Once again it falls on Marcus Rashford to lead. The Manchester United forward used his voice this weekend to bring clarity and focus to a problem that should not exist. This time it was not child food poverty that he wanted to talk about, but racism. Racism and the pernicious effect it has, not only on its victims, but on the society that allows it to fester.
Rashford was one of several Premier League footballers to have abuse directed at their social media accounts this past week. He wasn’t even the only one in his team. No one knows how many players have been targeted in total, however, how many messages sent. There is nobody both able and willing to count.
In a thread of three tweets, Rashford did acknowledge obliquely that he had been abused (his club confirmed that fact), but he wanted to make a broader point.
“Yes I’m a black man and I live every day proud that I am,”he wrote. “No one, or no one comment, is going to make me feel any different. So sorry if you were looking for a strong reaction, you’re just simply not going to get it here.
“I’m not sharing screenshots. It would be irresponsible to do so and as you can imagine there’s nothing original in them. I have beautiful children of all colours following me and they don’t need to read it. Beautiful colours that should only be celebrated.”
That football is facing a challenge in dealing with racism is acknowledged by all. The Premier League and the FA were among those to condemn the abuse directed at players in the past week. Both called on social media companies to do more to uproot it from their platforms, something that is surely possible when you consider that Facebook, owner of Instagram, has a market capitalisation of $735bn, higher than the annual GDP of Saudi Arabia.
There are complicated challenges embedded in this technical point which are perhaps worth going into briefly. They are the challenges that will face the government – which invited leading black voices within football to discuss their experience of racism online just a week ago – as it considers its Online Harms Bill which is expected to be put before parliament this year.
The first is identifying the extent of the problem and point at which something crosses from nasty to hateful. There are certain words, phrases, images that break the law and the rules of social media companies. There are others which, currently, do not and still more which could be adapted for use by those determined to cause offence. Where do you draw the line?
Once you have drawn the line, how do you treat those who cross it? Greater Manchester Police is investigating the messages sent not only to Rashford but to his teammates Anthony Martial and Axel Tuanzebe. It is not guaranteed it will be able to find the people responsible as the necessary “identification verification” is not always forthcoming from social media companies. Changing this outcome is a key demand currently being made by the anti-racist organisation Kick it Out.
If perpetrators can be identified, they might still not be charged, so then there are questions of appropriate sanctions from social media companies. Ban the account, sure, but what if they just pop up with another? Ban the device they are using? Ban the IP address they are on (and perhaps lock out the rest of a family on that address too)? These are the kind of actions social media companies are reluctant to take, although government might yet make them.
After that there are responses from football clubs, either individually or collectively. They could ban the perpetrators from grounds, but perhaps also from club membership, from digital accounts, maybe even from watching (legally) on TV. And then there’s the question of how long – five years, 10 years, for life? A joined-up, consistent approach towards sanctions has yet to materialise, though perhaps the five-year ban on all football (and a lifetime ban from Manchester City matches) imposed last year on a racist who abused Raheem Sterling might set the tone.
Those are the technicalities. For the people fighting every day against racism in football there remains hope that solutions can be applied to them. But there is a broader issue, one that can’t be fixed by law or even with money.
That issue is of a culture where racist views are held and tolerated. That culture currently exists in the UK and beyond. To its credit, football is clear on this one. The Premier League has a succinct motto: ‘No room for racism’. The EFL’s is: ‘Not today or any day’, but makes the same point. Each competition has stood behind their players and endorsed their taking the knee (an act of protest against racism) in the face of “legitimate questions” from outside the game.
Does “systemic racism” exist? Is protesting against it the work of “cultural Marxism”? Were Black Lives Matter protesters of the same order as those who believe Covid lockdowns to be a conspiracy? These are the kind of questions that have been asked by our media and our politicians in this past year, instead of asking why black men are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be in prison and, alongside men of south Asian origin, as likely to be refused a job as they were some 50 years ago. Footballers are icons whose appeal breaks through boundaries. They are unlike the rest of us in that regard. But in every other way they are the same. When they are abused, online, in person, they will hurt.
Thanks to the workings of history, in this moment footballers are also the lightning rods for a debate we are yet to resolve as a country. It is heartening to hear, therefore, in those “beautiful colours that need only be celebrated”, the articulation of a way forward.