Michael Pavitt

Boycotts have been the talk of sport this week for different reasons.

Several English football clubs have announced plans to boycott social media amid a torrent of abuse towards players, while the prospect of a Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games boycott was both raised and quelled in the United States amid ongoing concern over the human rights situation in Xinjiang.

The reasons for boycotting in both cases are noble ones. The problem with both has been deciding the extent to which action should be taken to force change, yet not have unintended negative impacts on others.

The prospect of a social media boycott by football clubs is one I raised in what I suppose would class as the insidethegames virtual office a couple of weeks ago.

I raised the subject after questioning whether a graphic posted on social media by a club in response to their player being racially abused, which understandably garnered thousands of retweets and likes, would incentivise social media companies to react.

On another note, the response from football clubs to social media abuse aimed at players has effectively become scripted, with each condemning the latest account of racist or sexist abuse aimed at a player and declaring that stand by the player impacted. Reading, who play in the Championship in England, posted a template to that effect yesterday after their players were subjected to online abuse, highlighting that little was being done to have an impact.

I was pleased to see Swansea City, who also play in the Championship, announce plans for a seven-day boycott of all social media platforms this week after three of their players had been subjected to discrimination.

The club announced it would provide club news via the official website during the period, with their chief executive writing to both Twitter and Facebook to urge the companies to introduce more stringent policing and punishments for those guilty of abuse.

The club has already been joined by Birmingham City and newly-crowned Scottish champions Rangers, whose midfielder Glen Kamara reported receiving racial abuse from a Slavia Prague player during a recent Europa League match, before being subjected to further abuse online.

Meetings are reportedly planned next week to determine whether the boycott could become more widespread across Premier League and English Football League clubs.

There is a tricky balance for clubs to strike when deciding whether to and how long to boycott.

Some have already pointed to the seven-day span of Swansea’s boycott, questioning whether the length of the action will really impact social companies to the extent that they are compelled to act. A sustained boycott or a total removal of their social media accounts could feasibly leave a club isolated should social media companies call their bluff and be prepared to ride out initial headlines.

Clearly a unified approach would help, as would the involvement of clubs such as Manchester United, who have global reach on their platform and potentially could reflect the serious approach clubs are taking in tackling the issue.

One of the key issues with completely stepping away from social media was highlighted by The Athletic’s Adam Crafton in a piece this week, where he highlighted the financial ramifications for clubs in pulling the plug with regards to sponsorship deals.

Knowing people who work for clubs, the first obstacle they highlight to me would be the potential loss of revenue should they step back entirely. After all, we have become accustomed to seeing promoted content featuring club partners across their platforms, whether that be betting companies, grooming products or hotels.

Given the pressure or instinct of companies now to want to stand or be seen to stand for social justice causes, I suspect some brands may well offer their support to clubs who take the plunge into a long-term absence from social media provided an alternative platform for promotional activities could be arranged. Clearly this would be a delicate balance for companies too, who themselves would not want to step away from promoting their own business online.

There is also the point that clubs can use social media themselves to respond to abuse and help to change perceptions and narratives.

An example this week would be Real Madrid and its men's team offering support to their women's team goalkeeper Misa Rodríguez.

Misa had initially posted a photo of her celebrating alongside a similar picture of men's player Marco Asensio with the caption "Misma pasión" - same passion - before deleting the tweet after receiving misogynistic abuse.

Asensio and several other Real Madrid players reuploaded the photo to show their support to Misa, who later reposted her initial tweet.

Given all the factors, there is an obvious quandary for clubs when deciding what action they should take.

How far can clubs push a boycott? Can they really afford to step away long-term? Would such action even result in their aims being reached?

I wonder whether these uncertainties could potentially limit the effectiveness of the action taken. Regardless of the outcome, it feels a step forwards that clubs are beginning to take action to demand changes are made by social media platforms over abuse.

One of the criticisms of taking the knee across sport in the United Kingdom is that the gesture has been viewed as just that, a gesture, compared the approach in the United States where the act was viewed as a protest and a direct challenge to call for change.

Political action seems inevitable around Beijing 2022 but a full boycott appears a remote prospect ©Getty Images
Political action seems inevitable around Beijing 2022 but a full boycott appears a remote prospect ©Getty Images

The desire to force change and uncertainty around how to achieve this can also been seen through the repeated murmurings around a potential Beijing 2022 boycott.

Ned Price, a spokesperson for the US State Department, had said a boycott was "something that we wish to discuss" with allies earlier this week. The comment was later walked back with the State Department insisting its position had not changed.

I maintain, as I wrote in a column last August, that an outright boycott of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games seems a remote prospect. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has repeatedly insisted that its team will be present next year in Beijing, with the organisation warning that boycotts of the Games have only created harm for athletes in the past with minimal positive outcomes.

I could definitely see the US being joined by the likes of the European Union (EU), Canada and United Kingdom in a political boycott of the Games by refusing to send politicians and dignitaries amid alleged abuses of human rights in Xinjiang - which China denies.

The issue again is whether this action would amount to a mere gesture, rather than genuine attempt to force China’s hand. Did anyone really pay attention or remember the political boycott of the Sochi 2014 Paralympics by Western politicians after Russia's entry into Crimea prior to the Games.

A Financial Times editorial this week argued in favour of coordinated action by US and EU leaders not to send diplomats to China for the Games, as well as suggesting that Western broadcasters could refuse to show the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Games. The suggestion was that doing so would allow for athletes to compete and fans enjoy the Games, yet limit the promotional impact the Ceremonies could offer China.

The question regarding major sporting events could surround whether opposition tends to rally too late in the day, whether by design, circumstance or a lack of forward planning. Take the recent suggestion that Norway could opt to boycott the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup over human rights concerns.

Beijing 2022 and Qatar 2022 will take place regardless of the criticism from Western politicians, but could concerted efforts be made in the future to make it challenging for say, FIFA, to award its 2030 World Cup to China should it decide to launch a bid?

Could early efforts prove more effective than attempting to arrange action so late in the day?