s English football came together to oppose the proposed European Super League, Anton Ferdinand watched on with admiration.
He saw how powerful the game he loved could still be. The strength of a collective, as tribalism was put to one side, raging against the a 12-team cabal made up of six English clubs united by greed and self-interest. Then, as Fifa, Uefa and the respective European football associations came out with their condemnation, he sat back and came to a realisation shared by many.
“It’s funny how football organisations, all of a sudden, they’re on their high horse,” Ferdinand tells The Independent. “Putting out threats to players that if they did take part they’d never play in a World Cup ever again, and stuff like that.
“Look how quick they move when it comes to a pound note, or when it comes to their pocket. But when it comes to somebody’s feelings and their race, orientation or religion, they are not forthcoming.
“That is disheartening but I feel it’s at least shown us the blueprint on how to deal with football’s governing bodies if they don’t start to make a real stand.”
It is with that sentiment that Ferdinand has teamed up with BT Sport as part of their Draw The Line campaign. The broadcaster has chosen to step up its tackling of hate speech and abuse on social media by investing millions in pulling together a dedicated in-house team to be more proactive. Their job will be to set in motion a new policy to delete, block and report any hate or abuse on BT’s social media channels to make them safer spaces. BBC Sport has operated a similar policy since August 2020.
A YouGov research commissioned by BT revealed over five million people – more than one in 10 – have received online abuse over the last 12 months, while those aged between 18 and 34 are more likely to receive said abuse. One in five women reported abuse relating to their appearance, while 23 per cent who identify as gay or lesbian received abuse pertaining to their sexual orientation. Depressingly, one in seven people surveyed felt those in the public eye should expect online abuse.
“I think it’s fantastic that BT have stepped up and taken it upon themselves to do this campaign,” says Ferdinand. “They’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with players and the members of the public. Because this ain’t just about the blue ticks. They don’t have to do this.”
At present, footballers, those working in the media, and supporters fight the battle themselves, in part because of the inaction from the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Reports are often ignored or addressed too late.
Player agents have impressed upon their clients sharing screenshots of abuse is the best course of action. However, Ferdinand believes this form of public shaming is having the opposite effect.
“We speak about the heightening of messages with retweets when coming across that kind of discrimination. By doing that, it’s almost making it fashionable for people to abuse somebody. It’s a way of getting their five minutes of fame.”
Of course, it does not fall on the abused to come up with the solutions, nor should it be on them to drive change. But perhaps Ferdinand is an example of someone who has experienced the sharper end of racial abuse who now sees it as his duty to take on that challenge.
A professional career spanning from 2003 to 2019 with 218 Premier League appearances was marred in perpetuity by an incident in October 2011. While playing for Queens Park Rangers, he clashed with Chelsea and England captain John Terry. A court felt there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond doubt that Terry had called Ferdinand a “f****** black c***”, though the Football Association’s lower burden of proof meant Terry was found guilty in their own disciplinary case.
Ferdinand was chastened by the experience, and only last year, as part of a BBC documentary, Anton Ferdinand: Football, Racism and Me, was he able to gain some form of closure from the ordeal. It now forms the crux of the work he does to mentor footballers who come up against similar situations.
“I have that personal know-how, and how not to deal with it. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like I did for nine years until speaking out.
“The documentary helped me do that. There’s no getting away from it, if it would have been five years prior, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about a documentary because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do it. I still had anger, issues that I needed to deal with.
“I am at peace with myself now, I’m at peace with the situation, I’m at peace with the incident. And that allows me to be the person I am today, to help and be that person for anyone to lean on.”
A number of footballers around at the time, and indeed Ferdinand’s close friends, reached out to offer their support and a few apologies. Terry, still, is not one of them.
But strength rather than retribution is driving him at this juncture. A gift he says came from his mother: “When she was alive, she was a person who always had time for people. Always wanted to help people. And I guess this is part of her legacy: the second part of my life, this second career, is about helping people.”
The personal turmoil has been fashioned into something of a radar. What to look out for when talking to players and what they will need to get them out of the inner turmoil he knows all too well.
“When I am able to help somebody, I know most of the signs because I’ve lived it and I can help in a better way. The key for me is more of a personal touch – I’d like to sit down with you and chat to you rather than over the phone.
“Because that’s what I needed. I needed someone to sit down with me and ask me if I’m OK. And maybe that would have sparked a conversation with me where I admitted that I wasn’t. I don’t know.”
There were parallels between his incident with Terry and last month’s despicable scenes in the Europa League when Rangers’ Glen Kamara was racially abused by Slavia Prague defender Ondrej Kudela. Naturally, old wounds opened up. But the aftermath, specifically the immediate reaction, was a sign to him of an overdue change.
“It was disturbing. It was hard to watch. But BT allowed their pundits and people that work for them to base their opinions on what they see and what they hear. Others don’t.
“The way that Steven Gerrard dealt with it, that’s the best I’ve seen a manager speak about a racial incident. Because he didn’t have to – he’s a white male who is backing somebody black who has been racially abused. That’s the unity I’m talking about and that’s what we are seeing now.”
It is solidarity he recognises in the social media blackout due to take place over the next three days. The initiative, originally formed by the Premier League and its clubs, has been co-opted by other sports, as well as a variety of broadcast outlets, media organisations and sponsors.
Conversely, he also appreciates how social media has emboldened the current generation of players, whether through calling out injustices or using their platforms for greater good. Had Twitter been a bigger tool back in 2011, he wonders how different things might have been if he had the wherewithal to combat an underlying agenda during his case.
“Around my incident, the media was an absolute whirlwind. They’d already formed their narratives and my narratives based on what they wanted to see, and based on what John had said.”
At the same time, he retains a healthy scepticism of how much perception is fuelling the blackout rather than purpose. And after it lifts on Monday, few will be watching more keenly than Ferdinand as to where things go from here. What steps are taken, how much impact it has and whether those who indulge in such a performative act are willing to risk more for the cause?
“I think it’s a good thing. But I would like to see more people, more organisations involved. Where the power will be in the kind of companies who endorse and put money into these social media companies. They need to be a part of this. If we start to hurt these social media pockets, then they will make a change. Take Nike for example – they do great campaigns when it comes to Colin Kaepernick and Raheem Sterling around racial profiling and racial abuse. But was that to make money?
“The buck lies with the social media platforms who, with a click of a button, could eradicate those pockets of racism. But it comes down to do they really want to? It’s time they put people’s feelings and lives beyond a pound note.”
BT’s #DrawTheLine campaign will see BT Sport highlight the issue of online abuse and introduce an anti-online abuse policy, deleting, blocking or reporting hate and abuse on its channels. For more information visit bt.com/drawtheline
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