Kick the speech cops out of football

Football, from the chants to the banter, is a carnival of vulgarity – and that's why we love it.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Football has never been a sport for the thin-skinned. Abuse and banter are the norm. On the pitch, in the stands and in the dressing room – if you can’t take a bit of name-calling, if you’re easily hurt by words, then you really ought to find a different sport. 

But we live in easily offended times. And football has been infected by the spread of an intolerant mind-your-language culture in recent years. Fans are regularly arrested for swearing and singing rude songs while players now find themselves punished for racial slurs on the pitch or posting inappropriate messages on Twitter. This week the Etiquette Inquisition took a turn for the surreal as Liverpool FC issued its employees with a list – I hesitate to call it a blacklist – of forbidden phrases and words. Liverpool were widely criticised for defending Luis Suárez after he was charged by the FA for calling Patrice Evra ‘negrito’. The naughty words list looks like an attempt to repair the reputational damage caused by the Suárez affair.

Liverpool will struggle for goals if Suárez departs, but at least they’ll be hitting the back of the net on equality issues. Liverpool’s social-inclusion officer – yes, such a job actually exists – says that the guidance on unacceptable language is ‘part of the club’s continued commitment to tackle all forms of discrimination, as well as promoting its approach to equality and diversity’. The list doesn’t apply to the players, who are governed by separate Football Association guidelines, but match-day stewards will be expected to enforce the new rules. And this means that spectators need to mind their p’s and q’s. Kick It Out chairman Herman Ouseley welcomed the new guidelines, saying: ‘Match-day stewards must be trained on dealing with incidents of discrimination and unacceptable behaviour in order to eradicate it from our stadiums.’

So what terminology is no longer acceptable at Anfield? All the greatest hits of racism – nigger, Paki, wog and coon – can be found on the list, as one might expect. Nobody disputes that these terms are deeply offensive. I wouldn’t outlaw any of these racial insults but nor would I let them go unchallenged. By contrast, the inclusion of inappropriate terms like ‘knob-jockey’, ‘rent boy’, or ‘retard’ is more of a grey area. Whether you sit in the stands or play for a Sunday team on Hackney marshes, you’ll hear plenty of un-PC language like this. If you ban or eject fans every time they utter an inappropriate word or phrase there will be nobody left in the stadium.

The inclusion of certain phrases on the proscribed list is just laughable. Do we really want to outlaw terms like ‘princess’, ‘man up’, ‘play like a girl’ and ‘don’t be a woman’? Should these be considered verboten because they perpetuate gender stereotypes? How are we supposed to abuse players who roll around theatrically if we can’t question their masculinity? It’s our inalienable right as fans to scream ‘get up you tart’ when a player feigns injury, isn’t it? And what about offensive words which aren’t on the list? Why is ‘knob jockey’ on the list but other gay slurs – like ‘marmite miner’, ‘arse bandit’, ‘rear gunner’ or ‘chutney ferret’ – omitted? Conspicuous by their absence are anti-Scouser jibes such as ‘bin dipper’, ‘granny stabber’, ‘ratmuncher’ or ‘hubcap thief’. Does that mean it’s okay to hurl these taunts at Anfield? Or will slurs which aren’t expressly included in the guidelines be referred to the Dubious Insults Committee? Blimey, it’s an etiquette minefield.

The Liverpool list is symptomatic of two related social trends. Firstly, there is the tendency to take offence too easily. As a society we’re getting far too thin-skinned. Adults were once considered robust enough to cope with a bit of name-calling. Now we’re seen as fragile and more easily damaged or traumatised by hurtful words. Secondly, there is the degradation of old progressive causes such as women’s liberation and anti-racism. There has been a shift from addressing the political roots of inequality – from immigration laws to abortion rights – to regulating the symptoms such as language and interpersonal conduct. The preoccupation with policing language was cultivated on university campuses, and by local authorities, during the 1980s. But it has now gone mainstream. 

The 1999 Macpherson report into the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence highlighted the racist ‘canteen culture’ within the police force. Now the language cops have set their sights on the ‘dressing room culture’ in football. This week Kick It Out launched a new mobile phone app to encourage players to break the dressing room omerta and shop racist or homophobic teammates. Just as the Nazis encouraged German citizens to inform on their friends and neighbours, so Kick It Out wants footballers to snitch on their teammates. Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, would have thoroughly approved.

Frankly, I fail to see how a ‘shop your teammate’ app, or guidelines on unacceptable language, will make the world a better place. Such idiotic language policing is more likely to sow divisions and foster a culture of mistrust and suspicion. I’m not suggesting that we always turn the other cheek, but I’d much rather we dealt with name-calling informally. If an insult crosses the line then have an argument, don’t run crying to the authorities. I don’t want to be protected or cocooned from the opinions of bigots. I’d rather these ideas were freely expressed and therefore open to challenge. 

We can laugh at the absurdity of the Liverpool blacklist, but these assaults on dressing room culture and terrace banter should be taken seriously. It’s time we drew a line in the sand and kicked the language cops out of football. It’s a basic question of free speech. Fans should be at liberty to sing what they want and swear if they want. A football stadium is not a place for politeness and nor should it be. Foul-mouthed banter and verbals are an integral part of football culture. It’s a carnival of vulgarity and that’s why we love it. Outlaw naughty words and not only is freedom of speech eroded but football itself is irreparably damaged.

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

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Topics Politics


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