Kick It Out boss Tony Burnett Q&A: Football's online hate, discrimination and racism problem

Online abuse, discrimination and racism have surged in recent months with many footballers targeted; read our full Q&A transcript with new Kick It Out boss Tony Burnett, with misogyny and homophobia also discussed in wide-ranging interview

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Kick It Out’s chief executive Tony Burnett believes toxic masculinity is a problem in football and manifests itself in abuse towards players

Kick It Out's new chief executive Tony Burnett has sat down with Sky Sports to discuss the ongoing fight against online hate in football, revealing he does not believe discrimination will ever be fully eradicated from the game.

Online abuse, discrimination and racism have surged in recent months - particularly on social media platforms - with many footballers targeted, including Aston Villa's 19-year-old academy player Tyreik Wright.

English football bodies recently sent an open letter to Facebook and Twitter demanding action, while social media firms have also been threatened with billion-pound government fines over the abuse. Facebook, however, feels racism in football is a bigger problem than the abusive messages seen on social media.

Burnett, meanwhile, says the only way to end social media abuse - and abuse in general of any kind - is to fundamentally change football's culture in a similar way to how fan-violence of the 1970s and '80s was driven out.

His comments come after Reading's Lucas Joao was the latest footballer to suffer racist abuse on Instagram, following their Championship defeat to Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday.

Read the full Q&A transcript below...

Is online hate at the top of the men's game reaching epidemic proportions?

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Burnett says social media users being forced to declare personal information could deter potential abusers

We can't resolve this alone, and we are working with all football's stakeholders to try to eradicate it. There isn't a simple solution. But we need a united voice that says this is wrong. Absolutely we have to put pressure on social media companies to take action against perpetrators and that they're stopped.

How do you do that though - a lot of footballers keep telling us it's incredibly upsetting, and yet they don't know how you do it, or don't have any confidence that the situation will change?

We want people to be forced to release as much personal information as possible, because unless you hold people to account, unless they know they are going to be identified, it's going to be a real challenge. Now that's difficult with the data protection laws, but we can do more, and social media providers can do more, to avoid perpetrators opening new accounts and continuing the abuse.

But how do you hit these hugely successful, commercial entities that are social media companies, where it hurts? How do you create a commercial imperative for them to deal with online hate?

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In an interview with Sky Sports News, Facebook content policy manager Fadzai Madzingira, who works across Instagram and Facebook, discusses what steps social media companies can take alongside the government to tackle online hate

Facebook is the fifth biggest commercial operation on the planet, so of course it's a challenge. But their commerciality is also something we can leverage. If enough people take a stand and say this is wrong, and hit the social media companies where it hurts, things can change. And discussions are ongoing about how we might force that.

By boycotting the social media companies, possibly?

It's a possibility, I wouldn't rule it out. But there are conversations going on now about what the next stage of our campaign is going to be, but it's not something we are going to drop.

Why aren't people who post hate online being penalised and brought to justice?

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Clinton Morrison and Paul Merson make a passionate call for action on online abuse

It's complex. Look at the volume of online hate - I was in the police force. There's no way regional police forces have the resources to police and investigate every instance of online hate - in football, or outside football. Police will prosecute the most serious cases, of course, but this is a wider problem in society.

What are the dynamics in the UK where people think it is ok to do this? Think Brexit, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter - we are polarised as a culture, and there are some people in our society who think it's ok to demonise other cultures, and act out on that in a way that most of us think is horrific.

We of course have to criminalise people who are doing horrific things, but we also have to educate people who are doing silly things.

You're talking there about changing society - can Kick It Out change society, and then see that mirrored in football? It sounds like there's a blurring of lines there.

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Kick It Out has launched a three-year partnership with Sky which will see Sky become its key broadcast media partner in the drive for inclusion in football

Racism is a social construct. It was designed to justify the notion of slavery. The beautiful thing about football is, it's where people come together. Doesn't matter what your background is, what your culture is, what you do for a living, everyone can play football. And so football can be a fantastic vehicle for change.

