Sports leagues continue their off-the-field fight against online hate

December 10, 2020 · READ

Sports exert a powerful influence on life, imparting values such as teamwork, perseverance, and fair play for those who participate and spectate. Pro sports have continued to step up and shine a bright light on the ongoing international movement for anti-racism and social justice.

Unfortunately, because sports leagues, teams, and their players have spoken out, they remain under assault from abusive online commentary—offensive and inflammatory attacks that are increasingly focused on non-sport issues.

This stream of hateful messages generated by instigators—bad actors, trolls, activists, harassers, and spammers—creates a toxic environment on sports teams’ owned social media pages and poses a business-critical risk to brand reputation, marketing assets, and fan engagement.

Embracing social activism can pose a strategic risk for any business, especially at a time when it seems everything is politicized, emotions rule the day, and malicious commentary is easy, instant, and goes largely unchecked.

Among consumer brands, expressing support for an issue can alienate some customers. On the flip side, you can lose customers for not speaking out. A majority of adults, regardless of race and ethnicity, said that they would view a company in a less favorable light if it remained silent on racism and social injustice.

Brands that adopt social activism and values-based marketing are also up against incredible consumer cynicism. Sixty percent of U.S. adults say brands do that just to retain customers, while only 15% said those companies truly cared about the movement.

To varying degrees, pro sports have succeeded in tying their words to actions better than most brands, which, in turn, has attracted instigators intent on undermining their high-profile efforts to support social justice.

The unique power of athletes to influence public opinion

The way pro sports leagues, teams, and individual athletes respond to issues of systemic racism and police brutality sends a message to millions of casual and die-hard fans about how they can play a meaningful role in the fight for social justice.

“As we debate the importance of pro sports in a post-COVID society, we should remember the value of athletes’ voices,” Alex Reimer wrote in Forbes. “They come from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds in our entertainment fields, and unlike other celebrities, can cut through political polarization.”

Pro athletes have consistently been at the center of social movements in America. Jackie Robinson played in Major League Baseball two decades before the end of Jim Crow. Black athletes—from Muhammad Ali to Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Colin Kaepernick—have drawn the country’s attention to racial and social justice issues.

Today, in an era of widespread social media use, athletes are taking a more active role. Some of the most high-profile athletes and associated brands have spoken out in favor of Black Lives Matter and “bringing back fans, not racism.” Others are leveraging their position to push for systemic change.

When the English Premier League resumed this past summer, players wore badges endorsing Black Lives Matter as a gesture of solidarity with protests in the U.S. In September, the league adopted a “No Room for Racism” patch on jerseys.

“We, our clubs, players and match officials have a long-standing commitment to tackling discrimination,” said Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League. “Discrimination in any form, anywhere, is wholly unacceptable and No Room For Racism makes our zero-tolerance stance clear. We will not stand still on this important issue and we will continue to work with our clubs, players and partners to address all prejudiced behavior.”

Commonwealth Games England also reiterated its commitment to oppose racism and any form of discrimination with diversity one of its key values, saying in a statement, “We fully support the fact that black lives matter. Diversity is one of our key values and we are committed to ensuring representation, equality and inclusion in everything we do. We strongly abhor racism and discrimination of any kind.”

And in the U.S., Malcolm Jenkins of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints said, “Until we continue to demand it, until Black Lives Matter goes from just an idea or a goal that we’re trying to attain as a society and is actually realized in the streets, we won’t see any peace. And I think we’ll continue to see athletes, entertainers as well as citizens disrupt the status quo until that’s recognized.”

Across professional sports, NBA players were among the first to demonstrate their character and commitment to social justice reform this fall, setting off a chain reaction in the world of sports. Sadly, as athletes have lent their voice to a push to enact real change, teams and players have become the victims of increasingly offensive attacks on social media.

Pro sports get behind social justice as hate disrupts fan engagement

Athletes from the NBA took a bold stand in the midst of league playoffs in response to the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Amid widespread social unrest, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play, marking the first time since 1992, in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, that an NBA playoff game had been postponed.

