“Let’s be clear, they’re not fans, they’re racists. You can’t be a fan of a football club, racially abuse the opposition player and have black players on your own team. You’re a racist – plain and simple.”
Marvin Bartley is a 34-year-old defensive midfielder who currently captains Livingston in the Scottish Premiership. His previous clubs include Bournemouth, Burnley and Leyton Orient.
Speaking to BBC Sport, the footballer has a very clear message though. Before all of that, he’s “a black man”.
“I was actually racially abused the other day, and I laughed because I knew it was coming,” Bartley says.
“I knew it was coming, because it’s coming for every player at this moment in time. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Marvin Bartley has shared his experiences of being racially abused as part of the BBC Sport documentary, Football, Racism and Social Media.
The programme takes a look at why the abuse is happening, the platforms where the abuse takes place and what’s being done to prevent it.
The abuse – ‘the act of a coward’
“When people say social media companies are trying to sort it out, no they’re not. They don’t care. The account that sent it to me wasn’t an account that had just been made – it had over 3,000 followers, an active account,” says Bartley.
The 34-year-old was recently appointed as a diversity and equality lead by the Scottish Football Association, a role that involves him advising the governing body on how best to support players who are racially abused and acting as a go-between for the two parties.
“I’ve been messaged by an awful lot of younger players since they’ve seen my work,” he says. “Some of these players I’ve never spoken to in my life. It does seem there’s a stronger network where people aren’t afraid to reach out to others. That can only be a good thing.
“I wish they didn’t have to reach out to me. I wish I didn’t have to speak to any of them because the incidents we’re speaking about aren’t like making a mistake in football; it’s somebody abusing them for the colour of their skin.”
Bartley says helping others deal with discrimination can be a rewarding but traumatic experience as it means he often has to relive his own unpleasant memories. The most harrowing of these was a video sent to him two years ago while he was playing for Hibernian. Filmed by an opposition fan, the short clip features Bartley warming up on the sideline – while several swear words as well as racial slurs are aimed in his direction.
“It’s a video I still have to this day, a quite shocking video and probably the worst video I’ve seen of somebody racially abusing somebody else, and it happened to be me.
“An act of a coward, sitting within a crowd, zooming in on me, racially abusing me and posting it on social media.”
Bartley stresses that Hibs and the police were “fantastic” in terms of aftercare and trying to identify the member of the crowd responsible for the video and comments.
A 20-year-old man was arrested over the incident but the charge against him was found to be not proven.
The social media platforms where abuse happens
Bartley is on a long list of black and Asian footballers who have been the targets of online racial abuse.
Premier League players including Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, Chelsea defender Reece James and Tottenham’s Son Heung-min are among those who have spoken about their experiences, while Crystal Palace winger Wilfred Zaha shared an offensive messaged he had been sent.
Twenty-eight-year-old Ivory Coast international Zaha is still the only Premier League player to stop taking a knee before matches. – saying very little had changed as a result.
When UK football resumed in June 2020 following a hiatus caused by Covid-19, players adopted the anti-racism gesture in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. Social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram – owned by Facebook – and Twitter say they remain committed to tackling all forms of online abuse.
They point out they have invested in systems and processes that result in better monitoring, detection and removal of offensive messages and those responsible for posting it.
Users have also been given increasing levels of control over who can message them privately.
Yet there are those who think social media companies can do more. The recent four-day boycott led by the Premier League and supported by other sports was the latest in a long line of attempts to put pressure on those companies.
According to anti-racism body Kick It Out, the 2019-20 season saw a 42% rise in reports of discrimination in the professional game, with reports of racial abuse specifically up by more than 53%, which it called “shocking”.
The YouGov poll of 1,000 fans, commissioned by Kick It Out, also showed that 30% of fans had heard racist comments or chants at a match.”
Kick It Out chief executive Tony Burnett says it is important to point out that the way black and Asian players are being abused might be new – but the abuse itself isn’t.
Burnett said even before the first lockdown in March 2020 when the football season stopped, they were seeing a “significant” number of reports of discrimination.
“This isn’t just online. The fact we have not been in grounds or had grassroots football I think is hiding the fact that this is a problem in society,” says Burnett.
What’s being done to prevent abuse?
Despite the rise in cases, convictions are rare. Earlier this year Ian Wright spoke out after an 18-year-old man was placed on probation – but not given a criminal record – after sending the former England striker racially abusive messages.
And later this year a 49-year-old man from the West Midlands will go on trial accused of racially abusing West Brom midfielder Romaine Sawyers, who received an offensive message after losing a game against Manchester City.
Mark Roberts is the chief constable of Cheshire Constabulary and the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) lead for football policing. He says: “It’s been growing certainly over the last few years. We are getting an increased number of incidents reported to us. Sometimes these are in the media before we are aware of them.”
Roberts says social media companies are getting better at providing the information needed to find those responsible for posting the abuse, but that at times this needs to be done more quickly.
He is also conscious of the perception that footballers “are getting a premium service” and says he is fully aware that daily abuse is also aimed at people who are not in the spotlight.
“This is really important to us because the people engaging in racist, sexist, homophobic abuse against footballers, they’ll also be doing that in their general lives, whether it’s social media, the playground or the work place. The people doing it need to be bought to book.
“Due to the high-profile nature of football in this country, if a footballer is abused and there seems to be no action then that’s empowering the offenders. If we can bring them to justice then that sends a powerful, positive message. And it should amplify it. That acts as a deterrent for a broader section of people that might engage in that behaviour.”
The fact that the offensive messages are often sent from ‘burner accounts’ [additional anonymous accounts held by existing users] or from outside the UK also makes it difficult for officers to punish those responsible.
New legislation could help in the battle against abusive messages online. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) this month announced details of the proposed Online Safety Bill.
If passed, new laws would give media regulator Ofcom the power to fine companies up to £18m or 10% of annual global turnover – whichever is higher – if they fail to protect users.
Ofcom could also be given the power to block access to sites.
In a statement Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “We will protect children on the internet, crack down on racist abuse on social media and, through new measures to safeguard our liberties, create a truly democratic digital age.”
Additional reporting by Rhia Chohan
You can watch Football, Racism, and Social Media on BBC iPlayer from Saturday 15 May and on the News Channel at 10:30 & 20:30 BST on Saturday, 15 May.