I'm not saying Kick It Out can eradicate racism. We can't. But we can push people in the right direction, to make change.

What does change look like?

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This is the message from Sky Sports presenters and reporters, who have united in supporting a new campaign aimed at raising awareness of online hate and abuse on social media

That's complex. A big part of it is representation. The discussion around black coaches and managers in the game has been going on for a long time. We need to work with partners in football to drive change. But I also want to change the dialogue around race. It has become fragmented, polarised.

We've got a lot of discussion around 'them and us' in football and in society right now. We have to change that dialogue - a conversation where everyone can have a say in making football a game where people belong, where prejudice is minimised - you're never going to eradicate it - but where all good-minded people take a stand against it.

We want to create a 'culture of belonging', and that can sound quite pithy and idealistic. But football is uniquely placed to drive conversations, particularly among (and I use this term advisedly) working-class people. Working-class people get involved in football on a weekly basis. So football can be a real driver for social change.

So, for you, this is about more than just challenging racism?

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The PFA's equalities education executive Jason Lee says online abuse can result in 'psychological damage', and the problem must be addressed

We overemphasise race as opposed to a lot of other characteristics. Clearly, there's a huge problem there, but we are multi-dimensional human beings. For example, it was recently Justin Fashanu's 60th birthday, and that was a poignant moment for me - black and gay, you can't separate the two characteristics.

So if people are going to fight to get rid of discrimination based on race, they should also be fighting to get rid of discrimination based on LGBT characteristics, or sexual orientation. We can't be too simplistic in our definitions. All discrimination, all prejudice based on an individual's characteristics is what we've got to challenge, and we will do.

You've suggested that a key goal of yours is to deal, not just with discrimination at the top of football, but also at grassroots. Explain that to me.

At top level, it's just the tip of the iceberg. Online hate of football professionals is horrific, and we have to deal with it. But where's Little Johnny's voice on a park in Barnsley, where some unfortunate adult is running up and down the touchline shouting abuse at him?

It doesn't hit the press, but we need to know the young boys and girls playing football on parks all over the country, feel they are protected, feel safe, feel they can enjoy sport and share a sense of belonging with everyone around them.

What about misogyny within football? How do you deal with that?

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The coronavirus pandemic has 'highlighted pre-existing barriers' within women's sport, says the founder of Women's Sport Collective, Sue Anstiss

The online hate discussion around race has been huge, quite rightly, because some of the stuff I've seen is horrific. But some of the abuse I've seen online directed at women footballers is awful - threatening rape, threatening physical violence.

That's as bad [as racism] and in some cases significantly worse. And I'm not sure why that hasn't been given such prominence, but we need to call out all forms of hate. Online hate is horrific, whichever group it's aimed at, and we need to challenge it more.

We still haven't got any current, openly gay footballers. Why is that, and how big a problem is it?

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Referee Ryan Atkin, who is openly gay, speaks about his experiences of receiving death threats and says he is 'very fortunate' he has a group of friends he can talk to in regards to the abuse he receives on social media

You're right. It's 2021, and we still haven't got any openly gay players. I'm not suggesting we should force or ask gay footballers to come out. But what we should be doing is making sure we create an environment where people feel comfortable to come out. Now, the women' game is far more advanced in that regard than the men's game, and so we can learn from the women's game. And we should be asking 'why is it players feel comfortable about being themselves in the women's game, but they don't in the men's game?'.

Are you going to talk much more to women working in the men's game, and in the women's game then, to change things for them?

Absolutely, when I talk about 'representation' I'm not just talking about race. It needs to be across the board. Where are female coaches across all aspects of the game?

Where do you stand on the issue of taking a knee? Wilfred Zaha says it's degrading, Gareth Southgate says he thinks it's a powerful image that should continue. Two big figures in football with conflicting views on taking a knee - what does Kick It Out say about that?

