Football cannot become complacent on the issue of online abuse, with Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari warning that the threat is continually evolving and mutating.
A year has passed since the flood of abuse directed towards England players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho in the wake of the Euro 2020 final penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy.
A Freedom of Information request from the PA news agency has found that the Metropolitan Police’s investigations resulted in the convictions of four men, with two receiving jail sentences.
Bhandari said social media companies were also having some success in tackling the problem but told the PA news agency: “(The abuse is) mutating – we’re seeing a lot more audio messages, video messages, other types of content.
“New threats emerge, so we can’t be complacent about this, and really we’re not going to get lasting change unless there are legal obligations on social media companies. So we are strongly supportive of the Online Safety Bill.”
Bhandari has twice given oral evidence to MPs scrutinising the Bill and added: “There’s a lot that we’ve asked for that’s been included. The definition of harm has changed to include the kinds of trolling behaviour and pile-ons.
“We’ve seen new communications offences that deal with things like rape threats and death threats, which quite often we’re seeing particularly aimed at female pundits and our LGBTQ+ fan groups.
“There are new proposed laws on anonymity and identity verification that platforms have to provide an option for verification and that you have more control over who you interact with so you can choose not to interact with anyone who has not verified their identity.”
In addition, Scotland Yard said four males had been spoken to by way of a “community resolution” for misuse of a communications network and one more was referred to the Youth Offending Team.
No further action was taken against five males and one female while a further male remains under investigation, police said.
Kick It Out is talking with other sports about the equality, diversity and inclusion challenges they face, having launched a review in cricket with support from the England and Wales Cricket Board in January.
It is part of a wider update of Kick It Out’s strategy and vision, as it seeks to advocate for change, help to build knowledge via a new digital learning platform and help connect talented individuals from under-represented groups with opportunities for employment in the world of sport.
Bhandari envisaged the learning platform as an “iTunes for football education” and added: “Part of the challenge for clubs is they don’t always have access to all of those resources and they’re looking in lots and lots and lots of different places.
“EDI is this really booming industry and has been for the last five, six, seven, eight years. But if you’re a club that’s wanting to buy those services, you don’t always know who’s the best, who’s any good.”
Bhandari said the work in other sports would be funded by those sports themselves and via sponsors, rather than drawing funding from football.
Kick It Out started out as an anti-racism campaign group but has evolved to combat discrimination in all forms.
The season ahead looks set to be a defining one in terms of the game’s attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community, with Blackpool forward Jake Daniels heading into the season as Britain’s first openly gay male professional footballer in over 30 years.
Concerns also remain about how members of the LGBTQ+ community will be treated at the World Cup in Qatar later this year, but Bhandari also hopes it will prompt change much closer to home.
“If we have the World Cup to start the conversation, that shouldn’t be the end of the conversation,” he said.
“We should be using it as a tentpole to say, how do we have three years of campaigning to make the English game more open and accepting of the LGBTQ+ community?
“Because the reality is that I could go into a match holding hands with my partner here in the UK, but I’m not sure a same-sex couple would feel the same degree of comfort walking into a game holding hands with their partner.
“What we can’t do is just use the World Cup to attack Qatar, we have to use it to also look at ourselves and to look at the English game and say, ‘well, we’re not perfect’.
“We need to make sure that we use this to start the conversations to drive change in the English game.”