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18 May 2021 | 16:16

Following the recent boycott of social media platforms because of the lack of action over online hate and racism across sport, Nahimul Islam – the founder and director of Wapping Youth FC – blogs for the Sport for Development Coalition about what the protest meant at grassroots level in his community, and why he believes sustained, systemic change must come “from the top”. 

We supported the social media boycott and made sure our social media activity stopped during the long weekend, from Friday to Monday. We sympathise, and empathise, with the people being subjected to online abuse; most of our players are from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds and many of them have suffered abuse, including cyber-bullying, in the past. We wanted to take a stance because our football club is representing a culturally diverse community; we wanted to show that we understand our members and our players and that we do not tolerate it at any level. It’s not just about the professional level, we want to kick out racism at a grassroots level in sport, and in our community.

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As a young guy from the Bangladeshi community living in Tower Hamlets, when I started out in football I remember being called names and getting abuse. People tried to undermine you, and tried to put you off, to the point where it felt like they were just trying to stop what you are doing for the local community. The saddest thing was that it often came from other clubs; they would see it as rivalry I suppose. But it just made me more hungry and determined to remove these issues. There’s absolutely no reason why there can’t be lots of teams within a borough, it just means more young people benefit. But a lot of people saw us as competition, and racism was used as a tool to encourage hate and division. I could understand why people would just want to throw the towel in, but here I am eight years later running an organisation with 500 members and 45 volunteers. That’s how I chose to respond. 

Whether it’s someone like me coaching in grassroots football, or Raheem Sterling playing football for England, these role models are out there doing things for the community and for young people so I just cannot understand why anyone should be on the receiving end of racism. The only thing I can think of is that the people doing it feel intimidated, or even jealous. Perhaps they think they will get some profile by targeting the role models with the most followers, and maybe get picked up by the media. They are attention-seekers, and I do wonder if the media should stop publicising it because the people doing it just want a reaction. Perhaps if what they have done appears in news articles they think they have accomplished something. Maybe if we ignore it and don’t give it publicity – whether through social media or mainstream media – and tackle it in a more discrete manner, that could be a way of shutting it down.

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One of my missions, and how I definitely feel we could help to tackle discrimination, would be to have more representation at the top, and in boardrooms. We are still striving to get an Asian footballer in the Premier League, for example – never mind an Asian coach, and more Black coaches in general. It often seems like the people who make the decisions about us, seem to know nothing about us. For us to make a change, we really need representation at that level and that means throughout governing bodies and everywhere. Until we have that the decision-makers will never understand what the actual issues are at a local level amongst specific communities. Everything starts at a local level, so it’s about educating and providing knowledge to those at the top about what is offensive to our community, and what isn’t. The knowledge isn’t there yet. Sometimes it’s not about what you say, it’s the way you dress or respecting other cultural issues. So yes we are highlighting racism but there’s much, much more to it than just social media; that gets the attention but we want to talk about what about what goes on in our everyday lives, and those small everyday examples of discrimination. 

As an example, it’s good to see a wider understanding and recognition of Ramadan beyond the Muslim community, but you have to ask, why has that not been the case for the last few years? I was speaking to some people at a football club academy recently and asked ‘What are you guys doing to accommodate players that are fasting during Ramadan for football training?’. Nothing was being done and many of them didn’t even know what Ramadan was. These are the little things in everyday life which demonstrate we do not have accessibility needs being met. I think until those people who make the decisions in sport understand what is needed in every religion and every community, and this becomes normal practice from the top, then we will struggle to completely eliminate racism. We haven’t normalised these things, we want people to understand each other and their faiths.

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We salute those behind the social media boycott, and we applaud it, but we need more concrete action to be taken. From a grassroots perspective, we wanted to support the boycott and stand with those behind it, but we also need a much more inclusive approach across sport. I’m not saying that overnight we will employ people from diverse communities to be directors everywhere, but we can definitely have more advisory groups and increase representation. The bottom line is we need more education, and it’s important that following the boycott, we keep asking – has there been any impact, or will everything just go back to normal on social media? We want to find out the difference it has made, and we want to keep pushing for change. 

Read more about Wapping Youth FC. The club is supported by Sported and StreetGames