Football has come a long way since the days when Paul Canoville was booed by his own fans when he came on for Chelsea and was greeted with chants of “We don’t want the nigger”. Yes, the monkey chanting has gone, the bananas aren’t being thrown from the terraces and black players are heroes up and down the country. But that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, or that there’s no room for improvement. That doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist, or that it shouldn’t be complained about.
The issue surrounding what John Terry, the England captain, said or didn’t say to Anton Ferdinand, or what Luis Suarez said to Patrice Evra, is something we’ll have to park for the time being, until the outcome of any investigation. It’s only to be hoped that all parties are treated fairly, presumed innocent , and that there is a thorough and fair inquiry into what happened, rather than a whitewash.
Whatever the facts in the current cases, though, it’s thoroughly dispiriting to see the likes of Stan Collymore and Jason Roberts being attacked for claiming that racism still exists in the English game, as they were on TalkSport and Twitter yesterday. You may not find Collymore a particularly charming member of the human race, given what he’s done in the past – but that doesn’t mean he deserves to be called a “nignog” for stating his opinion. The former Premiership striker says he was once told “At least my mum didn’t sleep with a coon” on the pitch, and claims he’s happy to take a lie detector test with the other party.
There’s a sense in which Collymore and Roberts are being disapproved of for speaking out, for daring to say there’s a problem that exists; that somehow complaining about something which you believe exists is “playing the racism card” and that players should just suck it up and get on with it – after all, things are better than they were, and footballers in other countries suffer much worse, much more openly, from fans and professionals alike.
That would appear to be the thrust of this Daily Mail article from Steve Doughty, which concludes: “So, Mr Evra and Mr Ferdinand, I know you feel insulted. But perhaps in this case you could just put up with it and get on with the game.” Perhaps this attitude is representative of what people in football feel about this issue. Football is one of those blokey environments where you’re encouraged to shrug off things that might offend you as “banter”; where a degree of sensitivity, however correct, might be regarded as weakness.
It’s easy to say that football is “a man’s game” and that those who do encounter racial abuse are no worse off than those called names for being tall, short, fat, bald or the like. But this is about punching down, about the person in the position of strength, hegemony or power taking advantage of their status. Much of the invective directed at Collymore told him that racism wasn’t talked about when it was against white people, but it was when it was against black people. Others trotted out the classic “Paki is basically the same word as Scot or Brit” argument, or even tried to say that if someone had been called “a fucking black cunt” they would only be offended if they weren’t proud of their heritage. Have we really come such a long way? Sometimes I am not so sure. If nothing else, some of the discussion highlights a problem that is undoubtedly there, no matter how much football may have claimed to have Kicked It Out.
Is it realistic to expect all swearing and all abuse to disappear in this TV-friendly age? A football pitch is a high-pressure environment, and a lot of strong language is tolerated by referees and players alike, even when 40 cameras are trained on the action and virtually nothing is left unnoticed, and even when the pictures are being broadcast to children watching at home. That’s true enough, but at every football ground you’ll see signs warning fans that abusive behaviour and language won’t be tolerated, specifically racist language. If it’s good enough for the fans who’ve paid their hard-earned money, perhaps the same rules should apply to the players who are pocketing it.
Is this kind of thing isolated? Does it go on all the time, unreported? It’s hard to find a high-profile case where a player has been found guilty of using racial abuse. When Joleon Lescott and Tim Howard alleged a racist term had been used by Emre Belozoglu some years back, the charge was dismissed. Lescott thought he heard “nigger” and Howard “negro”. What did they hear? The verdict implied they both hadn’t heard what they thought they’d heard. Belozoglu, for his part, said he was pleased that he had been vindicated, and that he wasn’t a racist person.
Has football really kicked out racism? Yes, advances have been made over the past few decades, and the horrendous abuse that was suffered by some former players is now thankfully a memory. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent about the issue, either. If there’s a problem, it needs to be dealt with, not ignored.