manchester’s online trolls: Racism and homophobia shown red card – abusers will be prosecuted

By Danielle Wainwright & Steven Brown

Football fans who use racist or homophobic abuse online toward fans or players will face prosecution in a bid to stamp out abuse on social media sites.

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of racial and homophobic incidents, and players at Greater Manchester’s clubs have suffered.

On the field, numerous incidents of racist chants directed at black players such as Andy Cole, Sol Campbell and Manchester City skipper Vincent Kompany have outraged the governing Football Association.  

Rio Ferdinand and his brother Anton were also both racially abused last March where cruel England fans chanted about burning the pair.

Ferdinand tweeted: “You expect and accept banter from fans in the terraces as its part of what makes the game great.

“But racism is not banter and from your own fans – WOW. Always a small minority who ruin it for others.”

Yet the hateful abuse has spread online, targeting ex-Bolton player Fabrice Muamba and free agent Carlton Cole.

Twitter comment to Carlton Cole

Sports prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service Nick Hawkins said: “Criminal abuse inside as well as outside sports grounds would be dealt with in the run-up to England World Cup qualifiers in the autumn.

“It’s not just criminality in the stands that will be taken on.

“Our legal guidance on communications sent by social media clearly sets out how we will approach the abuse of players or fellow supporters online and I’m glad to say we have the full support of the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association in this field.”

Cruel tweets just after Muamba collapsed last year

The Crown Prosecution Service have issued a new guidance stating that communications that included threats of violence or damage to property, specifically targeting individuals should be prosecuted robustly if there was enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.

As well as tackling violence, disorder and criminal damage the policy will deal robustly with offences of racist and homophobic and discriminatory chanting and abuse and other types of hate crime.

The law came into effect after multiple high-profile cases of social media abuse which included threats to female journalist and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.

The news was welcomed by Greater Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd.

“We’ve seen real progress in recent years, particularly around racist chanting at football matches,” he said.

“There’s been a shift in culture and football is becoming more and more a family friendly game, with the majority of fans being well-behaved. But there are still some people – who call themselves fans, but are nothing of the sort – that bring the game into disrepute and they don’t belong in our football stands. 

“Policing of social media is a new and complex area and it’s difficult to identify the culprits, which is where decent members of the public can help. These trolls hide behind anonymous Twitter handles, thinking they are untouchable, but recent cases show this is no longer the case and there is no hiding place for these ugly individuals. 

“The criminal justice system has to be equipped to deal with this and today’s announcement is a positive step, so genuine fans can safely enjoy the game and players and supporters can be reassured that abuse will not be tolerated. 

“Any decent football fan will welcome these measures as there’s no place for this kind of abuse in the beautiful game – whether in the stands or on the internet.”

Former England-footballer Clarke Carlisle, an advocate of racism in football, has highlighted the growing prejudice within the game through his documentaries and work with the Professional Footballers’ Association.

He told the BBC how his father was regularly abused for his race when he played football in the 1980s.

“Kicked, punched, head-butted, stamped on, and that was ON the pitch. My Dad could barely bring himself to recall the details of events OFF the pitch,” he said.

“He kept going back every week, to the terraces and to the pitch, because he loves football, but I’m not sure I would’ve been the same.

“Maybe it’s because of the different eras. Dad was used to the abuse and prejudice in daily life so it wasn’t unusual for him. Why should it be any different at the football?”

Carlisle also mentioned how his father never took him to a football match as he didn’t want his son in prejudice environment.

But it is not just racism that has been targeted; there has also been a growing concern for the appearance of homophobia within the game.

With Manchester fast becoming the gay capital of the North, it is surprising that there are no openly homosexual footballers within the two Premiership teams.

According to the Guardian, more than eight anonymous footballers have allegedly come out as gay – their identities kept secret from the public.

The first player to publicly come out as gay was Manchester City-player Justin Fashanu, who was subjected to a barrage of abuse that culminated in his tragic suicide.

However Justin’s bravery led to Former Leeds player Robbie Rogers becoming the second premier league player to reveal his homosexuality in February and has received more support than he has online abuse.

Peter Clayton, chairman of the FA’s ‘Homophobia in Football’, told The Independent: “The FA takes this issue very seriously and it’s very high on the agenda.

“There are lots of gay footballers in Britain at grass-roots level and it’s no problem.

“We do need to stamp out homophobia at the professional level, though, and just like anti-racism work, it will take time and education.”

Alice Ashworth of Stonewall, a lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, said: “Gay fans were put off going to matches because of homophobic chanting.

“We welcome the fact that the new policy of football-related offences addresses homophobic chanting for the first time.”

And what do the public think about making racist and homophobic football abuse online illegal?

Lee Nieroba, 31, Pay Roll Client from Manchester City Centre, who was ironically wearing a Manchester United football kit due to the homophobic side of football, said: “I know it happens. Players should just come out.”

Robert Gershinson, 30, photographer from Manchester City Centre, said: “There should be a conservative effort. It should be 100% peaceful and a media wide thing. We should blame Max Clifford who told footballers their career would end if they come out.”

An anonymous passer-by said: “I think it’s surprising and incredibly sad that racism still occurs in football, which is a sport played on an international level between different countries and races.”

Homophobia and racism are both extremely difficult issues to tackle and will require a long period of time with complete co-operation.

Carlisle added: “Football is not the elixir to cure society’s ills, if things need to change then we all have to change them.

“Football can, however, lead the way by setting an example that is watched by hundreds of millions of people across all ages, faiths and cultures on a weekly basis.

“Its influence is unparalleled.”

Image courtesy of @nicky coleman via Flickr, with thanks.

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