#Sket-gate: why the FA needs to eff off

Rio Ferdinand's ban for mouthing off on Twitter shows how sanctimonious the FA has become.

Duleep Allirajah

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Rio Ferdinand’s three-match ban for using the word ‘sket’ in a tweet is conclusive proof that football is sliding inexorably into a chronic state of oversensitive idiocy. Did the members of the FA disciplinary tribunal who imposed the ban know what the word ‘sket’ meant before Ferdinand’s tweet? I very much doubt it. In case you haven’t been following the controversy, sket is an abbreviated form of the word ‘sketel’ which means promiscuous woman in patois. Like the furore over Nicolas Anelka’s ‘quenelle’ gesture, the offence was entirely retrospective. Regardless of what we think about Ferdinand’s language, the three-match ban is bad news for two reasons. Firstly, the Football Association has no business acting as the self-appointed custodians of the nation’s morals. Their job is to run the nation’s football not decide what language is or isn’t appropriate. Secondly, the policing of footballers’ tweets is killing one of the few social channels through which fans can directly engage with players.

I first joined Twitter nearly four years ago. I wasn’t exactly an early adopter, but, back in the day, the football corner of the Twittersphere was a very different place. It was like following an indie band before they’d signed to a big label and started playing large arenas. Not only was there room to dance, but you could hang out with the band after the gig and share a few beers, too. One of the really refreshing things about Twitter was that it seemed to be reconnecting fans with players. How often had we heard the lament that football fans felt alienated from today’s millionaire players? Nostalgists wistfully yearned, Ron Manager-like, for football’s lost Golden Age, when players took the tram to the stadium and rubbed shoulders with the fans. Well, for a brief period, the Twittersphere enabled fans, players, football journalists and even some chairmen to talk to each other. In an age when players were media-trained to trot out bland platitudes in post-match interviews, you suddenly had a glimpse of their true, unfiltered personalities through Twitter.

Sadly, that space for free interaction has been all but closed down. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there was the invasion of the trolls – the social inadequates who use social media to hurl abuse at public figures. When Twitter started to gain traction as a network for football talk, the trolls were mostly confined to old-style message boards. Anyone who has spent time on a message board – and I’ll hold my hand up here as a recovering addict – will know that trolls could spoil pretty much any discussion thread. Initially, Twitter’s football hashtags were troll-free zones. But times have changed. Now the haters have overrun Twitter and, in the process, have forced many footballers to shut down their accounts. Darron Gibson, the former Manchester United midfielder, famously closed down his Twitter account within a couple of hours after he was deluged with abuse. Yes, players still use Twitter, but it’s now more often used as a broadcasting channel than a means of interacting with supporters.

The second reason that Twitter is no longer a space for direct interaction between fans and players is that it has become much more regulated. In July 2012, the Premier League issued social-media guidelines to players, advising them what they could and couldn’t post on social media and warning them that they would face disciplinary action for inappropriate posts. According to the Guardian, the FA has investigated 121 incidents of allegedly inappropriate tweets since the 2010/11 season, and has charged players in 60 cases. Unsurprisingly, given today’s thin-skinned ‘you can’t say that’ culture, many players have been punished for ludicrously minor infringements. Former Liverpool winger Ryan Babel was fined for posting a picture of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt after he made some controversial decisions in an FA Cup tie. Ashley Cole was fined £90,000 for describing the game’s governing body as a ‘bunch of twats’ on Twitter. More absurdly, Rio Ferdinand was fined for using the term ‘choc ice’ – which means an Uncle Tom – in a tweet about Ashley Cole.

Ironically, a number of footballers have got in trouble for directly engaging in banter with Twitter trolls. Personally, I think a withering put-down is a far better way of dealing with the haters than reporting them to the police. However, the football authorities seem determined to clamp down on players who take the law into their own hands. In 2011, Danny Gabbidon, then at West Ham, was fined £6,000 by the FA for reacting to his detractors by tweeting: ‘U know what, f*** the lot of you, u will never get another tweet from me again, you just don’t get it do you. Bye bye.’ Wayne Rooney also got into hot water for responding to a fan who called him a ‘fat whore’ and threatened to ‘smash [his] head in with a pitching wedge’. Rooney gave as good as he got, tweeting: ‘I will put u asleep within 10 seconds hope u turn up if u don’t gonna tell everyone ur scared u little nit. I’ll be waiting.’ Rio Ferdinand is only the latest player to be punished for replying to a Twitter taunt. When a fan tweeted: ‘Maybe QPR will sign a good CB [centre-back] they need one’, Ferdinand’s quickfire riposte was to say: ‘Get ya mum in, plays the field well son! #sket.’ It was little more than a playground taunt, but the joyless blazers at the FA clearly didn’t see the funny side. The former England defender was fined £25,000 and suspended for three games.

In their written verdict, the FA tribunal said: ‘With nearly six million followers, Mr Ferdinand is clearly an experienced Twitter user and should know better. He is, without doubt, a role model for many young people. His responsibility is therefore that much greater.’ The phrase ‘role model’ used here has me instinctively reaching for my sick bag. Why should footballers serve as moral templates? Their job is to play football, not teach our kids what’s right and wrong. As a father of a 12-year old girl, it’s my job to instruct my daughter how to behave, not Rio Ferdinand’s. I also resent the fact that a bunch of sports administrators have appointed themselves as society’s moral arbiters. It’s self-aggrandising pomposity of the highest order. By punishing Rio Ferdinand for failing to model the correct behaviour, the FA is effectively telling us what good conduct looks like. I’m pretty resentful when politicians lecture us on what language we’re allowed to use. But receiving a morality lesson from the FA is a complete joke. The FA should stick to governing football – a job which they don’t do particularly well – and quit acting as language cops.

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

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