I've just been listening to a bit of football on the radio. Quite an exciting bit of football as it happens: Arsenal football club have just scored 3 times in 15 minutes at the start of the second half and now lead Aston Villa 3-2 in a highly entertaining cup tie. This is just one of many football stories this week, though as ever with the beautiful game, what happens on the pitch only makes up a fraction of what ends up written in the papers and discussed in pubs across the land.
This week we have Luis Suarez's continued ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra, John Terry's court 'appearance' for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand. Ferdinand himself received a spent shotgun cartridge in the post this week, which seems rather more than harsh; whether he was racially abused or not, he has surely done nothing to deserve this threat of death?
Football has been blighted by accusations of racism for many years, though thankfully we seem destined never to return to the peak of the 1970s and 80s when it was common for black players to receive monkey chants and have bananas thrown onto the pitch. The 'Kick Racism Out' campaign appears to have been successful, though it's probably more a case simply that times have changed, along with the notion of what is acceptable and the values of a more enlightened population in general have been reflected in the behaviour of the average football supporter.
So far so good, but as Alan Hansen said recently on Match of the Day whilst talking about the issue of racism in football: 'there's still a long way to go'. He's right of course, and until racism is 'kicked out' completely, we must continue to campaign and to educate. Unfortunately, in talking about racism, he also used the term 'coloured people', which meant that his sane message was lost in a tumult of calls to the BBC demanding his resignation for using such a derogatory term. OK, so the word coloured isn't exactly fashionable these days; it's a term more closely linked to 70s sitcom 'Mind your Language' and it does tend to imply that there are only two races in the world: 'Whites' and 'Coloureds'. But we all knew what Hansen was trying to say, and if his terminology was perhaps less than sound, at least his logic was fine. In any case, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) surely couldn't have had a problem, given that the word coloured makes up a pretty key part of their message to the world.
Maybe Hansen should have used the word 'Black'? I was under the impression that this was more offensive than 'coloured', but I have been informed by several of my friends that this is not so, and actually this term is far less controversial and far less likely to offend. However, returning to John Terry's court appearance, we find that he has been investigated and subsequently charged with the offence of calling Anton Ferdinand a 'black c*nt' during a recent West London Derby. Thank God he didn't call Ferdinand a 'coloured c*nt', then the shit would really have hit the fan. Actually, now I reflect further, isn't the word c*nt actually rather more offensive than either 'black' or 'coloured'? Admittedly it has no racial connotations, but I reckon it's about the most offensive individual word than one can utter in conversation.
Racial abuse is simply a sub-section of abuse, but due to the behaviour of past generations, it's a sub-section that lies far higher up the 'likely to cause public outrage' scale. There are undeniably some ignorant cromagnon football supporters that genuinely do believe that black people are genetically inferior to whites, but these are few and far between and are loathed unanimously within the football community. Most racist abuse is not indicative of an ideology that is unsound; it is simply a clutching at straws way of insulting another member of the human race. If John Terry called Anton Ferdinand a 'black c*nt', it shows him up to be an unpleasant man, not necessarily to be an institutional racist. Much of the debate around Luis Suarez's ban concerned the question of whether using a racist term necessarily meant that he himself was a racist. Surely this is just a case of labeling and semantics? If I laugh at a sexist joke am I necessarily displaying a serious tendency towards misogynism? Probably not, though it doesn't rule it out either. I would in either case not like to think that my entire belief system and ideological 'soundness' could be summarised by one outburst or reaction to a joke.
The problem with football, and more precisely with the fans that follow the sport, is that their own beliefs seem to take a back seat whenever it comes to issues regarding their club, the manager and the players. Do all Liverpool fans believe that Suarez is not a racist? Do all Manchester United fans believe that he is? Do all Chelsea fans really believe that John Terry is not a racist? Do they even have enough evidence? Loyalty to a club is one thing, but these issues go far beyond mere support from the terraces. It is perfectly possible for me to hope that my team will win, whilst also being disappointed in the behaviour of an individual that happens to play for the side I follow. Football supporters tend to lose their ability to think for themselves on issues involving their club, instead choosing to agree with any sentiments uttered by their players and manager. It's so much better to be told what to think by people that you admire rather then actually taking the time to have an opinion yourself.
But maybe they are the sensible ones, bearing in mind how difficult it is to engage anyone on the subject of racism without either being labelled as a woolly liberal or as a racist oneself. After all, several of my best friends are coloured, or should that be black?