Tackling big issues: how EFL prepares would-be stars of the future

It is Thursday afternoon and 185 people, the majority scholars from English Football League academies, are tuned into Dismantling Discrimination Online, a Zoom webinar that centres on the game’s increasingly volatile relationship with social media. Coaches and parents are also in attendance for an interactive session courtesy of League Football Education (LFE), which delivers the EFL’s welfare programmes, in conjunction with Kick It Out.

It begins with couple of quick polls; one reveals 48% of those on the call have witnessed or experienced online discrimination. A later vote shows 97% believe not enough is being done to stop online discrimination taking place. Last month the EFL, with other football bodies, sent an open letter to the heads of Twitter and Facebook criticising “inaction” and demanding change.

The session offers essential but at times tough listening, including when Kick It Out’s head of development, Troy Townsend, lays bare instances of sickening abuse, citing the monkey emojis sent to Axel Tuanzebe after Manchester United conceded a last-minute equaliser against Everton in February. Last week Fred, at fault for the opening goal in defeat by Leicester, became the latest player to be racially abused online.

Marcus Gayle, the former Brentford and Wimbledon forward, who works as a tutor for Kick It Out, explains how he treats social media as akin to his front door. His Twitter and Instagram accounts are private. “I want to know who is knocking on my door before I decide who I am letting in,” says Gayle. “It is a beautiful game but it has an ugly underbelly at times where, in particular this last 12 months or so, people just vent their fury online. Especially with the lockdowns, people don’t have that release at the stadiums any more and now they find their safe place to vent any fury is via social media.”

One of the staff on the call is Forest Green Rovers’ academy manager, Hannah Dingley, who two years ago became the first woman appointed to such a role in the EFL. “It was a thought-provoking session,” she says afterwards. “It is something we need to talk about because football is still quite an insular world. There are not a lot of Asian players and not one male player has come out while playing as gay, so there are still lots of barriers.”

LFE puts on life skills sessions for youngsters during their two-year scholarship that focus on everything from equality to mental health, sexual health, financial planning and addiction. “I say to all of the boys who sign up to our scholarship programme: ‘I can’t promise you a professional contract at the end of this and I can’t promise you’re going to get sold to Manchester City but what I can promise is you’re going to have a really good education,’” Dingley says.

In terms of social media, LFE workshops highlight potential red flags. “Are their accounts private? Who can see them?” Dingley says. “What they post now and what they might have posted as 14-year-old can come back to bite.”

In an era of clicks and likes, youngsters can be vulnerable. “It used to be reading the paper the next day, to see your rating out of 10,” says Dingley. “A young boy just got offered a pro contract and his parents are going, ‘There is someone offering him free socks’ after contacting him on Twitter. ‘Can he wear these socks and tweet how good they are?’ He is a 15-year-old boy and we’re going, ‘The first thing you need to do is make your account private so you can’t be contacted by every Tom, Dick and Harry’.”

In another session, Townsend discusses changing-room music and asks whether the boys are aware of the language used in genres such as drill. “It is something you wouldn’t necessarily think about but it can incite violence and people can perceive it in a different way,” says George Pratt, a first-year scholar at Blackburn Rovers. “Some people might be offended by it.”

Dingley raises the example of Elliott Whitehouse, the Forest Green midfielder who was banned for six games while at Grimsby for using the word “pikey” towards the Irish midfielder Alan McCormack. “You’ve seen players banned for saying things they didn’t even know were discriminatory,” she says. “Understanding what language is and isn’t acceptable is important.”

According to the EFL, 45% of players who come through their academies earn professional contracts. Through a tracking programme, LFE remains in contact with former players up to three years after they have been released. Among the former apprentices are pilots, entrepreneurs, solicitors and rap artists.

“You’ve got to have a backup plan,” says Pratt. “I want to be an RAF electrical engineer if I don’t make it as a footballer. I’ve never been told I am going to make it … it’s all very real and they tell you straight.”

This 50-minute session is also to the point. It ends with a brief Q&A. But the big question has already been asked: can online abuse be overcome? Townsend puffs his cheeks before Gayle answers. “The owners of social media companies have the ultimate power, but they’re picking and choosing what is important,” he says. “When it comes to online abuse of individuals, there seems to be a Zimmer-frame pace of action. We know they need to do better. The question is: ‘Why don’t they do better?’”