FOOTBALL legend Thierry Henry always made people sit up and take notice with what he did on the field.
Now he’s doing the same off the pitch.
The former Arsenal and France superstar announced last week he was coming off social media in protest at the tech giants failing to keep their users safe from racial and other abuse.
SunSport columnist and Watford striker Troy Deeney chatted to Henry about the reasons behind his action, and what he wants Instagram, Twitter and the other platforms to do.
TD: What made you take this stance now?
TH: Troy, for me, it’s pretty simple. We can go back to the whole history of our community.
It wasn’t just yesterday, the day before yesterday, or the day before the day before yesterday. It’s been going on forever. In football, racism used to come from the stands. You play for Watford so you know how big John Barnes is, not only for Watford but for the game. I saw stories of John Barnes when I was young, of Marius Tresor when I was growing up in France.
There are lots of stories. You have them. I have them. Everybody has them.
But I talk, we talk, I talk, we talk, I talk, we talk. “What was it?” “How did you feel?” “Did you sleep well that night?” “Did you wake up well?” I talk, we talk, I talk, we talk – I’ve had enough of talking.
TD: I’m laughing because it’s true.
TH: I’ve had enough of talking, Troy. They ask me a question and I say: “Play my video from five years ago.”
TD: Or ten years ago.
TH: Or ten years ago. The only thing that has changed is it is on social media.
DAN KING: When you started playing, Thierry, you might get abuse in the stadium. But with social media they can get to you 24/7.
TH: And they can hide behind being anonymous. If you say something in the stand and I see you, I can report you.
TD: If you racially abused someone on the street, you’d go to jail.
TH: There is freedom of speech. But you can’t shout whatever you want in an airport, a cinema, a police station. This is my point: accountability.
Wilfried Zaha got abused and we find out after that the kid is 12 years old. How do you have an account? How can we not know who you are behind that account?
You have ways, come on! NHS number, National Insurance number or your passport. There has to be some kind of accountability there. It can’t be:
“Sorry, it’s up to the user, we didn’t know. We’re going to delete his account.”
All you have is the IP address. I take another device and open another account. How do you know the guy is over 13 and so allowed to be on social media? It’s too easy.
But Troy, you try to put on a video you don’t own the copyright on? You see how quick they take that down. And you didn’t do it to hurt anyone.
They’ve invented some kind of algorithm so you can’t even press send. So how come you can press send when it’s about abuse? It is a great tool. It is very important. You can connect to your fans, you can connect to your family.
People can sometimes use aliases to make sure that they expose what’s happening in their country or whatever, and they don’t want to get caught. It’s great.
But when it’s not used for the right thing or in the right manner, then we need a way to find who is behind the account or some consequences for it.
TD: What is your attitude to social media and your kids?
TH: Even if you have two million comments that are great, if you have one or two or three that aren’t, it has an impact on you. I’m a man, I’m 43, but
I’m still trying to figure out what kind of person I can be. So just imagine when you are a kid and what it can do to your mental health.
The sheer pressure of not being on Instagram or Twitter or whatever is second to none for kids. I’m always going to fight for my community and my sport. Being black and in football, I’ve seen too many people suffer.
But let’s not forget about the rest. That’s why I mentioned bullying and harassment and the impact it can have on you mentally. People go to the extent of committing suicide. Not only black people are getting abuse on social media, not only football players.
TD: Gareth Bale has said he would back a boycott. What kind of impact can we have?
TH: Look I’m not asking for that, I am alone, but look at the impact it had. But I don’t want to be the guy who says: “We must do this.”
TD: But you are a legend of the game. You’re a hero to people. I know you have humility. So when you go, I’m like: “I’m with you.”
TH: Then be with me but only be with me because you feel it. What Bale said and what Gareth Southgate said, what I like about it, is that they understand it’s a global problem. It’s not only a race issue.
I love the fact that Bale came out and supported the two players (Ben Cabango and Rabbi Matondo, who suffered online racial abuse after Wales’ game against Mexico last weekend).
People aren’t asking the question only to the black player. It’s like in a game, would you walk off the pitch? Yes, I would, but are we going to stop the game and are my team-mates going to walk off with me? Or am I walking alone?
I want it to be a powerful, peaceful thing, which everyone is involved in.
TD: But it’s an important tool. Some people need it to reach their fans, some people need it for money. Can you understand why they might find it difficult to come off it?
TH: I asked my agent to call my sponsors, because I wanted to let them know that I was about to do that. They backed me.
TD: Can I play devil’s advocate . . ?
TH: I know exactly what you are going to say: “They cannot be seen to be not backing me.”
This is what I’m saying to players: “Do you think they are going to cut your contract because you want to stand for a good cause?”
TD: Of course not. The question is: “How many people have the mental strength?” The pressure we spoke about for kids is the same for footballers: “I need to post that.”
You see when someone scores, within 20 minutes the picture is up: “I scored, the fans were great, thank you, blah, blah, blah.” How many people are ready to back away from that?
TH: I learned something recently. The real strength is to realise how weak you are. I used to be strong just for the sake of it. My weakness is my kids.
My weakness is seeing people suffering, seeing my community suffering. You need to realise you have that weakness, to have that strength.
TD: You’re saying: “This is what I’m doing, follow or don’t follow.” Now we, from a media point of view, have to start asking the right questions.
You are laying down a challenge. What’s the next step for you? You’ve come away from it — will you never go back?
TH: I want to go back. I will go back. But can it be safer? That’s all I’m asking. I don’t want to go on my platform and think: “Do I read the next message? Oh, yes, it’s OK. This one . . . ” Why? They should do that for us. It’s their platform.
TD: What is the point when you come back?
TH: I don’t know. Ask them. If you go to a place and you get abuse and you go back there every weekend, you think: “You know what, this place is not great? Why would you go again next weekend? Maybe we should try another place.”
Everything is possible if you want to. How you go about it, I don’t have the tools. I’m a footballer, I could play OK, I have kids, I can speak different languages, I went to school, I’m not stupid, I can read.
But they have people in charge there who know what can be done.
When you want to do something, you can, or you can find a way.
Ask the people in charge what they plan to do about it. It’s a global issue, not only about race. It is my way of saying enough is enough.
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