Why must our sporting idols be nice?

Desire to place the highly successful on a pedestal does no one any favours.

I was at the O2 last week to witness one of the great spectacles in sport as Roger Federer dismantled Janko Tipsarevic in little over an hour, barely breaking sweat in the process.

What struck me however, apart from the incredible beauty of the 31-year-old’s game, was the sheer noise that accompanied his every move. Had someone told me that I had somehow lost myself in the arena’s vast upper tier for four weeks and emerged during one of The Rolling Stones’ sold out gigs at the end of the month I wouldn’t have doubted them.

I have watched Federer play in this country a number of times now and each time I do I am amazed at the incredible level of popularity that follows the Swiss everywhere he goes. As Andy Murray found out at Wimbledon on in July and again on Sunday night, patriotic fervour has nothing on Federer’s universal charm.

Elite sportsmen attracting widespread adoration is hardly groundbreaking or newsworthy, but the almost cult like following that Federer enjoys verges on the unnerving.

I have lost count of the amount of people who, like characters from the Gillian Cross novel The Demon Headmaster, have trotted out the same lines about how classy the Swiss is, both on and off the court- the words “humble” and “great” following not far behind.

I would, from a pure sportsmanship perspective, severely dispute this assertion but what is it about players, be it in single or team events that fans care so desperately as to whether or not they are nice human beings?  

It seems that we want to feel that despite all of the scarcely unbelievable successes our heroes enjoy, at the end of the day when they take off their boots and throw down their kitbag they are just like you or me.

In fact, the more successful they are, the more desperately this emotional link is sought after.

When Tiger Woods burst onto the golf scene at the 1997 Masters, romping to his first major win at the age of 21, the story was of a charming college graduate with an unbreakable bond with his father Earl. When Lance Armstrong won the first of his seven tainted Tour de France titles, many journalists were prepared to ignore the doubts surrounding the legitimacy of his victory and chose to focus on the medical miracle. It was if they too needed to believe in something perfectly accessible.

If we revisit Federer for a moment, I am not for a moment comparing his conduct to that of Woods or Armstrong but I cannot be alone, for example, in noticing his crass speech after winning the Wimbledon title in 2009.

The victorious Federer, a then six time winner of tennis’ most prized trophy, tried to pretend, or honestly believed, that he knew how Roddick, a three time runner up, was feeling. The American’s bewildered facial expression said it all.

As Roddick began to come to terms with the fact that he had won the most service games ever captured in a Wimbledon final only to come up short again, Federer unfurled a new wardrobe already emblazoned with details of his most recent triumph.

Later in the year, as he let a two sets to one lead slip against Juan Martin del Potro, Federer was involved in a flashpoint with umpire Jake Garner and was fined for swearing in an exchange with the official.

His tears at the 2009 Australian Open - what now must be seen as a shamefully self pitying gesture in response to losing three consecutive major finals to Rafael Nadal. If there were "first world" tennis problems, Federer had them.

Yet despite all of this, the Swiss was still handed the ATP’s "Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award" for the year. The yarn of nicety was one too good to stop spinning.  

Andrew Castle often notes that Federer had a fiery temper as a teenage junior as he struggled at times to mould his incredible talent into a world conquering force. “What changed?” the former British number one often muses.

Well, winning of course. It is not difficult to be gracious in victory and, more often than not, Federer has his ATP brand friendly platitudes mastered perfectly. The BBC even used the clipped quotes from a victorious Federer to justify their assertion that Andy Murray would one day win a major title of his own.

But look deeper. When losing his biggest matches and in career defining defeats Federer has lacked all of the class that supposedly sets him apart as a human being.  That evidence is everywhere.

The reality Federer is no better or worse than the vast majority of players on tour, he just wins more than most. He breaks equipment and swears on microphone just like everyone else, however, because of his supreme level of performance across a decade, there are many who are desperate to set their man on a pedestal in order that they can identify with their idol.
The logic seems to be that if they can label him an all conquering everyman and hero, his remarkable string of achievements become easier to understand and digest.

It is the same emotion that compels many to begin writing Federer’s sporting obituary as if, at 31, he has spent 13 sedentary years since turning 18 mixing hit and giggle tennis with a rock and roll lifestyle. This desire to understand works both for and against the 17 time major champion.

Once a trust has been lost, as Woods and Armstrong have found in recent times, it is lost forever, but whilst an illusion of niceness and level headedness remains, fans will defend their heroes to the hilt.

It is for these reasons that I have always found figures like undefeated American boxer Floyd Mayweather the perfect antidote to this desire for niceness. His flaws as a human being, of which there are many, are such that no commentator would ever accuse him of being a crowd favourite but the 34-year-old is a phenomenal talent who knows how to put on a good show.

He invites Justin Bieber to guest star amongst his entourage and, at a time when the ATP try and encourage their combatants to talk respectfully about wealth and privilege to make them more accessible to the average fan, Mayweather takes his laptop around his $10m house to show off his array of supercars and female companions to US soldiers posted in Iraq.  

This may not be classy behaviour but it ensures that we enjoy Mayweather for his ability alone and do not get caught up in linking sporting wealth to moral fibre or personal likeability. After the wealthiest fighter in the history of the sport beat Miguel Cotto earlier this year to protect his perfect record as a professional, he spent 87 days in prison for battery. The lines between professional perfection and personal fallibility could not have been more starkly drawn.

Closer to home, the freedom afforded football figures like Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez after being written off as morally bankrupt at various stages of their careers, has  actually been beneficial. After all, it is hard enough being a world class sportsman without having to be everyone’s favourite personality too.

It is busting this compulsion to box our idols into a more accessible category that takes a massive weight off the shoulders of the athletically gifted and allows them to focus on what we love them for most.

Perhaps Roger Federer should shun his moral compass for the 2013 season and alienate some of his loyal fans with an ill-advised outburst. He might just relish the freedom.  
 

Is Roger Federer as nice as we think he is, or does he just win a lot? Photograph: Getty Images

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.