Barely a week goes by without a football race row. This season, we’ve already had Spurs fans threatened with prosecution for referring to themselves as ‘yids’, ITV presenter Adrian Chiles apologising for making a quip about Polish builders, and now the absurd storm-in-a-teacup over England manager Roy Hodgson’s space-monkey joke. Anyone would think that football is a hotbed of racial hatred.
In fact the opposite is true. Professional football is arguably the most colour-blind occupation in Britain - a quarter of professional footballers are black - and mass racist chanting has all but disappeared from the terraces. What the recent series of race rows illustrates is that anti-racism today is no longer a progressive cause; it’s become little more than an illiberal demand for compliance with the correct racial etiquette.
Most sensible observers were left scratching their heads over the ludicrous row over Roy Hodgson’s monkey joke. At half-time in England’s World Cup qualifier against Poland, Hodgson used a somewhat convoluted metaphor about launching a monkey into space to tell Chris Smalling to give the ball quickly to Andros Townsend. If Hodgson was guilty of anything, it was overcomplicating a fairly simple message. Townsend himself insisted that he hadn’t been offended by Hodgson’s words. ‘I don’t know what all this fuss is about. No offence was meant and none was taken! It’s not even newsworthy!’, he tweeted. End of story, you might have thought.
However, an anonymous member of the England squad took offence on Townsend’s behalf and leaked the story to the Scottish Sun. The controversy took a decidedly bizarre twist when Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, wrote to the FA demanding that Hodgson be required to undergo ‘race appreciation’ training. Herbert reportedly also suggested that Townsend himself was ‘mentally enslaved’ for failing to take offence. Whoever said satire was dead? Seriously, you couldn’t make this up.
The consensus in the media was that the England manager had been harshly treated. TalkSPORT presenter Stan Collymore, so often outspoken about racial abuse, was furious that Hodgson’s words had been misconstrued. ‘If we are going to now say that by using the word monkey, irrelevant of its context, we are now causing offence, then we are in trouble’, wrote Collymore, in the Daily Mirror.
The Mirror’s Oliver Holt and the Telegraph’s Paul Hayward both drew parallels between the Hodgson affair and the fictional race row in The Human Stain, a novel by one of Roy Hodgson’s favourite authors, Philip Roth. The book’s protagonist, Coleman Silk, similarly finds himself accused of racism after innocently referring to two black students as ‘spooks’. The novel satirises the tyranny of the politically correct language codes which originated on US campuses. As the Hodgson race row demonstrates, the intolerant ‘you can’t say that’ culture has now spread to all corners of public life. Football, which was traditionally a sphere in which industrial language and thick skins were the norm, has now been thoroughly infected. Collymore is right: society is in trouble. Political correctness hasn’t so much gone mad - it’s gone mainstream.
Clearly, Roy Hodgson isn’t a racist. Hodgson’s use of the word ‘monkey’ was not intended to hurt or insult Townsend. And Townsend, the ‘monkey’ in question, wasn’t offended. Of course, it’s absurd to classify this as racism. But Peter Herbert’s interpretation of the incident as racist isn’t an aberration. It’s the logical consequence of Lord Macpherson’s definition of racism. The Macpherson Report into the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence isn’t regarded as a nutjob’s charter; it provides the framework for official anti-racism. It was the Macpherson Report which defined a racial incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. In other words, racism is entirely a subjective matter. If someone is offended by words or gestures – and it need not be the ‘victim’ – it constitutes racism.
The Macpherson definition of racism enables third parties to take offence on behalf of victims. This is litigious manna from heaven to offence-seeking parasites like the Society of Black Lawyers. Peter Herbert has threatened to report every incident of racial abuse inside a football stadium to the police. It was Herbert who asked the police to investigate allegations that Mark Clattenburg had called a black player a ‘monkey’ even though he had not witnessed the incident and had no idea what was said. It was Herbert who subsequently branded the FA ‘institutionally racist’ when the referee was exonerated by a tribunal. And it was Herbert who has also threatened to report Spurs fans to the police for referring to themselves as the ‘Yid Army’ and ‘Yiddos’.
Herbert might be seen as a professional shit-stirrer, but his approach is entirely true to the spirit of the Macpherson Report. It was Lord Macpherson, let’s not forget, who introduced the concept of ‘unwitting racism’ – the idea that we could racist without even realising it. A good example of unwitting racism is Alan Hansen’s use of the word ‘coloured’ to describe black players on Match of the Day in December 2011. Hansen intended no offence and was unaware that the term ‘coloured’ is now considered verboten – for reasons which most of us would struggle to explain – but was nonetheless forced to apologise.
The row over Roy Hodgson’s space monkey joke is not a mistake or an overreaction. This is what happens when you set out to purge football of inappropriate language. This is what happens when you apply the Macpherson principles. The criminalisation of racial words, regardless of context or intent is exactly what Macpherson intended. By all means castigate the dressing-room mole. But it’s more important to challenge the broader thin-skinned ‘mind your language’ culture that is steadily suffocating football.