Ethan Ampadu and Paul Heckingbottom speak out as Sheffield United consider joining fight against social media abuse
It was somewhat inevitable, given that it was the big sporting story of the day, that both Paul Heckingbottom and Ethan Ampadu would be asked about it when they faced the media to preview Sheffield United’s clash with Arsenal.
But the Blades also have a vested interest in clamping down on online abuse, a topic which reared its head again late last week when it emerged that a trio of British clubs were going to engage in a week-long social media ‘blackout’ to make a stand against online abuse and racism.
Championship promotion-chasers Swansea City led the way on Thursday after three of their players were targeted, with Rangers and Birmingham City later following suit.
The message seems to be clear; that more must be done to tackle the problem that all clubs are facing. Social media companies have pledged to suspend accounts of those who send vile abuse. But the account of whoever felt compelled to open Instagram and send United’s Rhian Brewster a message calling him a “overrated n***er” – almost a month ago – is still active, at the time of writing.
What sort of deterrent is that anyway? It is far too easy to set up a fake profile – never in the person’s real name, never with their actual face in the profile photo – and continue the abuse.
David McGoldrick, Brewster’s United teammate, was also targeted with racist abuse last season after scoring against Chelsea. Earlier this year, South Yorkshire Police confirmed that they were investigating reports of abuse aimed at a United player, amidst the season of their disastrous Premier League season.
“I’ve got my own thoughts on that and I applaud the stance the clubs have taken,” Paul Heckingbottom, United’s temporary manager, said.
He understands the positives of social media, he says, but has also witnessed first-hand its pitfalls and dangers and thinks organisations such as the Football Association or Premier League should arrange something of a blanket boycott of social media to really hammer the point home.
“I’d fully support anything like that - for making a change and difference, I think it’d make a statement. I saw Thierry Henry come off social media last week and that’s fantastic, but can we go even bigger and take it out of individual clubs’ and players’ hands and show it’s not acceptable?
“It’s got so many plus pints and some people use it fantastically well, but I’ve seen and witnessed the darker bits that aren’t nice. It’s too easy to send abuse. And that turns me off it personally, just from that.”
Heckingbottom’s comments were echoed by Ethan Ampadu, the on-loan Chelsea defender who revealed that United are discussing themselves how to support the movement.
“Only time will tell whether it works or not, all we can do is applaud them for trying to do good things,” Ampadu said on the collective effort of Swansea, Birmingham and Rangers.
“It’s 2021 and things that shouldn’t be happening still are. They’re trying something different and hopefully it works and some action comes from it.
“It’s just to make more people realise that we’re trying to do something about it and it’s time, these things shouldn’t be happening. Social media is big and if this is the way to do it and get change, then we’ll do it.
“As a club we’re all talking about what we’re going to do next, but we’ll wait to see if it works and hopefully it will.”
It needs to. Social media has made players more accessible than ever to supporters, who have the ability to contact their heroes at the press of a button on their phones or a swish of their keyboard and mouse, but at the same time they are arguably as removed as they have ever been – understandably so, considering the abuse they receive.
Ollie Norwood turned off the comments on his Instagram account earlier this season, before revealing he had been targeted with messages about his family as well as about his own ability and performance levels.
Police have made arrests in recent months in connection with racist messages sent to Wilf Zaha, Romaine Sawyers and Yannick Bolasie – the individual arrested over the abuse sent to Zaha was a 12-year-old boy – and in the time between this piece being written and it appearing in front of you, another player somewhere will probably have been targeted again.
What’s the answer? Does it lie in the big tech corporations, with their billions in revenue from their platforms, diverting more resources towards monitoring them better? In them working with authorities to identify, ban and prosecute the trolls?
In effectively ending anonymity online by requiring some form of identification when signing up for a social media account? That opens up a completely new argument, especially considering Facebook probably holds enough data on all of us as it is.
But something needs to be done.
Four years ago, Brewster sat down for an interview with The Guardian and detailed the seven different times he had endured and experienced racist abuse, five of which occurred in the previous five months.
The time in the U17 World Cup final when he remembers a teammate being called a “monkey” by a Spain player. The time Liverpool played Spartak Moscow in the Uefa Youth League and an opponent called him the N-word again. The time the same slur was directed at him during England’s European Under-17 Championship clash with Ukraine.
Four years on, are we any closer to eradicating the problem? The times, it seems, aren’t a-changing – and they can’t change soon enough.