Brendon Batson, who was in the vanguard of the black players’ emergence in the late seventies and eighties when he faced physical and verbal threats, is perfectly placed to comment on the abuse suffered by today’s sportsmen on social media.
Batson, who is an MBE, a Professional Players’ Association trustee and advisor to the FA on equality, recalled that he, and his two black West Bromwich team-mates, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, would “turn up at places like Stamford Bridge, and the National Front would be there waiting for us. There would be monkey chants and we would be covered in spit”.
This week Batson urged Mario Balotelli to exercise caution on social media sites to avoid the kind of racist backlash he received from “cowards hiding behind a cloak of anonymity”.
The Liverpool striker was the target for a vile abusive onslaught on Twitter after mocking Manchester United’s 5-3 defeat at Leicester City. The Italian wrote: “Man Utd … LOL” to his 3.1 million followers and police are investigating some of the tweets in response.
A leading voice for diversity in football, Batson believes the attacks on Balotelli have been, in some ways, self-inflicted. “I could never condone what he had to put up with on social media,” he said. “He has every right to say what he likes, but there is a need to be more cautious on these sites, otherwise you are pandering to the mob.
“The fact that the police are looking into this is good but, at the same time, there has to be responsibility on the players’ side. This is the way of social media. People can be faceless on there and hide behind a cloak of anonymity. When I was a player, the racists could hide behind the mob on the terraces in the belief they couldn’t be caught. It was basically the same cowards’ charter.”
Batson, Regis and Cunningham have now been honoured with a statue, unveiled in West Bromwich during the summer, in recognition of their contribution to football and the fight against racism.