Rio Ferdinand: ‘Racism will be in players’ brains in high-pressure World Cup circumstances’

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By Creative Media News

“If you’re a black player who is a fantastic penalty taker, like Ivan Toney, it will be on your mind,” says Rio Ferdinand, anticipating the nervousness that may ripple through the England team as it goes to Qatar next week for the World Cup. If Toney makes the team, one of his first actions at the World Cup could be taking a penalty kick. Without a doubt, he’ll be thinking, “Sh*t, I know what happened to Saka, Sancho, and Rashford.”

Last year’s European Championships final between Italy and England was decided by a shootout in which these young black footballers missed their penalty kicks. They endured persistent online racist harassment as a disheartening indication of how prevalent prejudice still is. Ferdinand, who earned 81 England caps and played in two World Cups, has spent the last five years producing a film trilogy. Two documentaries regarding racism and sexuality examine ways to overcome the hatred that plagues football, while the third examines the mental health consequences of a sport that, according to Ferdinand, has reached a “tipping point.

Rio ferdinand: ‘racism will be in players' brains in high-pressure world cup circumstances'
Rio ferdinand: ‘racism will be in players' brains in high-pressure world cup circumstances'

The World Cup will be prominently featured on social media’s volatile platforms, and Ferdinand anticipates an increase in hatred and discrimination. “Therefore, the rules must be modified so that participants do not fear racial consequences if they fail or make a mistake,” he explains. “However, there are currently no laws in place to safeguard gamers. Consequently, I believe this will be foremost in the minds of players as they enter high-pressure World Cup circumstances. It is not only in England. All players of color throughout the world will consider this.”

The passage of the Online Safety Bill could take an additional two years. As Ferdinand reaffirms, social media businesses can prohibit and report racist and homophobic harassment. “The issue is that they rely on toxic behavior and hate speech, therefore they will not eliminate this part,” he explains.

High pressure world cup situations
Rio ferdinand: ‘racism will be in players' brains in high-pressure world cup circumstances'

Racism and all types of discrimination are encouraged on social media because they generate more advertising revenue.” We saw with Covid that if a message needs to be disseminated on social media, there are algorithms and technologies available to these companies. However, they cannot combat discrimination. This demonstrates that there is no genuine intent to change. We contacted [the social media companies], but their responses were vague: “Yeah, we’re doing everything we can.” No, you’re not.”

In a compelling segment of his documentary on racism, Ferdinand meets technology experts at the data business Signify, who demonstrate how simple it is to trace hateful texts and identify their authors. They can even determine where these bigots reside and work. Ferdinand shared some of their results with the Football Policing Unit, which is now investigating 12 allegations of racist hate crimes.

Rio ferdinand: ‘racism will be in players' brains in high-pressure world cup circumstances'
Rio ferdinand: ‘racism will be in players' brains in high-pressure world cup circumstances'

Signify also claims that fifty percent of online racial abuse directed at football players is directed at three players: Raheem Sterling, Wilfred Zaha, and Adebayo Akinfenwa, who retired in May. Ferdinand meets Zaha and Akinfenwa, and they agree to join a WhatsApp group he created with Romelu Lukaku for socially aware footballers.

As evidenced by the ability of NBA stars such as LeBron James and Chris Paul to fight racism in the United States, Ferdinand emphasizes that the true power resides with current players whose fame and social media followings may force governing authorities to take action.

Rather than simply spotlighting the concerns again, we wanted to create a documentary focused on solutions,” adds Ferdinand. “I’m not naive enough to believe a documentary will solve these problems. But the fact that we’ve been pushing in parliament and are now attending Premier League board meetings means that we’re at those decision-making tables, bringing together current and former players.”

Ferdinand meets with Richard Masters, the chief executive of the Premier League, to emphasize that infrequent campaigns and professions of support are insufficient to tackle prejudice in football. “By the time the documentaries are ready, I will have been discussing these topics at a Premier League board meeting. The process has begun, but it is not about me. Because the present players are aware of the issues, I would like to open the door and say, “Come on!” They are constantly present in their lives. Therefore, they must be heard.”

Does Masters share Ferdinand’s aim to engage active athletes in the fight against racism? The fact that he has invited me to the board meeting is a positive development. But he must demonstrate his worth. Too frequently, individuals in high positions have engaged in empty gestures and formalities. I sincerely hope he and the Premier League keep their commitment.”

Ferdinand is in close contact with “over 50 current players from Europe and England” on racism. We will meet with the game’s stakeholders to discuss real action.

