Rio Ferdinand seems to think his "choc-ice banter" is a private conversation

Footballers, freed from the clutches of their media advisers, can become alarmingly interesting online.

Last week, Rio Ferdinand seemed to endorse the term "choc-ice" on Twitter in reference to fellow black footballer Ashley Cole. He laughed at the term and called it a "classic". Others on Twitter were quick to tell him it was racist. Whatever your interpretation, it was another glimpse into the fabled world of footballing ‘banter.’ Some call it light hearted and harmless fun amongst a self-regulating tribe of exuberant young men for whom pretty much no subject is off limits. Others say it’s cruel bullying by another name. Either way, when banter strays out of the confines of the football pitch or changing room and into the public sphere there is usually trouble. The consensus among footballers seems to be that they can say what they want amongst themselves. The problem is, what they say is increasingly uncontainable and seems to be seeping out into the wider world on a daily basis.

For years football fans longed for their heroes to say something, anything, of interest. Mocking their drearily familiar lexicon of clichés became a cliché in itself. It wasn’t that all footballers were really inarticulate or dull. They were just extremely cautious about media misinterpretations of their words. In no other field are the press quite so obsessive in their scrutiny and so relentless in their speculation. Every utterance of top-flight footballers is analysed to death then reconstituted into the dramatic soap opera plots that are ravenously consumed by millions of obsessive football fans. So, really, it was our own fault that our heroes were so boring. They had to be. Who knew that so many of them were burning with bright ideas, interesting vocabularies, fascinating insights and surprising opinions? They were just too paranoid and PR managed to ever express them. Then Twitter came along.

Footballers who make an art form of mumbled caginess in front of a journalist’s microphone can be the very opposite when engaged in the Twitter app on their smartphone. One minute they’re boring a newspaper with their firm intentions to "take every game as it comes" and the next they are posting pictures of their new hair transplant (as Wayne Rooney did last year), their thoughts on Morrissey and Nietzsche (Joey Barton’s stock in trade) or having a captivatingly ugly spat with a hack (as Rio Ferdinand did with The Mirror’s Oliver Holt last year) for the whole world to see. Twitter has showed us that footballers can be candid, controversial, opinionated and funny. But it has also given us the odd glimpse into the more complicated and politically dubious aspects of their banterish tendencies.

It was in the aftermath of John Terry’s racism trial that a fan tweeted Rio Ferdinand referring to Terry’s character witness Ashley Cole as a choc-ice. Ferdinand responded: "I hear you fella! Choc-ice is classic! hahahahahahha!!" When accusations of racism immediately flooded in, he defended himself by tweeting: "If I want to laugh at something someone tweets....I will! Hahahahaha! Now stop getting ya knickers in a twist!" And later: "What I said yesterday is not a racist term. It's a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake. So there." In other words, it was harmless banter and everyone should get over it. But, as we well know, the internet has no sense of context or irony and takes everything strictly at face value.

We cannot, and probably should not, attempt to censor the rules of private banter, however unpalatable it might sometimes seem to many. But Ferdinand had temporarily suffered from the delusion that conversations on Twitter were sort of private. They couldn’t be any more public.

Ferdinand has more than three million followers on Twitter. More people see his tweets than read most daily newspapers, listen to most national radio stations or watch most terrestrial TV shows. But would he have made a similar remark through any of those more conventional mediums? Of course not. And not just because there’s no Manchester United publicist stood over his shoulder every time he formulates a tweet. Ferdinand is smart and experienced enough as a public figure to know what might cause controversy. And he is probably sensitive enough as a human being to understand what might cause offence. What he might not understand is that all the same rules apply on Twitter. These are not private conversations among a tight-knit community who "get" the rules of banter. It’s clear that he sometimes lapses into imagining that they are.

Footballers, just like everyone else, are still in the preliminary stages of learning how to use social media. Just because it can be controlled directly, invites whimsical, train of thought expression and often carries with it a prevailing air of lawless frivolity, it doesn’t mean that your comments won’t be scrutinised with the same intensity as they are elsewhere. Or have the same impact. No one can stop Rio Ferdinand finding the term "choc-ice" funny. But he can spare everyone else his public LOLs over it.

 

Can Rio Ferdinand spare everyone else his public LOLs over the term "choc-ice", please? Photograph: Getty Images

Sam Delaney also writes for The Guardian, The Big Issue and numerous others.  He is the author of two books: ‘Get Smashed – The Story Of The Men Who Made The Ads That Changed Our Lives’ and ‘Night Of The Living Dad.’ He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 and is a host on talkSPORT radio.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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