The myth of racism in football

Far from being a cesspit of ethnic hatred, football is one of the most colour-blind professions there is.

Barely a week passes without a racial incident in football. Last month, it was an allegation - entirely groundless as it transpires – that referee Mark Clattenburg called Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel a ‘monkey’. Last Saturday, a section of West Ham fans reportedly taunted Spurs supporters with chants of ‘Adolf Hitler, he’s coming for you’ – an allusion to Tottenham’s historical links with the Jewish community. Hammers fans also chanted ‘Viva Lazio’ and ‘Can we stab you every week?’ - a cruel reminder of last week’s vicious assault on Spurs fans in Rome in which several supporters were knifed. These chants were infantile and tasteless, of course. But does it follow that tasteless insults should be outlawed? I don’t think so.

West Ham’s on-loan Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun described the chanting as ‘embarrassing’. The east London club has vowed to impose lifetime bans on any fans who took part in the chanting. The Society of Black Lawyers has reported the incident to the police. ‘As far as we’re concerned, there has to be zero tolerance of this’, said the Society’s chairman, Peter Herbert. ‘If these people can be identified on camera and prosecuted then that is something we’d like to see.’ Herbert’s proclamations on racism in football have become increasingly frequent and strident of late. He has threatened to report every allegation of racism in football to the police. ‘We are not talking about educating people out of their behaviour – we are talking, as Martin Luther King said, about regulating their behaviour’, said Herbert. It’s as though he’s assumed the mantle of Grand Inquisitor in the purge of racist behaviour in football.

Frankly, I think Herbert is tilting at windmills. Racism in English football is an imaginary problem. Herbert’s jaundiced view of the sport is completely at odds with the experience of most fans and players. Racist abuse on the pitch might be headline news, but it is still extremely rare. The Luis Suarez and John Terry incidents are shocking precisely because they are so exceptional. Football is one of the most colour-blind professions in Britain - around a quarter of all professional footballers are black. Far from operating a colour bar, the game has, in the words of journalist Martin Samuel, ‘a brutal meritocracy at its heart’.

Racist abuse from spectators is also a negligible problem. Mass racist chanting, hurling banana skins and monkey grunts are, thankfully, a thing of the past in this country. Last year, former England goalkeeper David James described his own experience of racism in his Observer column. Recounting an unsavoury episode in 1991 when he was abused by thousands of Blackburn supporters, he wrote: ‘Since then, the only racism in football that I have experienced has come from isolated voices in the crowd. Even then it has been some years since I have heard anything like that.’

James’ experience is supported by the government’s own figures. Home Office arrest statistics for the 2011-2012 season, which were published earlier this month to very little fanfare, revealed a paltry total of 23 arrests for racist or indecent chanting in all English league and cup fixtures.

Peter Herbert would no doubt dispute the Home Office figures. In a recent Observer article, he claimed that racism is underreported by the football authorities. ‘The failure of the FA and clubs to monitor racial incidents according to the Macpherson definition… is a disgrace’, thundered Herbert. The 1999 Macpherson Report into the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence defined a racial incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. Herbert’s recent threat to report Spurs fans to the police for referring to themselves as the ‘Yid Army’ takes Macpherson’s subjective and elastic definition to its logical conclusion. Never mind that the term ‘Yid’ is not intended by Spurs fans as an insult but rather is used as a badge of honour. Never mind that most Jewish fans of the club aren’t offended by the use of the word. ‘Even if it comes from Tottenham supporters, it remains casual racism’, insists Herbert. Even if no one at White Hart Lane feels hurt, the Society of Black Lawyers is willing to take offence on behalf of the entire Jewish diaspora.

David James recently accused anti-racist groups of talking up the problem of racism in football to justify their existence. He has a point, but it isn’t just professional anti-racists who are preoccupied with a virtually non-existent problem. The media and politicians are also guilty of hyping up a handful of isolated racial incidents. Martin Samuel, in his Daily Mail column, describes this process well. ‘[A] steady drip of innuendo, point and counterpoint from those who haven’t a genuine clue either way creates the impression that football is a rancid cesspit of racial hatred when it is actually making more young black men rich than any industry this side of MOBO.’

Football fans need to take issue with the myth that racism is endemic in football. We must also challenge the increasing criminalisation of offensive and insulting chants. Of course, I abhor racist or anti-Semitic jibes, but I’d much rather we confronted the bigots ourselves than ran crying to the authorities. If a handful of idiots insist on singing tasteless or offensive songs, we should tell them to shut up or drown them out with a chorus of boos. If a black player is racially abused during a game, the matter should be dealt with on the pitch or in the dressing room afterwards. Insults shouldn’t be a matter for the police or FA tribunals. If we ban name-calling and insults, we’re on the slippery slope to tyranny.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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