“I will be removing myself from social media until the people in power are able to regulate their platforms with the same vigour and ferocity that they currently do when you infringe their copyright. The sheer volume of racism, bullying and resulting mental torture to individuals is too toxic to ignore.”
I have to admit to being a big sports fan, and of football especially. I’m a proud Wigan Athletic supporter - and no, those two statements aren’t mutually exclusive. Admittedly it might look that way at the moment as we sit near the foot of League one, staring a second relegation in succession in the face with the club mired in a very badly handled period of Administration. It feels like a long time since our ‘glory days’ in the Premiership where we managed to stay for an amazing 8 seasons, batting well above our average and climaxing in an FA cup win in 2013 beating the all conquering Man City in surely the greatest cup upset of all time. Sadly that season also saw our Premiership tenure come to a not too surprising end but with most 'Latics' fans happy to take a piece of silverware away with us as a memento to prove that it hadn’t all some kind of misty-eyed dream. I don’t suppose any of us anticipated how quickly we’d descend into the nightmare we find ourselves in now.
In those first few seasons in the top flight I had to frequently pinch myself at the spectacle before me. Having watched Wigan play the likes of Grimsby, Walsall and Wrexham at a ramshackle Springfield Park - which had a distinctly amateur feel and an away end that was actually just a muddy bank without even a proper terrace - we were now enjoying corporate hospitality at the brand new 25,000 seater DW stadium watching Wigan play footballing royalty like United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. It seemed almost unbelievable who was stroking the ball about on the baize like green surface before us and generally into the back of our net - Ronaldo, Rooney, Gerrard, Van Persie, Zola.
Of all the superstars I was privileged to see, none impressed me more than Arsenal’s Thierry Henry. He seemed to glide effortlessly across the pitch and the only way you could tell how blisteringly fast he was moving was by the way he left players trailing in his wake. At the time Wigan had an ageing centre-half pairing of Arjan de Zeeuw and Matt Jackson who weren’t exactly lightning at their peaks. They’d clearly worked out a strategy for Henry, which was to play a high line to try and stop him getting the ball at all, and then if he did, kick him as hard as they could before he could run away. What impressed me, as much as his scintillating speed and skill, was the way he just got up whenever he was fouled, which was frequently. No rolling about clutching a presumably broken leg; no holding up imaginary yellow cards to the ref; in fact none of the histrionics you usually see from the feted few. He just let his ‘football do the talking’ as they say. And it was a fairly explicit statement; he scored a hat trick including a stunning free kick.
As well as garnering huge respect for his abilities, I have to admit I also quite like Henry as a pundit. He has a certain quirkiness with that signature raised eyebrow, a dry and a slightly left-field sense of humour but clearly he is that bit more intelligent than your average former player. Admittedly that’s not a high bar. I’m sure that his decision to quit social media, and his no doubt lucrative 15 million followers, won’t have been taken lightly. It comes at a time when there is a real focus on racism in football with the Black Lives Matter movement but despite this, it seems that there are almost weekly racist attacks of players on social media - Rashford, Zaha, Sterling, Martial, James, Fred and most recently Swansea’s Yan Dhanda - have all suffered appalling abuse.
Dhanda, who was apparently visibly upset and angry reported an incident to his club following an FA cup defeat by Man City, the club informed the Police who then contacted Facebook. Fadzai Madzingira, Facebook’s UK head of content, said the company was ‘horrified’ by the abuse of footballers and that it did not want racism and hate on its platforms. Amazingly however, the company didn’t actually ban the account which had sent the message opting instead just to temporarily disable it with the following justification;
“The person who sent this message has been restricted from sending messages for a set period of time…we think it’s important people have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, but if they continue to break our rules this account will be removed.”
Unsurprisingly their underwhelming but sadly typical response wasn’t received well by the footballing world and Dhanda’s club said they were ‘shocked and surprised’ by the leniency shown;
“The abhorrent level of abuse that we have witnessed this week means that once again we seek stronger action from social media companies to stamp this type of toxic behaviour out. It is appalling that Facebook cannot empathise more with the victim of such offensive messages.”
The player himself commented that social media companies “…do have to take into account the amount of people that think negatively about themselves, go into depression and even have suicidal thoughts just because of the trolls on social media say gin abusive stuff just because they can. It made me upset and really did hurt my feelings and I’m not scared to say that.” He called for a proof of identity to be required from those who sign up for a social media account, so that they can be tracked down and banned if they send racist abuse. A view echoed by Thierry Henry;
“It is far too easy to create an account, use it to bully and harass without consequence and still remain anonymous.”
Following this statement Henry announced his departure from social media until the platforms change. It remains to be seen how many more players will receive abuse, and how many more will have to follow Henry’s stance, before the social media platforms take notice and then take action. It’s another damning indictment of an attitude and approach which always seems to be reactive rather than proactive. They only take action when forced to do so, and even when they do, it’s completely inadequate.