Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

We’ve been hearing a lot about "solidarity” in sport recently. The word was used numerous times in the self-serving statements put out by those behind the European Super League project that briefly threatened to put 12 of the best football teams into a hermetically sealed revenue-generating unit.

The reaction was a demonstration of genuine solidarity as clubs and fans across Europe revolted in the fullest sense of that word against a business model that threatened to demean, dessicate and ultimately destroy the sport it fed upon.

Leeds United forward Patrick Bamford was among the players who spoke out against the plans - defeated for now - asserting: "Football ultimately is for the fans. Without the fans, every single club would be pretty much nothing."

But in an additional remark that appeared to be directed at the bodies currently governing the game, such as the Premier League, UEFA and FIFA, he said: "It's amazing the amount of uproar that comes in to the game when somebody's pockets are getting hurt, it's a shame it's not like that with racism."

This weekend there has been another demonstration of solidarity within football that has spread to other sports, in the form of a boycott of social media which started at 15:00 BST on Friday (April 30) and is due to end tomorrow at 23:59 BST.

The action has been prompted by the tide of online abuse and discrimination that has been aimed at high-profile footballers and other sporting performers.

Players across all sports continue to be subjected to racist or other abuse on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and clubs have increasingly been in contact with police over the issue.

Leeds United forward Patrick Bamford, pictured centre with team mate Tyler Roberts and Manchester United's Fred, asked why racism within football was not getting the urgent attention recently paid to the campaign to halt the proposed European Super League ©Getty Images
Leeds United forward Patrick Bamford, pictured centre with team mate Tyler Roberts and Manchester United's Fred, asked why racism within football was not getting the urgent attention recently paid to the campaign to halt the proposed European Super League ©Getty Images

Among the organisations boycotting Twitter, Facebook and Instagram within football are clubs from the Premier League, English Football League, Women's Super League, Scottish Professional Football League and Scottish women's football; governing bodies including the English Football Association (FA), Scottish FA, Football Association of Wales and Irish Football Association and the European governing body UEFA.

The Professional Footballers' Association, League Managers Association, Professional Game Match Officials Board, Kick It Out, Women in Football and the Football Supporters' Association have also suspended use of their social media channels.

Also taking part are the England and Wales Cricket Board, 18 first-class counties, women's regional teams and the Professional Cricketers' Association.

Netball is involved through the Superleague, England Netball and Netball Players Association, rugby union is taking action through England Rugby, Scottish Rugby, Welsh Rugby, France Rugby, Premiership Rugby, clubs and the Rugby Players' Association while rugby league entities taking part include the Rugby Football League, Super League Europe, Rugby League World Cup 2021 and the Rugby League Players' Association.

There are corporate bodies involved also - Premier League and Women's Super League sponsor Barclays, England sponsor Nationwide, Adidas, and broadcasters Sky Sports, BT Sport and talkSPORT.

British Cycling, British Horseracing, Great Britain and England Hockey, and the Lawn Tennis Association are also on board, as are the Commonwealth Games Federation, the International Tennis Federation and the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation.

Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, posted on Twitter: "As President of the FA I join the entire football community in the social media boycott this weekend."

The campaign has been supported by British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.

An investigation by the Professional Footballers' Association, the players' union, found 56 abusive posts on Twitter in November 2020.

The PFA reported them to the platform but 31 are still visible, which the organisation described as "absolutely unacceptable".

Manchester United recently revealed their own analysis had found a 350 per increase in abuse directed towards the club's players, with 3,300 posts targeting players during the period from September 2019 to February 2021.

It found 86 per of those posts were racist, while 8 per were homophobic or transphobic.

Two years ago a number of footballers took part in the "#Enough" campaign - a 24-hour social media boycott in protest at online abuse. The model was embraced again three weeks ago when Swansea City were joined by Birmingham City and Rangers in turning off their social media accounts for a week in protest at the growing abuse it was aiding and abetting.

A BBC Sport survey in August of elite British sportswomen found that one third had suffered abuse on social media.

In March, the former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry removed himself from social media because of racism and bullying across platforms.

BBC Sport currently carries a video clip in which another fabled Arsenal forward, Ian Wright, who has worked as a pundit and commentator for shows including Match of the Day since retiring, shows his fellow pundit and England player Alan Shearer some examples of the racist abuse he receives.

"It is a daily thing," Wright says, showing Shearer a message he has received that morning which ends a stream of racist abuse with "BLDM. Black Lives Don’t Matter."

Former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright has spoken up about the racist messages he receives and his frustration at the inactivity of authorities and social media companies to combat the problem ©Getty Images
Former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright has spoken up about the racist messages he receives and his frustration at the inactivity of authorities and social media companies to combat the problem ©Getty Images

"It’s a regular occurrence simply because there is no consequence to some of these people’s actions," says Wright, who criticised the outcome of a case in the Irish courts in February when an 18-year-old who admitted racially abusing him escaped a criminal conviction.

"Seeing this judgment, I can only wonder what deterrent there is for anyone else who spouts this kind of vile racist abuse," Wright added.

"An individual wished death upon me because of my skin colour. No judge’s claims of 'naivety' or 'immaturity' will ever be acceptable to us. The supposed immaturity and naivety of our attackers is never any comfort. 

"So yeah I am disappointed. I’m tired. We are all tired."

Wright insists to Shearer that he would not be looking for jail sentences in such cases, but "some community service, some education on racism," adding: "That’s what you want. This guy that’s done this this today, why should he not do that? There’s no consequences.