Two other playoff games were scrapped, and the Bucks were backed by the player’s union, NBA coaches, and team owners. The stand quickly spread across a number of U.S. sports—the WNBA, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League, and the National Football League—and UK sports, too.

Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling, soccer’s unofficial spokesperson for equality since publicly criticizing the media’s portrayal of black players last year, has welcomed the unity shown by the England squad and its staff in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

He announced in October that he would be launching a foundation to help disadvantaged young people, which will include providing university scholarships and work placements. “I think pretty much every person in the squad who is black is doing something with regards to racism, trying to fight against it and that’s a good thing,” Sterling said. “No one wants to see it. I wouldn’t just say the black players, all the white players in the national team are with it.”

The NFL committed $250 million over 10 years to social justice initiatives. Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “The NFL stands with the Black community, the players, clubs, and fans. Confronting systemic racism with tangible and productive steps is absolutely essential. We will not relent in our work and we will redouble our efforts to be catalysts for the urgent and sustainable change that our society and communities so desperately need.”

As part of its social justice awareness initiatives, NFL end zones are inscribed this season with two slogans: “It Takes All Of Us” on one end line and “End Racism” on the other.

Players are also wearing T-shirts during warmups that say “Injustice against one of us is injustice against all of us” on the front and “End racism” on the back. The shirts were designed by NFL Players Association executive committee member Michael Thomas, a safety with the Houston Texans.

“NBA is showing us how it’s done,” wrote Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills. “Time to connect with local activists to help formulate demands.”

Kelly Simmons, director of professional women’s soccer in the UK, said every player in the league wants to support Black Lives Matter and the league will use its platform to “champion the causes of equality.” Players and clubs in the Women’s Super League unanimously agreed to kneel before the start of each game in support of Black Lives Matter.

Simmons said she is proud of women’s soccer’s stance on equality over the years and wants to see the sport used more to fight for social justice. “It’s important we do the work to make our league inclusive. We have a record of supporting diversity and we’ll continue that.”

With more Black representation than any other major sport in the U.S., the NBA has become a preferred target for racist attacks. The league’s history of activism has made it the object of vilification going back to the Civil Rights era. Now, as rage consumes many in America, hate crimes and online hate speech based on race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and more are a growing problem.

Perversely, positive messages of activism and racial equality have attracted instigators intent on sparking and fanning the flames of hate. A recent social media audit of the Instagram handles of NBA teams showed that more than 70% of teams are experiencing a high-to-very-high level of harmful content on their owned social media pages.

Pro sports leagues have invested heavily in their social media departments, creating a place for teams and players to share friendly updates with their fans across the globe. This same two-way mechanisms, however, opens teams up to incidences of racism, abuse, and fraudulent material that can threaten players’ safety and wellbeing—and adversely affect sensitive younger audiences.

These incidents don’t just stand in the way of progress made by pro sports to engage in a positive dialogue about social justice with their fans. Harmful content can quickly translate to disruptions in business operations and damage to brand reputation.

Playing an effective defense against social media instigators

We know brands’ positive efforts in the fight for social justice and racial equality can be corrupted by negative content coming from determined instigators. Fortunately, we also know that those instigators are a small minority of visitors to owned social media pages, making them easier to target and defeat.

In the NBA audit example, despite the high risk and volume, just 6% of users, on average, were behind all of the harmful content discovered. The digital chatter from these instigators can provide the best early-warning signal of an impending, business-critical incident or issue.

Technology alone cannot prevent this harmful social content from spreading. It requires a combination of the latest advances in online harm detection and the expertise of intelligence teams to constantly identify instigators and new harmful content before it reaches users on owned social media platforms.

Communications, social media, security, and talent teams can all benefit from an early-warning risk intelligence solution that supports the entire enterprise so that they are first to know and act on instigators and the harmful content they spread.

In the meantime, doing the right thing persists online and offline in pro sports. Head coaches and executives have gotten behind efforts to increase quality education opportunities, and teams have worked to improve the relationship between local citizens and law enforcement.

And athletes continue to activate the power of their social media presence, spotlighting peaceful demonstrations, and playing a smothering defense against social media instigators.

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