Putting the cuffs on free expression
This month's Much Ado About Nothing Moral Furore Award goes to the killjoys who kicked up a fuss over Tim Cahill’s ‘handcuffs’ goal celebration.
I see that BBC TV’s Match of the Day has reinstated its Goal of the Month competition, which had been suspended as a result of last year’s TV phone competition scandal. To be honest, the loss of Goal of the Month didn’t really leave a gaping hole in my life. Maybe saturation football coverage has raised my ‘shock and awe’ threshold, but spectacular 30-yard screamers don’t do it for me anymore.
I reckon the Beeb needs to freshen up the competition format. Why not a contest to choose the best goal celebration or the most dangerous two-footed tackle or even the gayest injury simulation? Or how about acknowledging the contribution of the fans? Chant of the Month perhaps? Or better still, Sick Chant of the Month. February’s clear winner would surely go to the travelling Aston Villa fans whose little ditty about the horrific injury to Eduardo provoked a minor ruck at the Emirates Stadium last Saturday: ‘Eduardo, oh, oh, Eduardo, oh oh oh oh. He had some silky skills. Now he walks like Heather Mills.’
In my opinion, we should also honour – or name and shame to be precise – the miserable killjoys who turn every petty football misdemeanour into an overblown national controversy. There’d be no shortage of candidates for a monthly Much Ado About Nothing Moral Furore award. This month’s hot favourite would have to be the pathetic media-orchestrated ‘controversy’ over Tim Cahill’s ‘handcuff’ goal celebration against Manchester City last Sunday. It was a cryptic gesture that probably left most spectators nonplussed. It was only after the match that the Everton midfielder revealed that he’d crossed his wrists in tribute to his elder brother Sean who was recently sent to prison.
Okay, so the crime for which Sean Cahill was jailed, a violent assault outside a south London cab office that left his victim’s sight impaired in one eye, was very unpleasant. But miming a pair of handcuffs isn’t a crime. Nor is it against the law to send a message to an imprisoned relative. It’s not even as if Tim Cahill was even glorifying the assault itself. If he’d mimicked the act of kicking someone’s head in then that might have been a different matter. But a handcuff gesture? Haven’t we got more important things to worry about?
One of the corrosive characteristics of our Easily Offended culture is the imperative to censure particular forms of expression even when hardly anyone has actually been offended. spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has described the trend for regulatory authorities, such as the Office of Communications (Ofcom) or the Advertising Standards Authority, to slap the wrists of broadcasters or advertisers on the basis of a handful of complaints as the ‘tyranny of the minority’ (1).
More recently, it seems there is no need for anyone actually to complain in order for there to be uproar (2). The Cahill celebration is a good example of this ‘tyranny of no one’. Nobody seemed particularly bothered at the time. The salute didn’t start a riot, the referee didn’t report the incident, and the Football Association isn’t taking any action. The issue barely registered on fan message boards or football phone-in programmes, the normal barometers of thin-skinned outrage. Yet Everton FC felt compelled to defend the goal celebration as a ‘personal matter’ and the player himself issued a public apology. ‘It was a spontaneous and emotional reaction but was only intended to signify to my brother that I was thinking of him and missing him’, said Cahill. ‘I wholeheartedly apologise if any offence was caused.’
For the record, how much offence was actually caused? In this case, the media appears to have taken offence on society’s behalf. The Daily Mail tracked down the mother of Christopher Strapley, the victim of Sean Cahill’s assault. It transpires that Strapley has moved to the US and didn’t even know about the goal celebration. ‘We just want to move on’, his mother told the paper. ‘Chris doesn’t know about what happened on the football field and I don’t want him to.’ The media also spoke to the police officer who investigated the assault. ‘Celebrating his goal in such a way seemingly endorses the actions of his brother’, said the copper. And that was about the sum of it.
It’s absurd that Tim Cahill has been forced to apologise for an innocuous gesture that has caused negligible offence. But even if he had caused greater offence, I’d argue that we should still defend him. The provocative goal celebration – a hushing finger over the lips or hand cupped to the ear – is a legitimate part of the theatre of football as far as I’m concerned. Even better if you are able to taunt opposing fans in a creative and innovative way. Robbie Fowler snorting the goal-line and Gazza playing the flute are great examples for aspiring young footballers to follow.
Journalists have been so busy hunting for people who might have been offended by Cahill’s gesture that they haven’t even noticed the delicious irony of an Australian performing a convict-related goal celebration. It was rather fitting, I thought. Perhaps players of other nationalities could follow Cahill’s lead and devise goal celebrations true to their national stereotype. The French could mime eating cheese and surrendering. The Welsh could pretend to have sex with sheep. The Germans could goosestep and give Nazi salutes. The comic possibilities are endless. Who could possibly object?