Darcus Howe meets Big "lazy, thick nigger" Ron

I meet Big Ron Atkinson, who once referred to a footballer as a "lazy, thick nigger"

I left for Birmingham early on Saturday morning to confront Ron Atkinson in a BBC documentary. Atkinson, you may remember, is the football commentator (and ex-manager) who was heard racially abusing the Chelsea player Marcel Desailly following a European game. Thinking that his microphone was switched off, Atkinson said: "He is what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy, thick nigger."

Atkinson, at the time, was working for ITV while writing columns for the Guardian. He lost both jobs pronto, though several black footballers defended him and Atkinson himself insisted that he hadn't a racist bone in his body. The BBC, through an independent company, then took him to the Deep South of America and introduced him to racial awareness classes.

I hesitated before taking part in the documentary because I thought it might be an attempt to exonerate Atkinson, to paint him whiter than white, if that is possible. I knew that Ian Wright, a former England striker who is irredeemably black, had ignored a similar request for the same reason. Yet, on reflection, I thought that a dissenting voice had to be heard.

Since Chelsea were playing West Brom that day and Crystal Palace were at Birmingham, I plotted my journey carefully. I did not want to be kicked to death by Chelsea fans who once chased my eldest son across Battersea Bridge after a home game.

At first, Atkinson and I were interviewed separately, he on the ground floor and I on the fifth. Then came the confrontation. Atkinson ambled into the room with the camera on him. He reminded me of James Stewart, with the pose of a film star and a heavily tanned face. I extended my hand and welcomed him as Mr Atkinson. None of this Ron business for me.

He did not change his tune during our discussion. He had been treated unfairly, he moaned. Paul Gascoigne had beaten up his wife, but had not lost his job; he had been rehabilitated as a football coach. Atkinson pointed out what seemed to him to be a contradiction: the very ITV that had fired him then invited him on to I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here!. I told him that the programme suited him well. Those who participate in it are seen publicly as freaks of one kind or another.

Atkinson lives in a world apart from those of us who engage daily in the battle for racial equality. It is because of people like him that we need laws against antisocial behaviour.

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