Enough Abuse Online – Football Stepping Up their Game

Hate speech and racial abuse online has haunted football and maybe peaked with England’s penalty shoot-out against Italy in the European Championship finals this summer. What can football do about it and who else should take action? The English Premier League‘s head of equality, diversty and inclusivity Iffy Onuora joined Netopia’s video spotlight interview series to discuss his work, the role of the legal system and tech companies, as well as equal opportunity in football, social media boycotts and his life in football.


Welcome to the Netopia Video Spotlight interview and for this episode

I have a special guest. It’s none other than Iffy Onuora, he is with the Premier League and is the Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity – welcome Iffy. It’s great to have you here on the show. You’re the head of equality, diversity and inclusivity. What does that job description mean?

It can be anything that could be representing and trying to make clear pathways between underrepresented groups, and what I mean by that is, if you look at the Premier League fantastically diverse on the pitch, lots of representation, a lot of nationalities, a lot of black players, lots of players European players.

The Premier League is fantastic visual in that respect, but the thing we found in this country and certainly in Europe was that wasn’t being represented of the pitch so there was a paucity of black executives and that’s not just black and white. We don’t make the transition in this country very welcome, from the pitch to the boardroom. I think other countries that slightly better than us. So it’s a topic and an action for us to address and then obviously the  coaching atmosphere, we think there’s 20-30% of players are black or identify as black, but very few managers, and that’s not just in the Premier League but beyond, so we are always looking at ways we can help turn up those kinda statistics around so that was part of my work previously alongside the coaching with the PFA and when it came to the Premier League I knew this would be my soul focus and that’s what it was a new position for the Premier League. I think there had been a lot of very good work being done well before I came but I think making this job specific to a new incumbent was away the Premier League saying right we’re now going to bring this in-house, because I think they’d gone outside to other organisations, such as Kick It Out to represent some of the anti-discrimination works, but I think bringing that title my roll into the building in-house making a Premier League specific role was the way of saying “right, we’re going to now make this role really distinct and bespoke to the Premier League.

[Per] So you speak about the lack of diversity or the difficult in the transition from the pitch to to the boardroom, but another big topic has been around the racial abuse towards players. But not specific to the Premier League in anyway, but rather a bigger conversation in football.  How do you see that discussion?
What’s been happening in the last 18 months in the lockdown?

We have the killing of George Floyd, which was a pretty seminal event really around the world, you see the protests, you only have to go back a year to see the world wide protests, and there was I think it was the red line in some respects. It was people deciding and people of all races,  I should say, decided that enough is enough. There is this problem of race, that permeated all through society, not just football and it was a sign now of society to take it seriously. We’d spoken about it before and it had been passing phases sometimes it was mentioned it never seemed to go out of fashion. I think the difference now is people have really laid a marker down and said we’re going to do something now about this, so I think in terms of the Premier league, then we set out an action.

“No Room for Racism”, I’ve got the badge here and within that we you’ve got action plans around some of the things mentioned about coaching pathways and one of them is some of the abuse that was outlined you saw in England and the players decided to take the knee before the start of every game that was an action plan that the Premier League have very much behind supporting the players, we didn’t want to dictate to the players but once the players decided they wanted to do this with a must supportive of them.

So we’ve got lots of actions around that, and actions around online and abuse, which you can talk in more details about so I think the important thing is to say that my roll covers so much of that.

It covers some of those pathways, it covers imbedding anti racism within the football stakeholders,  the leagues, the clubs…it covers combatting racism for the social media companies, working with the social media companies working with government, it covers quite a lot, it’s wide-ranging, it’s extensive.

It’s meant to be, if it was an easy task. It wasn’t just going to be solved just like that It’s meant to be a test that are some certain specific works attached to it and its long-term of longitudinal work that can’t be done in a minute, in a few weeks, a year – it is the trying to reverse a lot of things that happened many years and that takes time.

[PER] So to follow up on the specific detail,  you said that the Premier League supported the players who wanted to do the take a knee gesture before games. I know this has been controversial in in some other sports leagues. Was this a difficult decision to get support for that particular action?

