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English Soccer Starts Mass Social Media Boycott In Response To Racism

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to talk about online abuse now. And if you're online, maybe you've experienced this yourself and it's prompted you to stop reading the comments or blog comments altogether. This weekend, though, there's an initiative that is going much further than that. It's a protest against the steady stream of racist abuse online aimed at black and Brown soccer players in the U.K.

For four days, everyone connected with the world of professional English football - that's what we call soccer over here - has agreed to boycott all social media platforms. That's everyone, including players and coaches at the highest Premier League level, owners, clubs, journalists and the Premier League itself. None of them are expected to post or tweet a thing, and this during a full weekend schedule of games in England.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we called Moussa Kunonga. He is an author, a journalist and host of the "Stadio" podcast who covers professional soccer in England and elsewhere. Musa Okwonga, thank you so much for joining us.

MUSA OKWONGA: Thank you for having me, a real pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Would you walk us through the types of messages that professional soccer players of color are getting on social media on a regular basis? And here's where I'm going to say that the language here might get a bit rough. It might not be for everybody. But this is what people are dealing with, so get ready.

OKWONGA: Sure. So there are roughly two categories. The one category, which is actually the use of emoji. So whenever players make a mistake on the field or just on the field excelling or having a good time on Instagram, monkey emojis will appear beneath their profiles. And this happens endlessly to a lot of people. The other thing is the repeated use of the word [expletive]. Throughout matches, after games, whenever a player is excelling, whenever a player misses a big chance, you'll see that word everywhere.

MARTIN: So whether whether people are winning or losing...

OKWONGA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...They're still abused?

OKWONGA: Absolutely. It's the visibility. Professor Ben Carrington, who covers the overlap of sport, football, social issues, talks about this. He says that actually, for some football fans or racists to watch football, they use this racist epithet as a form of social sanction, a bit like a kind of digital whip. So when you see a Black player excelling on the field or enjoying themselves off the field, you send them that to put them in their place.

MARTIN: A prominent player named Kyle Walker recently shared some of the racist abuse that he's received. And then he added a question aimed at the likes of Facebook and Twitter, saying, when is it going to stop? So have any of the social media companies said or done anything to address this?

OKWONGA: Not really, no. And the interesting thing about this boycott - and it's funny because when I first heard of the boycott, I must admit I was a bit skeptical, right? But then I came around to it because what I think it does is, very interestingly, when major athletes - and this is not just football it's boycotting, it's netball stars and cricket stars and Formula One drivers - When celebrities leave social media, they disempower those platforms. They remove the legitimacy.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that though - the women's sports writers - you may be aware of this - back in 2016, the women's sports writers and women in sports media in the United States made a similar effort. They asked male friends of theirs to read some of the tweets directed at them. And they videoed it and put it up online. And they couldn't do it. Some of them, it was like, I can't do it. I can't do it. So I just wonder - I know this isn't - you're an expert on this, but I'm just interested in what's your take on, like, why? What is it about sport that encourages this kind of behavior, you think?

OKWONGA: I think that's a great question. There's a lot of things going on here. So I think, first of all, when you see someone like LeBron James or Megan Rapinoe do something amazing on the field of sport, we say they have sport intelligence because it's regarded as something lesser. So athletes already, whatever they do on the field, they're regarded as a lesser form of professional character, right? So when people watch sport, generally, we're encouraged to view athletes as they're acting off instinct and that they're for our entertainment. So there's also an element of ownership, right. So? When you look at an athlete performing for you, like, well, whatever they're doing is lesser because they're regarded as a lesser form of the species, even if they're like, you know, multimillionaires.

So if you take that context of ownership and the context of, let's say, racism in America, where you've had Black people who were owned until a few generations ago, you have a situation people like, well, actually, they're kind of ours. We're used to them performing for our benefit, so we can say what we like to them. And we look at the patriarchy in, you know, all across the world and the way that women are viewed as almost the property of a lot of men. And a lot of men because it's, generally speaking, men online that send this abuse to women and to Black people, that sense of entitlement is already bad. But when you're behind a screen, the safety of a computer screen from hundreds of kilometres away, it's magnified. It's magnified, if that makes sense.

MARTIN: It does. It does. I wondered - I do want to point out that racism isn't a new problem for English soccer.

OKWONGA: No, of course not.

MARTIN: And it's not just online. I mean, there have been cases of players using racist slurs on the field or referees using racist slurs on the field, fans being thrown out for doing things like throwing bananas at a Black player. Has the Premier League done anything to address this?

OKWONGA: It has taken steps. It's banned players before. They banned Luis Suarez for an incident of racism against a fellow player - (unintelligible) Manchester United. In some cases, they've banned people from football grounds for life. So they have taken some steps. But there's still more these companies can do. If you're making the kind of profits that these or turnover that these companies are making, you can afford to employ more people to address online racism.

MARTIN: You know, there are people who I know will be listening to our conversation. They'll be like, so what, you know? It's just words. It's just emojis.

OKWONGA: Of course.

MARTIN: You know, so what? You know, block it. Block it. Don't look at it. So what? Just - what - why does this matter?

OKWONGA: Well, I think when people say that, if people are going so what, I'm thinking, do you actually like women? Do you actually like Black people? That's my serious question, because I'm like, well, if you had a friend that came home and said (unintelligible) at work today, oh, go in the other room - you wouldn't say that. Why is it acceptable then for footballers to receive rape threats in their place of work? It's not acceptable. Do you actually care about the person being abused? Do you actually listen to the pain it causes them? So I almost ask them to go a step further and interrogate their own motives for wanting to turn away from it, because as we know, not only in America, but in Europe, people are very quick to avoid difficult conversations about racism and sexism and the rest of it.

MARTIN: That was Musa Okwonga, an author, journalist and podcast host covering England's Premier League. We're talking about the boycott this weekend of social media from all players, all individuals connected with English soccer. Musa Okwonga, thank you so much for joining us.

OKWONGA: A pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.