The UEFA Euro 2020 Championships took place in June and July 2021, after a year’s delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. After England’s defeat on penalties to Italy in the final, the UK Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) received more than 600 reports of online racist comments made towards England’s black players. Of these complaints, 207 were judged to be criminal in nature. Following data requests from the UKFPU to social media companies, 11 people were arrested. It is believed that at least 123 of the incidents were posted by people overseas. The England manager, Gareth Southgate, described the abuse as “unforgivable”. On 8 September 2021, a man received a 14-week suspended sentence and was ordered to wear an electronic tag for 40 weeks over a racist message he posted on Facebook after the final.

Footballing authorities, former players and commentators have argued that Euro 2020 is just one example in a trend of rising levels of online racist abuse directed at players.

Former players’ experiences

Many former players have shared their experiences of racism in football. For example, in the 1970s, three players at West Bromwich Albion, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, frequently endured racist taunts and prejudice at football grounds around the country. Mr Batson told the Guardian in 2014:

We’d get off the coach at away matches and the National Front would be right there in your face. In those days, we didn’t have security and we’d have to run the gauntlet. We’d get to the players’ entrance and there’d be spit on my jacket or Cyrille’s shirt. It was a sign of the times. I don’t recall making a big hue and cry about it. We coped. It wasn’t a new phenomenon to us.

Former Tottenham Hotspur player and Ireland international Chris Hughton told BBC Sport that “as a player I experienced a lot of racism in the 1980s, particularly from the terraces.” Former England international Emile Heskey said that he was “spat at and called the N-word” as a young player in the 1990s.

On 9 September 2021, former Manchester United and England defender, and now football broadcaster, Rio Ferdinand gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill on his experience of online racist abuse. He told the committee:

It does hurt. […] It’s [also] what it does to friends and family. I’ve seen members of my family disintegrate at times. I have to sit there and explain [to my children] what the monkey emoji means in that context, what the banana means.

History of legislation in the battle against racism in football

In response to football-related disorder in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, many offences were legislated for that can be used in response to racist incidents in football.

Under the Public Order Act 1986, a person found guilty of intentionally using abusive, insulting, or threatening words or behaviour to cause distress to another person can be imprisoned or fined. Following the 1986 act, the Football Spectators Act 1989 (as amended by the Football (Disorder) Act 2000) created a new punishment, football banning orders, which are still used today.

Section 3 of the Football (Offences) Act 1991 made it an offence to engage or take part in chanting of an “indecent or racialist” nature at a football match. The Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999 removed the requirement within the 1991 act that chanting needed to be carried out “in concert with one or more others” and extended the offence to individual chanting.

Some legal commentators have argued that section 3 is out of date and ineffective. As part of its review into hate crime, the Law Commission is reviewing section 3. In a 2021 retrospective study of the Football (Offences) Act 1991 published in The Journal of Criminal Law, legal academic Geoff Pearson wrote:

Section 3 has proven difficult to enforce. Between 2010/11 and 2018/19, the UKFPU reported an average of just 24 arrests, although this is an improvement on the early impact of the provision, when annual arrests across England and Wales only just reached double figures. […] It is difficult to see how the [Law] Commission will not recommend reform here, particularly under pressure from groups like Kick It Out. Section 3 is flawed on many levels, and […] is outdated in the context of the contemporary norms of football fandom.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance also states that, where there is evidence that offending at football matches is racially or religiously aggravated, suspects should be charged under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. For instances where the 1998 act does not cover the offence, but the offence is still racially motivated, a sentence uplift under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 should be used.

Social media platforms

The Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill received joint written evidence from a number of footballing bodies, including the Football Association (FA) and the Premier League, that cited “rising levels of online discriminatory abuse being directed at footballers and others in the game”. The evidence also expressed disappointment that social media companies had not done more to tackle the problem.

In February 2021, footballing authorities, including the FA, the Premier League and the anti-racism charity Kick It Out, published an open letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, calling on them to do more to tackle online racist abuse. The letter said that targets of abuse should be offered “basic protections” online.

Facebook has said it was “horrified” at the continued online racist abuse of footballers on its platform. It announced a toughening of policy around the deletion of accounts that send abusive messages via direct message on Instagram, a platform owned by Facebook. In a February 2021 blog post, Twitter said “racist behaviour, abuse and harassment have absolutely no place on our service”. It said that since the start of the football season in September 2020, it had removed over 5,000 tweets for violating its rules.

In an update following the Euro 2020 final, Twitter said it had continued to take part in Kick It Out’s Football Online Hate Working Group and had improved its “proactive” tools to find racist abuse and remove Tweets.

In their evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, football authorities said that social media companies had not taken sufficient action to tackle discrimination. They told the committee that, despite new measures outlined above:

Social media companies have not taken up the mantle, and the result has been that the policing of online hate is largely left to local law enforcement agencies, who lack the resources to monitor and investigate offences effectively.

Some have argued that clubs themselves are not doing enough to tackle the problem. In a 2021 YouGov survey, only a quarter of British ethnic minority football fans (27%) were impressed by club efforts to deal with racism. In the same survey, only 20% of English football followers thought fans themselves were doing enough to tackle racism in football.

Cover image by Nigel Msipa on Unsplash.