Kick It Out’s new chief executive Tony Burnett has sat down with Sky Sports to discuss the ongoing fight against online hate in football, revealing he does not believe discrimination will ever be fully eradicated from the game.
Online abuse, discrimination and racism have surged in recent months – particularly on social media platforms – with many footballers targeted, including Aston Villa’s 19-year-old academy player Tyreik Wright.
English football bodies recently sent an open letter to Facebook and Twitter demanding action, while social media firms have also been threatened with billion-pound government fines over the abuse. Facebook, however, feels racism in football is a bigger problem than the abusive messages seen on social media.
Burnett, meanwhile, says the only way to end social media abuse – and abuse in general of any kind – is to fundamentally change football’s culture in a similar way to how fan-violence of the 1970s and ’80s was driven out.
Read the full Q&A transcript below…
Is online hate at the top of the men’s game reaching epidemic proportions?
We can’t resolve this alone, and we are working with all football’s stakeholders to try to eradicate it. There isn’t a simple solution. But we need a united voice that says this is wrong. Absolutely we have to put pressure on social media companies to take action against perpetrators and that they’re stopped.
How do you do that though – a lot of footballers keep telling us it’s incredibly upsetting, and yet they don’t know how you do it, or don’t have any confidence that the situation will change?
We want people to be forced to release as much personal information as possible, because unless you hold people to account, unless they know they are going to be identified, it’s going to be a real challenge. Now that’s difficult with the data protection laws, but we can do more, and social media providers can do more, to avoid perpetrators opening new accounts and continuing the abuse.
But how do you hit these hugely successful, commercial entities that are social media companies, where it hurts? How do you create a commercial imperative for them to deal with online hate?
Facebook is the fifth biggest commercial operation on the planet, so of course it’s a challenge. But their commerciality is also something we can leverage. If enough people take a stand and say this is wrong, and hit the social media companies where it hurts, things can change. And discussions are ongoing about how we might force that.
By boycotting the social media companies, possibly?
It’s a possibility, I wouldn’t rule it out. But there are conversations going on now about what the next stage of our campaign is going to be, but it’s not something we are going to drop.
Why aren’t people who post hate online being penalised and brought to justice?
It’s complex. Look at the volume of online hate – I was in the police force. There’s no way regional police forces have the resources to police and investigate every instance of online hate – in football, or outside football. Police will prosecute the most serious cases, of course, but this is a wider problem in society.
What are the dynamics in the UK where people think it is ok to do this? Think Brexit, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter – we are polarised as a culture, and there are some people in our society who think it’s ok to demonise other cultures, and act out on that in a way that most of us think is horrific.
We of course have to criminalise people who are doing horrific things, but we also have to educate people who are doing silly things.
You’re talking there about changing society – can Kick It Out change society, and then see that mirrored in football? It sounds like there’s a blurring of lines there.
Racism is a social construct. It was designed to justify the notion of slavery. The beautiful thing about football is, it’s where people come together. Doesn’t matter what your background is, what your culture is, what you do for a living, everyone can play football. And so football can be a fantastic vehicle for change.
I’m not saying Kick It Out can eradicate racism. We can’t. But we can push people in the right direction, to make change.
What does change look like?
That’s complex. A big part of it is representation. The discussion around black coaches and managers in the game has been going on for a long time. We need to work with partners in football to drive change. But I also want to change the dialogue around race. It has become fragmented, polarised.
We’ve got a lot of discussion around ‘them and us’ in football and in society right now. We have to change that dialogue – a conversation where everyone can have a say in making football a game where people belong, where prejudice is minimised – you’re never going to eradicate it – but where all good-minded people take a stand against it.
We want to create a ‘culture of belonging’, and that can sound quite pithy and idealistic. But football is uniquely placed to drive conversations, particularly among (and I use this term advisedly) working-class people. Working-class people get involved in football on a weekly basis. So football can be a real driver for social change.
So, for you, this is about more than just challenging racism?
We overemphasise race as opposed to a lot of other characteristics. Clearly, there’s a huge problem there, but we are multi-dimensional human beings. For example, it was recently Justin Fashanu’s 60th birthday, and that was a poignant moment for me – black and gay, you can’t separate the two characteristics.
