What’s said on the pitch should stay on the pitch
To all those footballers crying to the authorities over offensive remarks made in the heat of battle: man up.
Listen, I’m hardly John Terry’s number one fan. He plays for Chelsea, he sobbed like a girl when he missed that crucial penalty in the Champions League final and he was one of the chief culprits in England’s dismal World Cup campaign. But I object to the trial-by-lipreading that is currently taking place. I’ve no idea what he said to Anton Ferdinand. But, whatever he said, it certainly shouldn’t be a matter for FA or the police.
Many people, not least the armchair lip-readers on Twitter, have already decided that Terry is guilty of racially abusing the QPR defender. It doesn’t matter that nobody else appears to have heard what he said, nor that the video evidence appears inconclusive. Terry is presumed guilty because, well, he’s ‘that sort of person’. Fined for offending American tourists in a Heathrow hotel after 9/11, fined for parking his Bentley in a disabled bay, investigated for taking money from an undercover reporter in exchange for a private tour of the club’s training ground and exposed for sleeping with his best man’s ex-girlfriend. Loutish, spivvy and a love-rat to boot.
Terry has certainly had his fair share of bad headlines. But the charge that he called Anton Ferdinand a ‘black cunt’ could irreparably damage his career. A racial slur is now considered an unforgivable ‘crime’ that must lead to your permanent removal from public life, as Ron Atkinson discovered. Terry, for his part, has strenuously denied the charges. Former England team-mate David James finds it difficult to believe that Terry would have racially abused another player. Writing in the Observer, the Bristol City goalkeeper said: ‘Over the years I’ve been in many England squads with JT. We’ve been in close quarters, sitting chatting in his room, interacting with the other England players – black, white and mixed race – and at no point have I ever been given the impression that he was racist.’
There has been a recent spate of accusations of racist abuse on the pitch. Manchester United left-back Patrice Evra claims that Liverpool striker Luis Suarez racially abused him when the two sides met in the league in October, while Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas was forced to deny claims that he’d racially abused Sevilla’s Frédéric Kanoute. The Terry and Suarez incidents in particular must be a godsend to the Kick it Out campaign which must struggle to justify its raison d’être now that racism in English football is virtually non-existent. To some, these examples of racial ‘sledging’ will serve as proof that racism has never gone away. ‘Irrespective of what did or did not happen between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra and John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, no one can pretend any more that the English game is not riven by racial prejudice’, wrote Oliver Holt in the Mirror. ‘You only have to look at the vehemence of the reaction even to trying to debate the subject to see how deep-rooted and widespread is the problem.’
Both Anton Ferdinand and TalkSport presenter Stan Collymore have been been racially abused on Twitter over the Terry affair. But anonymous jibes from the relative safety of a laptop or smartphone are not the same as racially insulting someone face-to-face in a football stadium. Incidents of racist abuse on the pitch or from the terraces are relatively rare, as David James has observed: ‘Does football still have a problem with racism? Before writing this column I canvassed opinion at my club, Bristol City. From young apprentices to older players and physios the overwhelming response was a resounding “no”. Only one person relayed an incident regarding a manager many moons ago.’
But even if racism in the game has been all but eradicated, shouldn’t we punish the small minority who still think it’s acceptable? If the England captain has called another player a ‘black cunt’, surely we should throw the book at him? Speaking as a veteran anti-racist campaigner, I don’t think that what’s said in the heat of battle should be a disciplinary offence, let alone warrant a police investigation. There’s always been an unwritten code in sport that what’s said on the pitch stays on the pitch. Abuse or sledging in sport is, by its nature, often very personal and offensive. Marco Materazzi provoked Zinedine Zidane into headbutting him during the 2006 World Cup final by making a sexual slur about his sister. If you want to distract or provoke an opponent, then you need to strike a raw nerve. This isn’t genteel Radio 4 repartee; it’s war minus the shooting.
The traditional toleration of sledging is premised on a distinction between public and private. What’s said on the pitch is considered private and therefore outside the scope of conventional etiquette. As Arsene Wenger said of the Terry incident, players will say things ‘in a passionate situation’ during a game that they don’t really mean. ‘If you have played football, you have said something to your friends sometimes – “You are an idiot” – but you do not really think that he’s an idiot’, said the Arsenal manager. Whatever insults were traded during the game, players are expected to shake hands and leave these animosities when the match is over. Yes, you need a thick skin, but the rules of engagement are fairly clear – or at least they used to be.
It is obvious that the old distinction between private and public in sport is becoming blurred. Increasingly we are seeing thin-skinned players complaining to the authorities when they’ve been abused on the pitch. I can’t see how this is a good thing. If the ‘what’s said on the pitch, stays on the pitch’ ethos is eroded and a mind-your-language code of conduct imposed in its place, the consequences will only be damaging for sport. Players will be perpetually under scrutiny and on their guard. Disputes between footballers, which ought to be resolved informally, will become institutionalised. Respect for opponents will give way to mutual suspicion.
Reporting opponents for racist jibes is, in this sense, little different to waving imaginary cards at the ref in order to get a fellow professional booked. Ultimately the only loser is sportsmanship itself.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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