Kick moralism out of football
Racism isn’t a big problem in British football anymore. But the thought-policing of players and fans is.
So farewell then, Fabio Capello. You will be remembered for not being as successful as your CV suggested you might be.
I can’t see too many England fans mourning the Italian’s departure. Capello’s tenure as England coach was far from glorious: two successful qualifying campaigns and one dismal World Cup. England expects better. Where was the heroic quarter-final failure? Where was the heartbreak of missed penalties? But, while you could justifiably argue that Capello should have departed for footballing reasons, I don’t think he should have had to quit over the John Terry race row.
Was Capello right to oppose the FA’s decision to strip John Terry of the captain’s armband? Yes, absolutely. It is alleged that Terry called Anton Ferdinand a ‘fucking black cunt’ during a match. But, as Capello argued quite reasonably, Terry hasn’t been convicted in a court of law. He is being punished on the basis of an unproven allegation. And, though the trial-by-Twittermob has condemned Terry, he should be regarded innocent until proven guilty.
The recent racial abuse incidents involving John Terry and Luis Suárez have led some to question whether racism is rather more prevalent in English football than we had imagined. ‘I almost feel I have been fooled a little bit over the years’, Rio Ferdinand told BBC1’s Football Focus. ‘I have always been someone who has championed our country for making great strides, and we have, but I thought that era was gone. It seems like it was just put to one side for a while.’
Is Rio Ferdinand right? Is the English game still blighted by racism? I just don’t see that racism is still a significant problem in English football. You only have to look at the faces on the pitch. Black players are no longer viewed as exotic or unusual, as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. The old stereotypes that black footballers are skilful but don’t ‘fancy it’ in the cold weather have been debunked. Instead, black players are idolised. An estimated 30 per cent of professional footballers are black. Far from being discriminated against, compared to the demographic make-up of England, black people are over-represented in the professional game.
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What about the terraces, then? There are isolated incidents, of course: the lone idiot at Anfield who allegedly called Oldham’s Tom Adeyemi a ‘fucking black bastard’ during an FA Cup tie in January, or the Liverpool fan pictured apparently making a monkey gesture at Patrice Evra two weeks ago. But these bigots are the exception. Mass racist chanting has pretty much disappeared. Bananas don’t rain down on black players. You don’t hear choruses of monkey grunts. The shocking racial abuse hurled at Chelsea winger Paul Canoville by his own fans at Selhurst Park in 1982 is, thankfully, a thing of the past. If you look at the Home Office statistics for football-related arrests for the 2010/11 season, you’ll see that, while there were over 37million spectators in total, only 44 arrests were made for ‘racialist or indecent chanting’ at all games. Do the maths. It’s hardly an epidemic.
What really annoys me about the sanctimonious hounding of Terry and Suárez – and indeed anyone who defends them – is the focus on name-calling. Sure, racist slurs are deeply unpleasant. Being called a ‘nigger’ or a ‘paki’ is humiliating. I had to endure this kind of hurtful casual racism on a daily basis growing up in a predominantly white London suburb in the 1970s. But name-calling isn’t racism. It’s a symptom of racism; a cruel reminder of black people’s second-class status. And that’s the point. Racism means unequal treatment – or at least that’s how it used to be understood by those of us who campaigned against it. We focused our attention on those in power – the government, the police, the immigration authorities. We marched and protested against police harassment of black and Asian youth, against the incarceration of asylum seekers in detention centres, against deportations and punitive immigration laws. Yes, white working-class people expressed racist views and hurled racial insults. But they weren’t the cause of the problem. They weren’t responsible for segregated housing. They weren’t the ones stopping and searching black youths. They didn’t have the power to deny black people jobs or strip-search immigrants at Heathrow airport – an indignity my father once suffered.
The political landscape is, of course, very different now, particularly in the wake of the 1999 Macpherson report into the killing of Stephen Lawrence. Racism is an issue whose meaning has been twisted beyond all recognition. Today, racism is seen as a problem of behaviour or etiquette rather than a denial of equal treatment. Today, as Mick Hume explained recently on spiked, racial prejudice is seen as a ‘secular sin’. By the same token, anti-racism has come to mean regulating, policing and censoring politically incorrect speech. Official anti-racism has become a stick with which to beat uncouth white working-class people for failing to observe the correct racial etiquette.
So, no, I’m not joining in the witch-hunt against footballers who use racial slurs in the heat of battle. I can find nothing to celebrate in Luis Suárez receiving an eight-match ban or John Terry losing the England captaincy. It’s not because I condone racial abuse or think that black players should turn the other cheek. It’s because arresting or banning a footballer for name-calling has nothing whatsoever to do with fighting racism. It’s thought-policing, pure and simple.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside