How do we get the trolls out of football? We civilise…

Date published: Wednesday 22nd November 2017 8:48

A man picking a combined XI of two teams entirely comprised of players from one of the teams in question, followed by a gif of a man drinking tea. That was all it took for a certain section of the internet to go f**king mental on Saturday.

It is both tempting and correct to say that neither Adam Crafton nor Arsenal were responsible for Saturday’s turn of events, and that our antipathy should instead be directed towards the idiots who apparently have nothing better to do than fling anti-Semitic sentiments at a journalist for daring to slightly needle the Gunners. It would be lovely to think we lived in a world where a writer and a football club can have a gently amusing back-and-forth exchange.

The issue is that by even making a small joke, an institution like Arsenal can inadvertently unleash a hateful mob to whom no infraction is too small to justify all kinds of abuse, ranging from route-one swearing to racist abuse, sexist slurs and even death threats. Given the frequency with which this happens, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that regardless of their lack of malice, the social media professionals at Arsenal should have known better. And that, in itself, is thoroughly bloody depressing.

Jon Ronson’s excellent book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ spells out, in disturbing detail, the consequences this can have on a person: in short, the victims of their abuse often suffer years of mental anguish and ruined careers. What was once an issue confined to a small number of anonymous people on the nascent internet has become a challenge for the whole world to tackle as the internet enters its difficult adolescence.

That a small but abusively vocal section of the general public cannot be trusted to behave compassionately or even responsibly is not limited purely to football, of course. There has been growing concern from all quarters about the way social media remains unmoderated and unchecked by those who run them.

This peculiar modern madness afflicts every walk of life and every sub-culture you can possibly imagine, from politics to superhero movies to TV sci-fi to video games to sport. For all I know there’s a small minority of the online crochet community locked into a fierce flamewar with an equivalent group of knitting s**theads. “Call that needlework? Call us when you’re ready to get serious, you wool-loving c**ts.”

The commonality between those things is that they all have the capacity to become all-consuming parts of a person’s identity – and the issues around that are where it does become especially powerful and pertinent when it comes to football. Slag off your team or mine, and we’ll reply with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulders; it’s only bloody football, after all. But if your team’s pride and identity were indistinguishable from your own, you might find that harder to do.

Of course, this is where we get the cliché of the neckbearded 16-year-old camped out in his parents’ basement, furiously pounding away at the keyboard in between alternate fistfuls of Cheetos and Weetos as they funnel abuse towards Nolito – another figure who this week spoke out about the ridiculous abuse he received for daring to suggest that Manchester’s weather wasn’t quite as nice as Seville’s, the absolute b*stard.

Quite possibly this image is entirely correct – but that doesn’t take the sting out of vicious racism or threats aimed at one’s family.

All of which raises the question of what responsibility clubs have towards their own employees, officials and the communities they serve. A culture of passion for one’s club is a marvellous thing; taking that much too far is irritating beyond measure.

We can all agree that West Ham fans calling 999 to complain about their team’s performance is taking it very much too far, but there is plenty more besides. Does passionate support really need to include the acceptance of the fully-grown adults you see at every game every week who, upon seeing their side score a goal, immediately turn to the opposition fans and start gleefully flicking the Vs and puffing out their chests as though to offer a fight? Is it even really okay that a stadium full of people can boo 16-year-olds – children! – when they dare to score against England’s under-17s, as observed in the recent international break?

Attempting to introduce a greater sense of decency into the game by stamping those things out is extreme, naive and practically unworkable, but it is difficult to see another way of communicating to the worst offenders that their bile is unwelcome and inappropriate. The English-speaking world seems like enough off a reprehensible and demoralising garbage fire of a place as it is; I’d happily trade a healthy dose of sanitisation over letting the pricks ruin football for us all too.

Steven Chicken

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