"It makes you feel very dehumanised. You feel like nothing. There’s nothing you can do. You’re helpless."

Interviewed on Friday by Sam Cunningham for the i, Watford captain Troy Deeney, who revealed in December that he had received more than 1,000 racist messages on social media, praised Bamford for raising the issue in his recent comment.

"He had to really love football to get to it," Deeney said of the Leeds forward, who went to private school and turned down a place at Harvard. "That grounding made him brave enough to speak out when everyone is talking about their Super League, to say: 'Where’s this energy when it comes to racism?' That, to me, points to a good, solid upbringing."

Deeney also recalled the Zoom involving all 20 club captains organised last year by the Premier League before the post-pandemic "Project Restart", where the subject of racism was sixth on the agenda and, after discussion of the fifth item, he heard someone at the league's end announce: "Unless anyone’s got anything else to say then we’ll wrap the meeting up there."

"They weren’t even going to talk about it!" Deeney said. "Not because they didn’t want to, but because it was a group of white men and women and they didn’t want to provoke that uncomfortable conversation."

Deeney said he then texted Leicester City’s captain Wes Morgan: "Are these f**kers serious?" before unmuting himself and making his case.

“Next thing you see, Kevin De Bruyne’s popped up, ‘Troy’s absolutely spot on, I’m with Troy.’ Jordan Henderson, Seamus Coleman, before you knew it I had all the teams saying, ‘I’m with Troy.’

“Kevin came up with the Black Lives Matter across the back. Jordan was like: 'That’s great let’s do a badge'. I was like: 'My missus designs badges, let me design that.' And within 24 hours it went from try and avoid the conversation to having Black Lives Matter on the back and the Premier League badge changed."

He added: "It just shows how powerful it can be when everyone does something. People at the top will never want to change things because why would you change something that’s profitable and doing well?

"This time you’ve got the hearts and ears - and this is going to sound really bad - of middle-class white people. They’re now going: 'Well that’s bang out of order.' That is what stokes change.

"If Troy and Wes Morgan spoke about it, it wasn’t going to happen. But when I got Kevin De Bruyne, Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson going, 'We’re with Troy', it made change. It needs everybody to pull together just like we did with the Super League. Look at [how] all the fans come together and it fell down like a pack of cards."

Former West Ham United, Sunderland and Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand echoed points made by Bamford when he told BBC Radio 5 Live it was "sad" the fight against online abuse had got to this point, but that football was "taking no more of it".

"There should be life bans, because we're talking about people's lives," Ferdinand said.

"Some people don't get out of the slump they're in after being abused on social media, and that can lead to people harming themselves. We've got to take this very, very seriously."

Ferdinand also called on the United Kingdom government to do more.

UEFA is among the football bodies to face criticism for the magnitude of its opposition to racism compared o its opposition to a breakaway competition ©Getty Images
UEFA is among the football bodies to face criticism for the magnitude of its opposition to racism compared o its opposition to a breakaway competition ©Getty Images

"Has the energy from the Government been the same as what it was when the Super League was being spoken about? No it hasn't, and that's the disappointing thing," he said.

"When we're talking about pound notes and money involved, that's when people seem to act properly, and seem to act in the right way.

"The Government haven't done that when it comes to discrimination on social media platforms, the energy isn't the same and that is one of the reasons why the social media companies aren't really taking heed of what is being said by the footballing bodies."

Some of football's governing bodies laid out the changes they would like to see in a letter to Facebook and Twitter in February.

The UK government has threatened social media companies with "large fines" which could amount to "billions of pounds" if they fail to tackle abuse on their platforms. But it remains unclear how these threats will be implemented, and how much of deterrent they would be to such large organisations.

Deeney believes the boycott that has taken place this weekend will "put their feet close to the fire", warning social media companies: "this is what we did for four days, imagine if we did it for a month."

He added: "All we want to do is promote change. How can you not post a Justin Bieber song to a video you’ve created because the algorithm says, 'No, that’s copyrighted, we’ll get sued.' But you can call someone a n****r and it’s not a problem?"

The awkward truth is that, unlike the Super League issue which effectively polarised a small group of super-rich businessmen against a huge majority of those who supported the 12 clubs due to form the breakaway and virtually every other football follower from those left out of the cabal, fighting against racist abuse online is not such a straightforward task given that it often involves fans of rival teams. Changing the perceptions about where the line lies between rivalry and abuse is not something that is going to happen in a hurry.

The other key factor is - what real effect will this have upon social media companies? How much damage does it really do to their brands? How does it de-monetise their operations?

Facebook, which owns Instagram, has said it is committed to tackling abuse on its platforms.

Instagram recently announced a tool to enable users to automatically filter out abusive messages from those they do not follow on the platform.

In February, Twitter released a lengthy statement insisting it was "resolute” in its commitment "to ensure the football conversation on our service is safe for fans, players and everyone involved in the game".

The company added it had removed more than 7,000 football-related tweets in the UK that violated its rules.

One obvious change which has not been addressed by the social media companies, and which has far-reaching consequences politically as well as socially, is ending the possibility of anonymous posts. What is the argument in favour of anonymous posts? We have yet to hear it from Facebook, Twitter or Instagram

Five weeks after taking his own personal stand, Henry told CNN Sport: “When the people come together wanting change it might not happen overnight but it will eventually happen.”