Republic of Ireland defender Cyrus Christie says he believes that the high profile cases of online racist abuse of footballers in recent months are only the tip of the iceberg, with the fate of black players and those from other ethnic minorities in the lower divisions still being largely ignored despite the increased public awareness of the issue.
The 28-year-old, who has spoken out more than once after having been targeted previously, says he has received death threats in the past and that at one stage every photograph he posted on social media attracted racist responses.
“Then, when you speak out about it,” he says, “even more racist comments follow because people jump on the bandwagon while they’re hiding behind their (social media) profile.”
Christie is one of the guests at an online event on Saturday evening (7pm) being organised by Cobh Ramblers and UCC with the support of the FAI, as part of Frederick Douglass week, a series of events intended to celebrate the writer and abolitionist who visited Ireland in the middle of the 19th century. Fellow international Adam Idah is among the others guests along with Ramblers chairman Bill O'Leary and TJ Hogan of the East Cork Travelers Project.
“It’s very good what the club are doing, looking to educate people around everything that’s going on in terms of racism, discrimination... The timing might be to do with Frederick Douglass but it’s really timely because racial discrimination seems to be seems to be rife at the minute and the more people who get on board and do this kind of stuff, the quicker we’ll all absorb what happened in history and what is happening now.
“It shouldn’t be that people are going out there and trying to perform, to do their best job in a job that they love but then if things don’t go right, people are able to racially abuse them.”
The Nottingham Forest star backs the increasingly widespread calls for social media companies to do far more to tackle the problem and bring those responsible for hateful abuse online to justice and believes that recent cases involving the likes of Marcus Rashford, Reece James and Raheem Sterling have only received the attention they did because of the profile of the players involved.
“I’ve said before, this happens throughout the leagues but the players in the lower divisions, their voice isn’t as powerful as a Marcus Rashford or a Raheem Sterling and so people don’t generally want to pick up on it, it doesn’t get the same traction. I think that’s the fault of everyone, whether it’s me or journalists, the media, the clubs or other professionals… we should all be standing together. We should be highlighting all these issues.”
Christie says that while players from minority groups are being targeted online in the wake of on-field errors, fear of attracting unwanted attention is also impacting on how footballers speak publicly and use social media themselves.
“It’s impossible,” he says. “As a player, you want to interact as much as you can with the fans and give them an insight into the personal side of you, rather than just the footballer. People go on about it being the same old generic comments from footballers but it’s so hard for them to show a different side because there can be so much abuse that comes their way; there’s a fear that once they put themselves in the limelight then they make themselves a target as well.”
That concern extends to wanting to protect family members, he adds. “A lot of people now don’t want to post stuff with people in their family, their loved ones or even tag them incase their girlfriend, their family, their mum, their dad, their sisters… whoever it might be, ends up becoming a target too.”
The former Coventry and Derby fullback who is currently on loan to Forest from Fulham accepts that racism has always existed in and around the game - he has previously spoken of being racially abused while playing as a young child - and he does not believe the situation will significantly change for the better between now and the end of his career but, he says, it is frustrating that those behind online abuse are effectively facilitated by companies who permit them to open and operate accounts anonymously.
“I’ve had a lot worse than some of the comments that you hear about,” he says. “There are times where people are threatening your life, threatening your friends and your family, telling you they want to kill you.
“If they come up to you and racially abuse you to your face then at least they’ve got a bit of b******s about themselves but a lot of these people, they wouldn’t say boo to you in the street, they have to be hiding behind a false name online.”
Christie is just of several Ireland internationals to have received abuse with David McGoldrick, Callum Robinson and, most recently, Jonathan Afolabi having highlighted their experiences.
Des Tomlinson, the FAI’s Intercultural Coordinator, believes the rise of the alt right has been a major contributory factor to the current climate and he agrees that the multinationals providing the platform for the abuse need to take more responsibility for the way their services are used.
“There is a need for it to be made clear by the social media companies that this type of behaviour will be will not allowed and that mechanisms will be in place to deal with them. That just isn’t clear enough at the moment.”
Tickets for the online event are free and available HERE.