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.