Coronavirus: Football's first hate crime officer highlights issues of behind-closed-doors matches

PC Stuart Ward, of West Midlands Police, has become the UK's first dedicated hate crime officer based in a football unit; Ward has spoken exclusively to Sky Sports about why online abusers are growing in number in the current climate and how we can combat such behaviour

The UK's first football hate crime officer, PC Stuart Ward is using his personal experience of racist abuse to lead their efforts to stamp out rising abuse in the game.

England's first football hate crime officer Stuart Ward believes an extended spell of matches behind closed doors, coupled with a lack of accountability and education, is driving more people to abuse players online in such a way that will damage their mental wellbeing.  

Ward's new role within the football unit at West Midlands police will cover reported offences from the professional game right through to the grassroots, although he admits the world of social media is becoming incredibly difficult to control.

Kick It Out reported a 42 per cent increase in discrimination last season and in the Midlands specifically a 12-year-old boy from Solihull received education sessions as part of the restorative justice process after racially abusing Crystal Palace forward Wilfried Zaha online last July.

Ward thinks sending these types of messages is far too easy and that wider education is vital in trying to combat a growing issue.

Home Office Data findings that more than 300 reports of alleged hate crimes were made across football in England and Wales last season is 'probably the tip of the iceberg' but progress is being made, says Stonewall's Robbie de Santos.

"There's a real ease to just log on to a computer and sit behind a keyboard and start typing abuse to someone really with no repercussions for what they're doing, it's a little bit different to a matchday where we can investigate there and then - on a matchday people can be identified," Ward told Sky Sports.

"Now people go on to social media because they can sit behind a screen, set-up accounts and abuse players or individuals because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or if they're disabled and it's unacceptable.

"For me education is massive, we've got a generation that we can target within schools and giving them the confidence to know what a hate crime offence is and they can raise it, report it, challenge it and the only way we'll ever get around this is by challenging the behaviour and by educating people."

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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.

Ward's own experiences of discrimination within football date back more than 20 years to being racially abused as a young player at grassroots level and he feels he can identify with top-level players who are regularly subjected to similar treatment.

He has already held positive conversations with Midlands' clubs including Aston Villa and also says it's important that the police and social media companies are "singing off the same hymn sheet" when it comes to identifying offenders.

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"I've had racism all through my life, it started at a youth footballer, playing junior football at 11-years-old - I was targeted because of the colour of my skin," Ward adds. "It has a massive impact. To this day I remember it quite clearly and I can still relate to it. I am hoping I can draw from it moving forward to change cultures and behaviours.

"(I was) shocked, sad, depressed. You feel like you're different even though you're not and it's upsetting.

"It will have a massive impact, in football there's still a stigma certainly in the male game that they feel that because they are footballers they don't come under pressure for any reason but they're being targeted and it will have an impact on them. I know myself because it had an impact on me."

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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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