So if people are going to fight to get rid of discrimination based on race, they should also be fighting to get rid of discrimination based on LGBT characteristics, or sexual orientation. We can’t be too simplistic in our definitions. All discrimination, all prejudice based on an individual’s characteristics is what we’ve got to challenge, and we will do.
You’ve suggested that a key goal of yours is to deal, not just with discrimination at the top of football, but also at grassroots. Explain that to me.
At top level, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Online hate of football professionals is horrific, and we have to deal with it. But where’s Little Johnny’s voice on a park in Barnsley, where some unfortunate adult is running up and down the touchline shouting abuse at him?
It doesn’t hit the press, but we need to know the young boys and girls playing football on parks all over the country, feel they are protected, feel safe, feel they can enjoy sport and share a sense of belonging with everyone around them.
What about misogyny within football? How do you deal with that?
The online hate discussion around race has been huge, quite rightly, because some of the stuff I’ve seen is horrific. But some of the abuse I’ve seen online directed at women footballers is awful – threatening rape, threatening physical violence.
That’s as bad [as racism] and in some cases significantly worse. And I’m not sure why that hasn’t been given such prominence, but we need to call out all forms of hate. Online hate is horrific, whichever group it’s aimed at, and we need to challenge it more.
We still haven’t got any current, openly gay footballers. Why is that, and how big a problem is it?
You’re right. It’s 2021, and we still haven’t got any openly gay players. I’m not suggesting we should force or ask gay footballers to come out. But what we should be doing is making sure we create an environment where people feel comfortable to come out. Now, the women’ game is far more advanced in that regard than the men’s game, and so we can learn from the women’s game. And we should be asking ‘why is it players feel comfortable about being themselves in the women’s game, but they don’t in the men’s game?’.
Are you going to talk much more to women working in the men’s game, and in the women’s game then, to change things for them?
Absolutely, when I talk about ‘representation’ I’m not just talking about race. It needs to be across the board. Where are female coaches across all aspects of the game?
Where do you stand on the issue of taking a knee? Wilfred Zaha says it’s degrading, Gareth Southgate says he thinks it’s a powerful image that should continue. Two big figures in football with conflicting views on taking a knee – what does Kick It Out say about that?
In the last few years, the debate has become so polarised so that it’s no longer ok to be just anti-discrimination you have to have particular affiliations as well. You have to show your anti-discrimination in a specific set of ways that are ok to a group of people. Who says that the only way you can show anti-racism is to take the knee?
Absolutely, we will support people who want to take the knee, but actually we will support people who don’t want to take the knee, so long as you’re against the things that we are against, which is discrimination. So let’s forget the symbols, because all the symbols do is polarise people. If you support the concept that every human being is equal, and you want to fight discrimination, and you demonstrate that in any way that suits you – we will support you.
But if people don’t take a knee, we will lose that powerful image won’t we? How does football display a show of unity on anti-discrimination if some take a knee and some don’t, and won’t then that powerful image be lost?
It’s all about standing up to discrimination, and it doesn’t matter how we get there. Every time I’ve faced racism when I’ve crossed the white line, I haven’t had to deal with it. My white team-mates dealt with it. I can think of four instances off the top of my head (two of which I wasn’t aware of, until I saw my white team-mates squaring up to an opponent) – this is the power of football.
And those same people, who have been 30/40-year friends, don’t understand the concept of taking the knee, and don’t necessarily agree with it. But I can guarantee they are anti-discrimination because I’ve seen them fight discrimination, on the ground, in a park, when I’ve been physically threatened. So I don’t buy the idea that you can only display your allegiance to a cause in one particular form of behaviour. Let’s not make people sign up to something they don’t believe in. If you want to fight prejudice – do it in a way that’s acceptable to you.
What do you think has been the image of Kick It Out in the past and how do you want to change it?
I think the image has been one of anger and frustration. There was a place for that, but I think we are in a different place now, as a society and as an organisation. We were putting at a door that was closed.
I think the door is open now, particularly within the football hierarchy, and so our job has changed to be a conduit for change. Bring the football family together to do that, and I think society is ready for that now. We don’t have to bang at the door now, because we are already in the room.
Kick It Out reporting racism
Kick It Out is football’s equality and inclusion organisation – working throughout the football, educational and community sectors to challenge discrimination, encourage inclusive practices, and campaign for positive change.