Going back to the restart… remember the League closed down due to the pandemic and when it restarted, this was very much in the storm of the Black Lives Matter movement and the players very vocal and wanted to their voice heard around this issue heard.
So, when they restarted, they had the Lives Matter on the shirts,  and they were auctioned off.

I think one thing was just how united they were, all the players black and white wanted to show the support for this bigger objective and that was a thing that drove forward so all the captain’s that were representing their clubs and wanted to do it and then that was, so that  was the restart of the previous season, and we got into summer and the Euros and the England players wanted to carry on doing it.

That’s where some of the maybe push-back we call it occurred and there’s a lot of discussion about whether we needed to keep doing it. Some people resisted and I think was poorly 50/50 but which way was going to go and then you may be aware of what happened when the the team lost in the finals and by the way this team is a young team diversity in wonderfully led by manager Gareth Southgate who’s really led the team and squad fantastically and so I think the public had really got behind the team, they identified with my young team,  developing team, a lot of players like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling chose to use their platforms positively.

So the public are really behind them even though there’s maybe this discussion about whether we be going to continue to support the knee but actually what happened was the players missed the penalties, three black players and they got abused on social media and from then on it was almost like that awareness now came into the mainstream. Everyone kind of thought: “Right, this is why they take the knee” If you weren’t sure before, this is why, we understand now what they object to, what they’re using the platform for?

So I think that made easy and some ways, so at the start of this season now we started discussing going to keep taking the knee that was very little argument against it now so out of that distress emerged something a lot more unified and a lot more accepting a lot, more acceptable now you go to the stadium week in week out and players take the knee. Applauded all throughout the stadium, they understand it, they applaud it and I’m really proud of the Premier League were supportive of that. Not just the players.

We commissioned the short about it as well. So the players didn’t feel it was just them doing it without our support. You very much know if you want to do it we will support we will do it this way if you’re happy and I think it’s been a really good thing.

[Per] Hate speech online and specifically racial abuse is a much bigger issue than particularly to football and also football, the Premier League might be one of the most famous parts of football, but It’s also a part of a big world,  so for all the the success and all the influence that you might have how much can you accomplish?

As a cog in this big machine – Is it possible for you to have real influence on his speech online?

Yeah it’s a really good question. I think that we have to accept we are the cog but what we also recognise is that football and you can see in the summer when the England team playing and doing really well, it captures the imagination.

When the England team is doing well with the big clubs are doing well, the public are so engaged so football has that power, it has the power to connect, like no other sport so I think it’s the Premier League being aware and tapping into that so we’re not saying that this is a football but it’s a society problem, but what can we do as a football as a football industry to drive that form and to support it knowing that our influence it can be extensive.

So that’s what we try and do. Recognise our influence and use it to affect so yes all the things about social media. You’ll see that we have it to our society, high profile people are abused and not just and not just a footballer but obviously football is the number one game, it’s the one that’s spoke about, it reached a crescendo in the summer with the players in the penalty, so we’re just almost setting an example.

Can we showcase and be an example in football for how we address it. We don’t want run away from it,  how do we address it, how do we bring influence on the social media companies some of the big players that have millions of followers on social media, so that can be really influential. How can we use that influence of the players and ourselves as the industry and don’t forget the brand of the Premier League, it’s so extensive. You know we reached out all through the world with our broadcasting partners with the most watched league in the world so within that comes that influence comes that reach and I think that’s what we’re trying to use effectively so we know we’re not government.

we are reactively working with authorities to to track down abusive content and abusers online

We are not legislators, but can we influence legislators, can we influence governments and we do have a policy team that speaks directly with members of the government around these issues and then the social media companies as well, and we have a team team since October 2019, a designated team who work with social media companies proactively to take down abuse as it comes and then we are reactively working with authorities to to track down abusive content and abusers online. Some of that is not generally known and readily known outside maybe ourselves, that how much we do we take on that responsibility.

