Sue Smith: "Education is key" to tackling online hate in football

Sue Smith talks during the BT Hope United Roadshow

Football is renowned for its family-like club communities, unforgettable memories, and its ability to provide a real sense of belonging — that’s why it’s called the beautiful game.

However, there is a dark side that continues to stain the globally loved sport.

Hate and discrimination remains a huge problem in football and it affects those on the pitch as well the people watching in the stands or at home.

In a world heavily reliant on social media, online hate has become a growing concern. 

According to a recent study, one third of young people admitted to encountering hate speech online. 

Movements like Hope United — a BT campaign spearheaded by stars of the Home Nations, including Marcus Rashford, Lucy Bronze, and Trent Alexander-Arnold — have been put together to help stamp out online hate.

Former England international and television presenter Sue Smith is just one of the household names working closely with BT and its mission to make football a safer place for all.

The broadcaster is currently working with non-profit organisation Cybersmile in creating an online education system designed to help equip young people with the knowledge of how to tackle online hate.

She most recently visited North Shields FC to deliver a football masterclass as well as a digital skills lesson aimed at teaching the importance of being kind online.

For Smith, this is something close to her heart. As a woman working in an industry that’s very heavily male-dominated, online hate and trolling is unfortunately a regular occurrence.

“We think it’s getting better but then we keep seeing more incidents — we saw it with the England men’s team after the Euros,” Smith told GiveMeSport Women. “You can’t believe it’s still happening, but it is.”

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Since hanging up their boots, Smith and fellow England icons like Alex Scott and Karen Carney have taken up prominent roles as pundits and presenters across both the men’s and women’s game. 

Smith is a regular commentator on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday — a show that has featured mainly male panellists since its original release in 1992. 

And despite being a popular figure with her sharp reporting and insightful analysis, she has been subject to criticism simply for being a woman. 

Smith admitted that she and several of her friends have experienced online hate and stressed that educating social media users on this topic is crucial when it comes to trying to minimise such cases.

The Hope United Roadshow and Cybersmile offer online modules featuring the likes of Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, and Helen Ward, designed to provide users with tips on how to be good digital citizens.

“Education is the key to everything, isn’t it?” Smith said. “The more of this stuff that we can do, and get out to youngsters to educate them early, the better it will be for everybody.

“We put a slide up showing how we can make social media a nicer place, and there’s lots of different ways to make it better, but all of us need to do that.”

The former Lioness encouraged the idea of voicing good thoughts and feedback about people we see on television.

“Why not go and tell them? Go and put nice things online rather than the negative things. I always try to reply to everyone I can if they send me nice things because it does mean a lot.

“They’ve taken the time to actually say they really enjoyed what I did or something I did was really good. It’s nice and it does make you feel good — but you might get ten really nice tweets and one that’s not very nice, and that’s the one that sometimes sticks with you.

“Football is full of opinions and I love it when I get somebody messaging me saying something like ‘you said you thought Fulham will get promoted into the Premier League, well I actually think Sheffield United will get promoted’. And that sort of thing is brilliant.

“You can have a bit of back and forth about football, but when they say ‘you know nothing because you’re a woman’, that’s out of order.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of friends where they’ve had other abuse just because of maybe the colour of their skin, their sexuality, and just because they’re a woman, and they’re the sort of things that have to go. We all have opinions, but you don’t have to go one step too far.”

The Hope United Roadshow is the latest phase in BT’s ‘4-3-3’ strategy — a five-year plan using technology and innovation in footballing communities across the UK to help change the lives of millions of players, coaches and fans.

BT and Cybersmile’s modules are available to anyone at https://cybersmileeducation.org/roadshow/

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