In his crusade against prejudice, Ferdinand is less familiar with sexuality. However, he deserves praise for confronting his prior homophobia. In the second segment, he sees his gay sister Remi and plays her an audio recording from a 2006 interview with Chris Moyles in which he uses homophobic words. This embarrassing behavior was brought to Ferdinand’s attention when he queried on Twitter why no Premier League footballer had ever come out as gay.

“That interview was conducted so long ago, and the culture and language are so different now,” he explains. “Yes, it was a difficult sequence to film, but my sister knows how real I am with sexuality. She recognizes the progress I’ve made since she informed me, my brother Anton, and our father how difficult it was for her to understand some of the languages we used while growing up.

Therefore, it was difficult for me to accept it, but my weakness likely causes others to think, “That was me, too.” It offers a way out of [homophobia] if you educate yourself and have compassion.”

In another revealing moment, Ferdinand questions if it is acceptable to engage in “banter” that borders on homophobia in the presence of straight people. He promptly rejects the proposal as completely inappropriate. Now, he argues, “It’s ridiculous to ask.” “If you posed the same question regarding race, you would know it’s wrong. Why is it different when it comes to sexuality? This is therefore a learning experience for me.”

As part of this education process, Ferdinand meets homosexual grassroots footballers, including Stonewall FC players, Collin Martin, in the United States, and Josh Cavallo, in Australia. Martin and Cavallo are two of the few gay professionals currently playing in men’s football, along with Jake Daniels, the Blackpool player who is a teenager.

Former US international and San Diego Loyal manager Landon Donovan led his team off the field two years ago after Martin was subjected to a homophobic slur. Ferdinand contrasts the accolades Donovan earned for standing up to discrimination with the plight of Darren Wildman, the academy head of Northern Premier League club Skelmersdale United.

“Darren was at the bottom of the coaching hierarchy, and one of his players was subjected to homophobic abuse.” Following the use of homophobic language, Darren removed his players from the field. He reported it to the referee, but the opposing team wasn’t pleased, and his life was altered abruptly as a result of receiving insults.

The FA then made him seem as though he was a criminal, even though he was attempting to defend his team and a specific player. He received a ban and a punishment for abandoning the game. It’s unbelievable. When we saw him he was like a broken man.”

On Twitter, Wildman was informed he should have been “gassed like the Jews” as antisemitism and homophobia fused.

“Look at Landon Donovan, who was appropriately lauded for how he handled a similar scenario,” Ferdinand argues. “It was incredible to see his team walk off the field, but what occurred here was so different.”

What counsel would Ferdinand give a gay Premier League footballer who confided in him that he was contemplating coming out? “I would suggest that it depends greatly on the network of individuals surrounding you. A solid group of individuals can relieve some of the load. It will be challenging, but from what I’ve heard, the outcomes are quite positive. I would say you will acquire a great deal, but be prepared for challenges.”

It is clear why there are so many mental health difficulties in football, especially among young players who have graduated from professional schools. Eighty percent of these discarded players suffer from despair, and Ferdinand says that just 180 of the 1.5 million boys who participate in representative youth football in England make it to the Premier League. He deems the 0.012% rate “insane” and recognizes the difficulty his two adolescent boys experience at Brighton’s academy in their pursuit to play high-level football.

Some of Ferdinand’s former West Ham academy colleagues who were not as fortunate as he is also present. The 43-year-old states, “Lee Boylan is the one who stands out to me.” “He played for West Ham alongside me and Frank Lampard. He scored the most goals for a young squad that won the league for two consecutive seasons.

In the small Essex town where he grew up, he was a minor celebrity. Lee did not make the West Ham first team. He succumbs to depression and extreme worry and collapses. He never quite heals, since he is still visibly wounded by the encounter.”

When just four clubs respond to Ferdinand’s invitation to a meeting to explore how to address mental health issues among young players, Ferdinand is dismayed. They are quite circumspect around the media. But the subject matter should have trumped everything.”

Each of Ferdinand’s three documentaries dealt with an identical issue. Even a former player as well-known as Rio Ferdinand has difficulty initiating frank dialogues regarding racism, sexuality, and mental health with athletes, their agents, and clubs. “It was so difficult to penetrate the environment of football.

Even with my history in football, it was still possible to observe closed doors and unwillingness to communicate. Agents interfering or athletes refusing to communicate since they have been on the receiving end of similar problems. I pondered, “What the hell? Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of a process that not only raises awareness but also seeks solutions?’

“Zaha, Lukaku, and Akinfenwa have been subjected to so much hostility. However, they listened and asked pertinent questions. As soon as they learned we were seeking solutions, they desired to be involved. But there were not enough courageous individuals like that.”

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