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After comments by Wilfried Zaha over taking a knee, Darren Lewis feels the meaning behind the gesture needs properly exploring

In the last few years, the debate has become so polarised so that it's no longer ok to be just anti-discrimination you have to have particular affiliations as well. You have to show your anti-discrimination in a specific set of ways that are ok to a group of people. Who says that the only way you can show anti-racism is to take the knee?

Absolutely, we will support people who want to take the knee, but actually we will support people who don't want to take the knee, so long as you're against the things that we are against, which is discrimination. So let's forget the symbols, because all the symbols do is polarise people. If you support the concept that every human being is equal, and you want to fight discrimination, and you demonstrate that in any way that suits you - we will support you.

But if people don't take a knee, we will lose that powerful image won't we? How does football display a show of unity on anti-discrimination if some take a knee and some don't, and won't then that powerful image be lost?

Chelsea's N'Golo Kante and Everton's Gylfi Sigurdsson (right) take the knee in support of the black lives matter movement during the Premier League match at Goodison Park, Liverpool.
Image: Some leading footballers have said they will stop taking a knee before matches

It's all about standing up to discrimination, and it doesn't matter how we get there. Every time I've faced racism when I've crossed the white line, I haven't had to deal with it. My white team-mates dealt with it. I can think of four instances off the top of my head (two of which I wasn't aware of, until I saw my white team-mates squaring up to an opponent) - this is the power of football.

And those same people, who have been 30/40-year friends, don't understand the concept of taking the knee, and don't necessarily agree with it. But I can guarantee they are anti-discrimination because I've seen them fight discrimination, on the ground, in a park, when I've been physically threatened. So I don't buy the idea that you can only display your allegiance to a cause in one particular form of behaviour. Let's not make people sign up to something they don't believe in. If you want to fight prejudice - do it in a way that's acceptable to you.

What do you think has been the image of Kick It Out in the past and how do you want to change it?

I think the image has been one of anger and frustration. There was a place for that, but I think we are in a different place now, as a society and as an organisation. We were putting at a door that was closed.

I think the door is open now, particularly within the football hierarchy, and so our job has changed to be a conduit for change. Bring the football family together to do that, and I think society is ready for that now. We don't have to bang at the door now, because we are already in the room.

Do the FA need to do more to combat the under-representation of minority groups working in football?

Completely. And that is where leadership counts. If we are going to solve this problem let's get a baseline, let's understand what the landscape look like - and we need to understand what the issues are in the recruitment process.

So if people aren't getting jobs, and they're the best people for the jobs, why aren't they getting jobs? What's wrong with the process, why aren't they getting through? We've started action on this area, but we have to move much more quickly. This is a debate we've been having for 30 years, at least, so we've had long enough. Let's get the information, understand what the challenge is, and take tangible action to deal with it.

Has there been a lack of leadership in football so far then?

The fact that we don't even know the numbers, to understand the lay of the land, suggests there is. There is such sophistication in the data around football now, and yet we can't collect data around how many different people there are in different areas of the game. That's a sad indictment for me.

In response, a FA Spokesperson told Sky Sports News: "Each employer, including clubs, must be the starting point for collecting data of its own staff in a way that is compliant with General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR]. The FA is unable to take on the role of an employer and collect diversity monitoring information from all people working across the game.

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Aston Villa and England defender has welcomed the launch of the FA’s new diversity code and believes it will hold football clubs to account.

"We are focused on making the game more inclusive through means of which we can control. In October 2020 we launched the Football Leadership Diversity Code with the backing of the Premier League and over 40 clubs across the English game.

"It focuses on increasing equality of opportunity, with hiring targets to encourage recruitment from across society and from diverse talent pipelines. Its aim is to move away from recruitment practices focused on personal networks, which is a longstanding challenge across football and has limited the diversity in leadership across the game. It will ensure candidates across the game are recruited via diverse talent pools, and we believe this will lead to positive, long-term change across English football."

Kick It Out reporting racism

Online Reporting Form | Kick It Out

Kick It Out is football's equality and inclusion organisation - working throughout the football, educational and community sectors to challenge discrimination, encourage inclusive practices, and campaign for positive change.

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