The player who suffered the first recorded case of racist abuse in women’s professional football has no regrets about reporting it despite “sinking into depression” as a result of subsequent online abuse.
An independent Football Association regulatory commission found that Tottenham defender Renee Hector was racially abused by Sheffield United’s Sophie Jones during a Championship match in January.
Jones was banned for five games and fined £200 but denied allegations she made monkey noises towards Hector.
The forward, whose contract at Sheffield United was terminated by mutual consent in March, told the BBC: “I’m not a racist.”
Hector, who has since joined Charlton Athletic, says that, as a result of the case, she was was sent pictures of baby gorillas and abused about her weight.
The 24-year-old believes harsher punishments should be administered for racist abuse in football and more support should be offered to semi-professional players like her.
But she hopes Jones, who was found by an FA hearing to have lied to “conceal wrongdoing”, can learn from her mistake.
Speaking about the incident for the first time, Hector says the abuse started with accusations of her of “playing the race card” and increased when “unflattering pictures” of her appeared online.
“The online abuse affected me really deeply, but it wasn’t just me, it affected my family and really affected my mum,” Hector told BBC Sport.
“I was just spiralling out of control, basically, I started sinking into depression because there were lots of insecurities that I had already and it was highlighted for the world to see.
“I had spent years struggling with my weight, it first started when my mum got diagnosed with breast cancer and I also tore my anterior cruciate ligament in my knee so I couldn’t play for a year.
“All the comments online sparked all those stories back in my head, and I was my own worst enemy.
“My lowest point was when I had to have a week off work, because I couldn’t physically leave my bed and didn’t really leave the house. Every time I looked in the mirror I felt disgusted with myself.”
‘Raheem Sterling shouldn’t be the only one fighting racism’
Hector says she reported the incident to the referee and her mum at half-time of the match, and she later posted a Tweet detailing what happened without naming Jones.
But despite all the online abuse, she “would do exactly the same thing again”.
“One thing I do know if I stay true to myself,” she said. “If it gets one more person off the pitch who has said something racist then I’ve done what I can to help the cause.
“Take Raheem Sterling, for example. He’s out there as a bit of an advocate to fight racism against football, but it shouldn’t just be him.
“What I went through was difficult, but I’d say don’t be scared in stepping forward because the more that people step forward, the more seriously racism will be taken.”
Since the incident, the FA has increased its sanction for racism involving players to a minimum six-game ban, but Hector said: “I think the punishment needs to be a bit stronger.
“Players need know they are going to be punished significantly, and think twice about doing it because to some people a month out from playing matches isn’t really that long.”
‘I have no hatred towards Jones’
Hector says she was “shocked” to hear racist abuse, given it is almost unheard of in women’s football.
She says she heard monkey noises just before half-time as she contested a corner.
“I was so in shock,” she said. “I thought ‘did I just hear that right?’ And then I could hear my team-mate complaining to the referee about it, so it confirmed I did hear correctly.
“I had to run back into my position but when the whistle blew [to end the half], that’s when it sunk in.
“I went to tell the referee what I heard and my team-mate confirmed it. When we got back to the changing room my team-mate told me who it was. Then I began to get a bit more emotional and angry about it.
“On the way out for the second half I told the referee who it was and she said she would listen out for anything else. Then I just had to get to get back out there and make sure I played the second half to the best of my ability.
“It was probably one of my best games of the season. So obviously I channelled my anger in the right way. It wasn’t until the final whistle that it all hit me. I felt quite emotional and just sat on the floor, reflecting on the situation.
“I couldn’t believe it because I think this is probably the only incident that’s been reported anywhere in women’s football.”
Following the FA verdict, Jones described the hearing as a “kangaroo court”, said she was quitting football and was “unable to play under an organisation that I do not have any confidence in”.
Jones has since told the BBC: “It’s been very mentally challenging. I still struggle today.
“I’ve become a lot more anxious, paranoid and people still stare at me now even though it’s in the past. What really gets me is I’ve had to give up a sport that I love due to somebody’s allegation.”
Asked how she felt towards Jones now, Hector added: “I don’t have any hatred, I just hope she’s learned from the incident and can move forward and obviously try to better herself to make sure she doesn’t make those mistakes again.
“But all the abuse and stuff like that, I wouldn’t wish on her on anybody. I don’t want a life to be ruined.
“It’s just when you do something so wrong, you deserve what comes your way in terms of the punishment by the FA. I just hope she can move forward and make a better choice.”
Players need more support
Despite leaving Tottenham, Hector says she felt supported by “individuals at the club”, her team-mates and coach.
The team, who are semi-professional, were involved in a promotion push and reached the Women’s Super League, where they will become a fully professional club.
But Hector, who will play at Championship level again with new club Charlton, says she would have benefited from access to a psychologist, as away from matches and training she was “a mess”.
“It was difficult because they didn’t have the resources, a sports psychologist or anything like that,” she said.
“In terms of counselling, the coaches offered their support but at the same time, the main concentration was promotion so it was probably quite difficult for them to completely focus their attention on me.”
She added: “Becoming a professional will always be my dream until I’m too old to run around a pitch any more.
“Hopefully we can achieve that this season.”