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Stewart Donald, abuse and the wider Sunderland fanbase - is it time to draw a line in the sand?

“Football though is a game of opinions, and everyone is entitled to theirs. This isn’t a call to align all opinions into one, but for us all to consider what we say just that little bit more” writes Tom Albrighton.

Sunderland Press Conference - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

A tumultuous week for Sunderland finally concluded itself with the news from Stewart Donald himself that he was saying goodbye to Twitter on a permanent basis thanks to the abuse he had encountered from a minority of Sunderland fans.

It made me wonder - following on from articles by other Roker Report writers, like Neil Graney’s excellent piece on social media trolls - whether in a roundabout way, some of the fans are the bad guy in all of this. I know I stand on shaky ground when you dare to criticise a section of our fan base, but I think this needs to be said.

You see it mainly on Twitter. Maybe it's the instant nature - the short, punchy statements, designed specifically by their authors to cut to the core of their more complicated and weighty argument. I’m a great supporter of Twitter despite its many flaws that have manifested and perpetuated themselves into society, but we all have a distinct responsibility when we use it.

When the vitriol is directed at a faceless, nameless account, like the club itself, the abuse and venom is tempered by the fact that it is a frustration boiled over, but also that there’ll be no retort, no backlash, not even a mention. The faceless nature of these accounts make them an easy target - there’s little to no chance the comments are read and even less that they are taken seriously. Ultimately the end user isn’t personally affected by what is written, they merely brush it over and follow their guide for the day. By rights, these accounts should be the easiest focus for those who want to be vitriolic in their usage, but they aren't.

Sunderland v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

When the target is ‘too easy’, it seems the abuse filters its way to a more cutting source - after all, if you want to be abusive, why abuse someone nameless and faceless when you can instead abuse someone directly, knowing your words will have an effect?

Now, I’m not here to be Stewart Donald’s sword and shield. For me his press releases, statements and the like have occasionally seen him tie himself in knots, but at the same time that doesn't make him a direct target for short burst, knee jerk, scathing abuse. You don't bite the hand that feeds. In turn, a majority of fans who have applauded open communication and honesty have had it stripped from them by those who bypass their platform to discussion and debate, and fall straight into something far less savoury.

The issue with this also lays with a lack of accountability. It was mentioned in the podcast a week or so ago that the notion that people’s accountability and responsibility for their actions has waned in the social media era in which we live. I find it hard to comprehend that the people who hurl their abuse would do the same to someone in the street or to a work colleague, but for some reason, Twitter makes that abuse an acceptable part of society.

As I've seen many a time, Donald has been labelled as “fair game” purely thanks to his online presence. I have no doubt too that if this post is to see the light of day and offend the most serial of offenders and abusers, that they’d see themselves as open to criticism and question. After all, by being online, they're surely “fair game”.

The abuse isn't just online though, although it does stem from there. The abuse of Tom Flanagan threw up another moral dilemma within the Sunderland faithful - at what point does the abuse ever stop? For those with short memories or that are maybe unaware, Flanagan - an unused sub at Lincoln - was subjected to a verbal tirade as he signed autographs for what seemed to be a selection of younger fans. The short, punchy snap, “a waste of space”, wasn't the most cutting, but it was unnecessary. The fan, anonymous. Accountability, zero. Toxicity between players and fans, increased.

For the record, this isn't me taking a moral high ground where I pretend I haven't been screaming and shouting at the match - in fact, i'm a repeat offender. But therein lies the difference. As far as I’m concerned, during the 90 minutes I’ll have my say, because I’ll scream as much with delight as I will with disdain. That's just par for the course.

Where it should stop, but doesn’t, is when players are going about their day to day - when fans just want to talk about their football club, to do what other fans and players across the country do but for some reason at Sunderland this seems an almost impossible wish.

Writing as I do for Roker Report has seen me come into criticism by virtue that I dare write my opinion and share it via a medium that does not limit me to 240 characters, whereby there has been a false pretence attached to all its contributors that somehow our word and our opinion is packaged in a manner where we believe it means more than anyone elses. It doesn't, it won't and it never will do. It serves again to highlight the vitriolic nature of Sunderland-related Twitter. We’re just ordinary fans, writing our thoughts - why does that warrant animosity by association?

All in all, its gone too far. Whilst match days for the most part remain uncompromised for now, this has to stop before it spirals beyond control. We are edging towards a situation where this nature from a small section of fans will start to perpetuate itself outside of the club. There's a fine line between passionate and abusive - it’s a line we don't want to cross.

As it stands, we’re starting to become embroiled in a situation where swathes of fans are starting to resent other fans despite us all wanting the same things, and that in itself is sad. Be it 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000, we are all better together, united by more than divides us. Luckily, I do believe it's a minority issue for now, and a large section of our support remains exemplary across the board - however, as has always been the case, the emptiest of vessels make the most noise.

We don’t need unwarranted reputations, least of all undeserved ones. So, for the sake of everyone, let's take a second and think about what we’re saying, what we’re doing and who we’re saying it to before we press send. What seems small and insignificant can have more of an impact than we care to believe.

Sheffield United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

It all does have an impact too. Without relating this too much to recent events, the subject still needs addressed regardless. As fans, we are placed into a position whereby as individuals we make very little difference, however as a wider number, we make a huge one.

I find myself wondering at times how this makes us appear to those outside of the bubble. In recent weeks the venom directed towards Jack Ross was widely noted and although the criticism of Ross and his failings was more than fair, there comes a point where it crosses the line - where the abuse starts to harm not just who it is aimed at, but those around us.

Anecdotally, I attended Bolton away with another Roker Reporter and his partner, who had travelled from Scotland to see the game. The performance was bad enough, but the abuse directed at Ross - shouts of “you Scottish c**t” and the likes - was too far. From the stands the gaffer probably doesn't hear that, but from five feet away my friends from Scotland do.

It’s fine lines, but when fine lines are crossed it hurts people. It makes them feel unwelcome. A Sunderland fan shouldn't feel like an imposter in their own crowd.

That's where the issue really hits home for me.

Although I don't agree with the vitriol outside of the game, in everyday life professionals are handsomely paid for what is essentially a natural gift. Where I draw the line is when fans are made to feel uncomfortable supporting their team, afraid to share their thoughts and opinions, having their enjoyment counteracted by those with a more negative outlook on it.

Sheffield United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

Football though is a game of opinions, and everyone is entitled to theirs.

This isn't a call to align all opinions into one, but for us all to consider what we say just that little bit more. If you thought Jack Ross was dour then say he’s dour, jibe at his hands in his pockets - just don’t assault the fibre of his being with lazy, xenophobic remarks.

Sunderland, to me, is and should always be a family. It’s a club where if someone's stuck for a lift there's always someone with a spare seat; a club where if someone's stuck for a ticket there's always a spare at face value; a club where for those who can't afford it, fans buy other fans tickets so nobody has to go without.

That's something I don't want us to lose, but something I fear we may.

I am in no way suggesting that the fans are a root cause of evil, or that we can be blamed when things go wrong, but we can be responsible for how we behave. It hasn't hit critical mass yet, in fact, its some way away, but reputations take years to build and only minutes to destroy. Do we want our legacy to be the generation of fans that saw Sunderland support divided, or do we want to be remembered by our togetherness at our lowest ebb?

It all reminds me of that famous Mitchell & Webb scene with the Nazis in the bunker, when upon reviewing their actions that they deemed to be just, begin to question everything they stand for in a stark realisation, and in that brief moment of self reflection one turns to the other and asks, “Hans... are we the baddies?”.

The whole point is that I don't want us to get to the point where we ask that question of ourselves.

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