Maybe at the expense or in the instead of some of the social media companies in we always feel can do more, but we certainly don’t shy away from it, and we have a team who do that.

[Per] That’s really interesting how you have some people actually working to to fight the racial abuse in social media and can you tell us a little bit more about? How does that work?  How do you do that work and what kinda results have you seen so far.

Yeah since 2019, they monitor all the social media accounts of all the players and their families and managers, so they monitor all the accounts centrally and they can track the abuse that comes, and obviously it’s such a vast amount of work and some abuse continue to get through, we’ve seen that. But we’ve been really successful in the liaising. So we have to work very closely with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram around some of these things and we have been really successful at stopping some of these before it gets on the platform or liaison very closely with them and highlighting abuse when it comes.

And there has been some successes with the social media companies. Some of them have moved, some of them have filtering systems around some of the hate speech.

Instagram for example can filter some of it out. We do think there’s an issue around verification which I think is their redline.

Instagram for example can filter some of it out. We do think there’s an issue around verification which I think is their redline.

The redline for social media companies is that they don’t want the full ID verification which is something we’ve pushed for, so there’s always going to be that gap and we’ll wait and see what comes along from the legislation where that gap is filled, if at all.

We have worked with my have moved and significantly from where they once were. In terms of real-life examples and you’ll know of someone like Neal Maupay, the Brighton and Hove Albion striker, he worked closely with us and our team at the Premier League to track down an abuser all the way in Singapore and that’s really significant for us, because it wasn’t just abusers in this country.

We could go further afield and work with the Singaporean authorities which we did and we needed Neal to stay engaged and make sure that there’s no let off to someone who’s sending abuse, and absolutely and we saw that through to a conclusion with a court case. The abuser was named and shamed in Singapore and his name plastered all over that and that we think that’s strong message. We will go that extra mile, literary, outside the borders to track down abuses as and when it happens and we’ve had more recent success domestically with a guy called Romaine Sawyers at West Brom. West Brom are now in the Championship but unfortunately this happened to Romaine in the Premier League when he was with us last season and a Gentleman was tracked down who’d sent abuse to him. He actually received a custodial sentence. He was sentenced for eight weeks. And we think that is significant as well.

a Gentleman was tracked down who’d sent abuse to him. He actually received a custodial sentence. He was sentenced for eight weeks.

The judge made a strong precedent, that now if you send hateful abuse you will not only suffer reputational damage, and his name was plastered everywhere in this country. You will receive a custodial sentence if it reaches that high benchmark of abuse. So we’re pleased about that.

We’re pleased that was starting to show, that’s it’s starting to bear its teeth.

Alot of the work that the team at the Premier League are doing is starting to bear fruition because we want it to be a cultural thing where people now don’t even think that we can do this.

Maybe there’s been a clothes before that maybe you can go to the football match or type away at a computer and this is where you let of steam, and you can say whatever you like, you’re frustrated, you’re angry, in the stadium you can just shout abuse and maybe some of that is  the demographics of fans, and we want fans to be as inclusive, not just women, families, diversity and the more that kind of abuse isn’t tolerated the easier it is for young families, children and people of colour to come to the stadiums and feel welcome, so that’s something ….it’s a work in progress.

[Per] You mentioned ID verification as being on the wish list for four more tools. If that were to be put in place, what more would you be able to accomplish that you cannot do at the moment?

Yeah, we’ll be starting to go down the area beyond my specialist knowledge, but what I will say is that we have pushed for that in the past around the fact that you can actually at the moment.

Set up an account post abuse online and then you can close down an account and leave no digital footprint,

Set up an account post abuse online and then you can close down an account and leave no digital footprint, I’m sure you’ll be aware this far better than me, so the idea is to not allow abusers to be able to do that that some kind of verification would be in place that would leave a digital footprint so you could track down an abuser. Now this is a divide from what we’ve pushed for and what social media companies regard as a little bit more sacrosanct and I’m sure we have a piece of legislation coming through the Parliament at the moment which will see exactly where that where that line is and who and who can and who wins that particular argument.

