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Rio Ferdinand says he encouraged gay male footballer to come out but the player was advised not to

It’s about, ‘are you capable of coming out and being able to withstand that media attention?’’

Rio Ferdinand [file photo].
Rio Ferdinand [file photo].
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

RIO FERDINAND HAS revealed he encouraged a gay male footballer to come out – but said the individual was later advised against it.

Ferdinand gave evidence to a joint committee of MPs and peers on Thursday morning listening to views on the draft Online Safety Bill, designed to tackle the scourge of online abuse.

The former England and Manchester United defender spoke about the impact of online racist abuse, but when the session turned towards issues around homophobia, he said: “I’ve just met currently a player who had come out, and he was advised by a lawyer not to come out and speak.

“I initially said ‘you need to come out and speak your truth and be proud of who you are’. The reason why the lawyer advised him not to come out is because every individual is very different and you can’t use a blanket approach.

“(The lawyer) advised him based on his experience with that individual, and he didn’t think that he was strong enough mentally at that time, and have the right pieces in place to be able to withstand the media attention and the spotlight.”

The Football Association’s director for equality, diversity and inclusion Edleen John said her organisation was working hard to make men’s football a more inclusive environment, and one a gay player would be comfortable to come out in.

But it remains the case that there are no openly gay current players in the English professional game.

Ferdinand felt the attention on men’s football meant it was unfair to compare it with how many openly homosexual athletes there were in other sports.

“The amount of eyeballs and the amount of attention and press pages that they’re going to get extra is so much more,” he said.

“It’s about, ‘are you capable of coming out and being able to withstand that media attention?’”

Ferdinand has also revealed how members of his family would “disintegrate” at seeing online abuse aimed at the former England and Manchester United defender.

His brother Anton had told the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday that in his view the social media companies would not act on online abuse until a footballer or celebrity took their own life, by which time it would be too late.

Ferdinand spoke openly about how the abuse can impact individuals and their families.

“When you sit at home and you look on there and there’s negative discrimination and prominent for you to see, self-esteem and your mental health is at risk,” he said.

“And again, it’s not just about that person, it’s the wider network of that person and what it does to family and friends.

“I’ve seen members of my family disintegrate at times, I’ve seen other sports stars’ family members taking it worse than the actual person who’s receiving the abuse.”

Ferdinand felt too much of the onus to block abusers lay with the victim.

“I think that’s an easy cop-out for the social media platforms when they put forward ideas like that,” he said.

Ferdinand felt it was “baffling” that social media companies could act so quickly on issues around copyright but could not be so proactive on discrimination.

He said there was a “disheartening” inevitability about the abuse directed at England trio Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho after the penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy in the final of Euro 2020 at Wembley in July.

He said: “When those three players missed those penalties, the first thing I thought was ‘let’s see what happens on social media’. I expected (the abuse) to happen.”

Ferdinand cited what he felt were the lack of consequences for online abuse, compared to in-person acts.

He said someone would be identified and punished for throwing a banana onto the pitch, but added: “Online you can post a banana (emoji) and be fine. There are no repercussions. How can that be right?”

Edleen John, the Football Association’s director of international relations, corporate affairs and equality, diversity and inclusion, suggested a “layered” approach to accessing platforms where people could not or would not share identity verification.

“When it comes to verification, social media companies seem to believe that it’s a binary option, an on-off switch where people have to provide all information or no information,” John said.

“What we believe is that there are multiple layers and multiple mechanisms which could be used in combination that could be used to tackle this issue.

“ID verification is one element, default settings could be another, the limiting of reach could be another.

“The reason we think it has to be a layering is because when we look at the volume of abuse that is received across the world of football, we see that a lot of the abuse is coming from ‘burner’ accounts, where people set up an account, send abusive messages, delete an account and are able to re-register another account within moments.”

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John described the regulatory systems put in place by the social media companies themselves akin to “putting a band-aid over a bullet wound”.

Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari told the committee there was a clear disconnection between the social media companies’ European management and their American headquarters.

“My experience is we will have conversations in London, and it will be London says ‘oh, that’s interesting, maybe’ and then California says ‘no’,” he said.

“I’m not sure if I’m stuck in Groundhog Day or Dante’s Inferno. Either way, it’s a deeply unpleasant experience.”

Bhandari said access to platforms was currently too frictionless and added: “It’s too easy for someone to just turn up and abuse someone.

“We have to remember that the online world of abuse is not someone standing on Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park and shouting abuse into the ether.

“This is 150 people in a Twitter pitchfork mob turning up in your living room and spitting abuse in your eyes, whilst your family are next door, unable to do anything about it. That’s the problem that we’re dealing with and that’s the problem we need to address.”

Bhandari said legislation would need to anticipate new methods of abuse.

“We are not legislating for the world as it is now, we also have to legislate for the world as it is going to be and we can’t anticipate all of those changes,” he said.

“So the best thing to do is to give Ofcom the power to do that.”

Imran Ahmed, the chief executive from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said social media giants had proved “incapable of regulating themselves” and that at every turn they “put profit before people.”

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