Kick It Out, English football’s premier anti-racism and anti-discrimination organisation, has come out in support of the government’s proposed clampdown against online abuse.
Following a series of threats and abuses made online to celebrities such as TV presenter Chloe Madeley, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told The Mail on Sunday that the maximum sentence for internet abuse will be quadrupled from six months to two years.
Supporting the move, Richard Bates, media and communications manager of Kick It Out, said, “Any sort of deterrent that makes people think twice about doing something is good. However, a lot more needs to be done.”
Speaking to Multimedia Journalism students at the University of Westminster on Monday, Bates said that 50 per cent of incidents reported to Kick It Out in the 2013-14 season were based on social media abuse.
“Whether it was among players, fan on fan or fan on players, the number of reported incidents on social media has constantly escalated,” he said.
Last month, Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli was the victim of racial abuse on Twitter after he mocked rivals Manchester United’s loss to Leicester City.
While the Merseyside Police confirmed that they were investigating the case after it was reported to them by Kick It Out, not a single offender has been caught to date.
Admitting the difficulty in tracking down people on social media, Bates said that that Kick It Out is working closely with Twitter.
“Twitter has taken steps to make it easier to prevent people from using abusive language, but they are restricted due to the American law of allowing right to free speech. Twitter has to find a way to overcome it.”
Bates said that Kick It Out looks to educate offenders after they are caught, but not all agree to it.
“Last season, we reported a 15 and 16-year-old to the police for social media abuse. We didn’t know their ages when we reported them. One of them agreed to be educated by us, while the other refused.
“[Former Norwich City manager] Chris Hughton was racially abused last year. Norwich City and the police worked together and the user was found on Facebook. Eventually, it was decided that restorative justice process would be the best way to deal with it and we educated him.
“[Huddersfield Town manager] Chris Powell was racially abused on Twitter. We reported four [Twitter] users. One was issued with a warning and we’re talking to the police on how we can engage with the others.
Bates said that Kick It Out work closely with the police and is doing “as much as we can” to combat all forms of discrimination.
“We have established a link with the police where we have a link-up with their online reporting facility called True Vision. Whatever is reported to us, we send it to the authorities so they can deal with the case.”
Talking about the overall battle against racism in football, Bates urged current footballers to come out and be more willing to talk about the issue and what they encounter.
“You’d want players to be vocal during their careers. They are so powerful and have the ability to make an impact. That can take this debate a lot further than it is at the moment,” he said.
Bates cited the example of Ghanaian midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng, who led his AC Milan team off the field after they were subjected to racial abuse in Italy last year.
Bates said that Kick It Out have even tried to engage with English defender Rio Ferdinand, who criticised them in his recently released autobiography.
“We’ve tried to take steps to engage with Rio and work more closely with him. He has a lot of thoughts and experience in this area of work and we’d like to build on that.”
In 2012, Ferdinand had refused to wear a Kick It Out t-shirt during training, claiming that the organisation hadn’t done enough to support his brother Anton in a criminal court case involving Chelsea defender and then-England captain John Terry.
“With the t-shirt boycott, we were disappointed with the fact that Kick It Out was used as a venting tool,” said Bates. “But we were pleased that the players wanted to air their frustration at the lack of action of the authorities.
Bates said that players have misunderstood the power, or lack of, of the organisation he calls a “small charity”.
“Kick It Out could be so much more of a positive movement than it is if players support it publicly and play an active role in what it does,” he said.
“That’s why we’re doing what we can to go to the training grounds and academies to meet the players at the lower level so they have an early understanding of what Kick It Out is about.
“It would be really great in 10-20 years if everyone really understood what Kick It Out’s role really is and what it is we can and can’t do.”