I think as long as there is space for people to create an account and then disappear, then you’ll always have this problem for persistent abusers. I mean what you want is that we affect some cultural change so people don’t feel as if they can or should do it, and then some real change so actually not only should they not do it, they can’t do it as well. So that for me feels the magic solution at the moment we’re working on both of them. We’re still working on the cultural thing that people don’t feel that they should be able to do it, but actually we still need some movements on whether they allowed to do it.

[Per] Some players have been quite critical of of social media platforms and language even boycotting social media, protesting on to the lack of action by the platform companies, what would you like the social media companies do in terms of stepping up?

I mean beyond ID verification…

Yeah, it goes back to what we were discussing, you know some of those boycotts were born out of frustration, because of the perceived lack of action from the social media companies like to say it’s been slow, but there has been some movements.

Well, we’re just turning keep pushing along, further along that path. And in terms of that boycott, we were very much part of that boycott. We had a boycott 18 months ago, a 48-hour blackout of social media companies and that was meant to be part of that strong statement blackout weekend that really got some traction and all the football bodies came together, the Premier league, certainly all the governing bodies, the FA, the PFA, around this social media boycott. And again, that does have an effect. People say well, it’s only 48hrs that’s it. But in those 48hrs we did see that Facebook and Instagram executives who previously maybe hadn’t shown that public face from a media point of view media point were coming on the airwaves to explain what they were trying to do, it felt very much that they were on the defensive and having to explain what do you doing?

What they were doing and why they couldn’t do it, why abuse is taking so long to be taken down even when it was there for everyone to see, and I think that’s a good thing.

They have to be held to account. We all have a accountability in our work

They have to be held to account. We all have a accountability in our work, if I’m not doing my job, or you’re not doing your job someone gets explain or someone gets to ask you why it isn’t being done. It’s exactly the same as Facebook.

If they’ve been asked to take down abuse within a specified amount of time, which they are, and they go beyond that time and it’s still there then it’s not a me to ask them to explain on their behalf, they would be better served by explaining themselves what happened. It’s too easy sometimes to be faceless and they are massive businesses and it’s not my intention to badmouth social media, it’s the way we all interact now.

I’m at pains to say social media is actually a wonderful thing, it’s the way we connect wonderfully throughout the world. It’s in its infancy compared to newspaper in this country, where they are 200 years old, radio and television 100 years old. Social media is 20 years old at most.

You know it’s still very much in the infancy, and we’re all wrestling on how it’s regulated a bit like television, newspapers and radio is regulated. So that’s what we’re doing.

We’re not necessarily demonize social media but trying to regulate and understand its powerful reach which it has now so regulated so it’s Its used effectively and you know with good intentions.

[Per] Besides what you are doing, or beyond what you’re doing yourselves and beyond what you would like for social media companies to do.

Do you have any other wish….is there somebody else who should take some action to also help and support and take action against online hate speech? That is a gathering movement in this country that we do feel that we got to offer something different.

Not just footballers, celebrities, members of parliament have suffered abuse and so I think there is now a sense that we have to do something so it’s not up to football, we can certainly play a part and you should be proud to play significant part, but it’s not up to football to do this it is I think it’s up to all progressive people who can see the dangers of letting things just drift unchallenged and that’s an effect not just on myself, on yourself but on generations, younger kids and people coming up.

We’re always working and how to best use social media.

I think it’s important that all of us who have that power or platform to challenge and cajole and make things better for those who come after, that’s legacy and I it’s for all of us to play our part.

Whether you have a big role or a small part and it all adds up to, I think a gathering sense that we have to have to try and get this way because there’s generations to come in who will who will certainly benefit from a better and more respectful landscape.

Thank you for closing on an optimistic note. I almost feel like I’m one of the players that coached. That’s great. Thank you so much. Iffy Onuora for coming on the show, the Netopia Video Spotlight interview and wish you best of luck with your work in your role and thanks to you, everybody who watches our little program and will be back with more interviews.

Transparency note: Premier League is a Netopia-sympathizer. All Netopia’s editorial decisions are independent.