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BLOG: New technologies have not been applied to tackle the racism epidemic in sport, but have the potential to make big impact

As we all come to terms with the global impact of the Covid Pandemic, we continue to face a much longer-term and deeper ingrained malaise; racism.

Racism is a centuries-old epidemic, which has manifested itself in sport. Immediate thoughts may turn to the historic symbolism from the United States, created by the actions of athletes that have made a stand. From the black glove gesture used by athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to Colin Kaepernick leading NFL players to take a knee during the National Anthem in opposition to the RealDonaldTrump. These gestures of protest against systemic problems created noise; pushing an important conversation forward.

However, when we think of racism in the bigger football markets in Europe, rather than gestures by athletes, we are drawn to the historic problem of active racism within the arenas themselves. In 2005, Marco Zoro attempted to stop the Messina–Inter match by leaving the field with the ball after being tormented by taunts from some Inter supporters. This is just one example of a litany of racist abuse, monkey chants and banana projectiles directed at black players that have left an ugly stain on the game since the 1970s.

Are we seeing enough change?

At InCrowd, we often talk about the changing consumer in a positive light and the impact the change is having on how sports are followed, watched and attended. But is there evidence to suggest that this change is having a positive impact on our attitudes to race and other forms of discrimination?

Unfortunately not it seems. Earlier this year Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger was seen complaining to the referee, with a gesture of putting his hands under his armpits, to indicate that he believed he had been subjected to racist monkey chants from rival Tottenham supporters. Last year Romelu Lukaku said that the sport was “going backwards” on racism after he was on the receiving end of similar abuse from Cagliari fans.

Kick It Out, a charity established in what was meant to be the back end of the bad old days of racism in 1993, aim to fight against discrimination in football but their most recent statistics show that the problem is escalating again. Reported incidents rose to 422 in 2018/19, up from 319 in the previous year.

The numbers could actually be a lot higher than reported. These statistics rarely tell the whole story; there are many barriers for people in regards to reporting these incidents both culturally and logistically (although you can now report via social media). 

Are we taking action?

A more pressing concern is that these are just statistics and don’t seem to lead towards enough positive, affirmative action. According to the report, the FA have not informed Kick It Out of the outcome in seventy-nine per cent of the 109 cases reported in grassroots football and 80% of the County FA verdicts. So whilst plenty of energy is going into trying to solve the problems at the grassroots level through education and reporting, there does not appear to be a strong system of governance in place to effectively deal with these issues when they are surfaced.

The rise of technology

Changes in consumer behaviour have been seismic, driven by technology and the rise of the smartphone and social media. And yet despite the ability of these platforms to offer real-time conversation and direct interaction, there has been minimal positive impact on attitudes to race and discrimination. Furthermore, not enough is being done to tackle the problem, especially considering we are now in a time when technology makes it far easier to hold people accountable.

This does all seem counterintuitive. When we talk about the changing consumer we are normally talking about the rise of the “woke” generation. However, such technology and social media are used by everyone else too and there is plenty of strong evidence to suggest that placed in the wrong hands, these platforms can be abused to deepen the problem rather than open up a conversation and reach resolutions. We are not just talking about Putin’s election rigging bot farms and Cambridge Analytica here but more nuanced systematic issues.  

A report earlier this year described a “data racism” emerging. It argues that as automated or data-driven decision-making tools are increasingly deployed in numerous areas of public life, these data technologies are actually reinforcing or codifying the systemic race bias and increasing the sense of neutrality afforded to discrimination. If the computer says no, what can I do…? An example of this bias would be using facial recognition tools in crime investigation, despite evidence that they misidentify people of colour, and in particular women.

The potential positive role of technology

So how can technology be used to drive positive change? By using technology to develop relationships with fanbases, sports organisations can hold themselves to higher standards of inclusivity and try to effect positive behavioural change amongst their devoted supporters. Technology could also help surface and deter the problems by making the process of reporting incidents far easier and perhaps more significantly, enable the ability to pinpoint and deal with the problem more efficiently and effectively. 

Imagine if you could report a problem by pressing a button on the official app and highlighting the seat number of the offender. Imagine if all tickets were digital and tied to a device so you also knew immediately who was sitting in the offending seat. If this wasn’t enough to deter a problem fan, it would certainly be enough to take appropriate action. You don’t have to imagine. This technology exists, it just isn’t widely enough implemented.

Hopefully, we all agree that it is no longer acceptable to just sit on the sidelines being passive; we must all be actively anti-racist. And in sport, let’s consider every tool that is available to us, and utilise what we have to make sure that we can deliver the same great experience for spectators, players, officials, staff – #ForEveryFan.