Over the last month much of Europe has been caught in a football obsession. As football drew to a crescendo over the weekend (a disappointing one for England fans, ecstatic for followers of Italy), we saw how football can bring us together and divide us.
As policy-makers and fans we should use the best bits of football and other sports to improve outcomes and find robust evidence-based ways of tackling the worst parts of sport and society as a whole.
Let’s start with the good news
While we tend to prefer people like us, sports are a great way to create a shared identity by expanding the definition of ‘us’ and shrinking the definition of ‘them’. Recent academic studies have shown how sport can bring people together and reduce prejudice. In the UK, there was a reduction in Islamaphobic hate crime in Liverpool after Mo Salah joined Liverpool FC. In Africa, countries that just managed to qualify to the African Cups Nations had subsequently less internal conflict than teams that just failed to qualify. In Iraq, playing football in a ethnically mixed team reduced prejudice and discrimination.
Similar trends have been observed in the UK. At BIT we have tweaked how 170 youth sports camps were run by randomly creating ethnically mixed teams and cohesion building exercises (e.g. uniforms, songs, cool team names). By creating new group identities with mixed ethnicities in a competitive environment we aimed to shift the targets of negative biases towards characteristics that are meaningless in the real-world (e.g. wearing a red t-shirt), and as a result reduce prejudice against people from different ethnic backgrounds. However, the impact of these interventions wasn’t clear, as we found very low levels of prejudice in young people in our sample to start with, making it hard to detect an effect, but perhaps pointing to a more hopeful and tolerant next generation.
All of this seems to work much better when your team wins. This was perhaps most poignantly captured by Mesut Özil:
Indeed, the study in Iraq showed even greater effects on prejudice reduction for teams who performed well in the tournaments. A related, and unfortunately very relevant point for England, is that finishing 2nd may feel worse than finishing 3rd as demonstrated by the emotional reactions of Olympic medalists. We don’t know whether public backlash, as well as the emotions of competitors, is worse the closer to victory a team or an individual gets, but this could be further investigated so that interventions could be targeted at those times i.e. after a semi final or final if these create particularly visceral reactions.
This brings us to the bad news
Sport can exacerbate tensions, reinforce divisions and even drive violence in the home. The racist abuse of England footballers online and the defacing of a mural of Marcus Rashford shows the divisive and hurtful consequences of some people’s reaction to results.
So how do we stop the online abuse, hate crime and divisive messaging?
One important point is that we truly do not know enough about what’s effective at preventing online racism and hate crime. There is rightfully ongoing outrage at hateful abuse targeted at footballers and others online. There are also well-meaning campaigns such as Hope United and Hate Won’t Win, both aiming to draw attention to the issue and remove hateful posts. However, few interventions have been rigorously tested, as a result we do not know what works to prevent online hate crime.
It appears that directly engaging with racist people online can be effective, but who the messenger is matters. In one study on Twitter, a profile of a White man asking a White abuser to think about the harm they were causing was more effective in reducing subsequent hateful tweets than the same message sent from a profile of a Black man. This points to a promising avenue to tackle online hatred by shifting the social norm through rapid feedback loops to people posting offensive comments, letting them know why others who are similar to them find their posts unacceptable.
It’s also worth considering that blanket coverage of a tiny number of racists may provide them with a ‘signal boost’ and availability bias may kick in for many people – i.e. extensive coverage of racist posts may make them appear more frequent and normal than they actually are. In contrast, promoting the fact that the majority of fans do not act in this way could reinforce the real social norm with the public – i.e. that racism is viewed as unacceptable by the vast majority of people.
Football can be a powerful unifier for society, but right now it is also acting as a trigger for a minority of individuals to act harmfully toward others. We need to learn how to use sports to reduce hate – this means learning what does and does not work. Robustly evaluating behaviourally-informed strategies such as directly engaging with online abusers at scale or identifying the best messenger to reduce hate speech would be a great starting place. If we begin to do this effectively, we can work towards a future where football can truly be a home for all in society.