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Oh, to be in England

Theodore Dalrymple
Ball Hogs
Racism and misplaced outrage on the British soccer field
Spring 2012
Liverpool's Luis Suarez (left) refuses to shake the hand of Manchester United's Patrice Evra, who had accused him of racial taunts.
AP Photo/Jon Super
Liverpool’s Luis Suárez (left) refuses to shake the hand of Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, who had accused him of racial taunts.

Whether racism or radical egalitarianism was responsible for more deaths in the twentieth century probably permits of no definitive answer. What is certain is that both acted as ideological justifications for mass murder carried out with unprecedented ruthlessness, efficiency, deliberation, and intellectual self-consciousness. As ideologies, however, racism and radical egalitarianism have had very different fates. Egalitarianism remains intellectually respectable, untainted by its bloody past and espoused by many decent people; racism is not tolerated even in its tiniest manifestations, and the term “decent racist” seems a contradiction in terms. It is perfectly acceptable today to utter slurs on the character of those born rich merely because they were born rich, but racial slurs are consigned to an infinitely worse moral category.

Unfortunately, sensitivity to slurs can become hypersensitivity to them, which in its own way can be as pathological as the insensitivity of those who utter them. A man who disregards others’ feelings becomes brutish by habit; a man who focuses too closely on his own feelings falls in love with grievance and constantly seeks a cause for it, becoming fragile in a way that lacks good faith. This insincere, self-aggravating fragility tends to confer great power on authority—which gladly assumes the duty to protect the feelings of the fragile, for then it will have the locus standi for almost infinite meddling. Two recent incidents in English professional soccer, a sport not known for the delicacy of its players’ feelings, illustrate this point perfectly.

In one incident last October, Uruguayan Luis Suárez, a Liverpool player of mixed racial descent, allegedly directed racist taunts at Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, born in Senegal but brought up in France, during a match. After the match ended, Evra complained about the taunting to the referee, who then reported the matter to the Football Association, the governing body of English professional soccer. After an extensive investigation, the association found Suárez guilty, suspended him for eight games, and fined him $64,000.

It was interesting to follow on various websites the tribal division over the controversy between the Liverpool and Manchester fans. The Liverpool fans automatically assumed that Suárez was innocent, the Manchester fans that he was guilty. More significantly, both groups assumed that the charge was a serious one, marking a revolution in sensibility among English soccer fans that amounts almost to a gestalt switch. When blacks began to appear in professional soccer in the 1970s, the fans often behaved disgustingly, making ape noises and throwing bananas onto the field. But as black players became more numerous—not through any policy of positive discrimination but because they were talented and any team that refused to field them would soon find itself at a disadvantage—the attitude of the crowds changed. Many black players became popular, and the vile racist behavior all but ceased. When a black Frenchman, Thierry Henry, recently returned from Barcelona and New York’s Red Bulls to the London team with which he had made much of his career, fans cheered him as a hero. His popularity was clearly genuine and deep.

The number of black professional soccer players is now out of all proportion to the number of blacks in the general population. For example, in a recent game between Chelsea and Manchester United, eight or nine of the 22 players on the pitch were black, depending on whether you included one of mixed white and black parentage. All were, ex officio as it were, multimillionaires—a fact that has a disastrous effect upon young black men, who now see soccer, along with pop music, as practically the only route to success, not realizing that even in a bread-and-circuses regime, the demand for circus performers is severely limited.

After Evra accused Suárez of racially taunting him, the Liverpool management, team, and supporters rushed to their player’s defense. Evra, they argued, was not credible, since he had a record of making false allegations of racial abuse. But it was untrue that he had made such accusations. In 2006, a deaf Manchester United supporter reported to the police that he had lip-read racial abuse that an opposing player had uttered to Evra. The police investigated, Evra said that he had heard nothing, and the controversy ended there. In 2008, Evra was accused of threatening a groundskeeper at a Chelsea stadium; two Manchester United staffers claimed to have heard the worker racially taunting Evra before Evra confronted him. The matter wound up before that unimpeachable court of decision, the Football Association; Evra again denied having heard any racial abuse; the association refused to believe the Manchester United staff defending him; and he was found guilty, fined $24,000, and suspended for four games. In fact, the only verifiable time that Evra had publicly accused anyone of racially insulting him prior to the Suárez incident was in Senegal—where, he claimed, fans had called him a “monkey” for playing for France rather than for his native country.

Unfortunately, Evra’s career on the French national team was somewhat tarnished by his performance at the latest World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010. There, as team captain, he led a strike by French players to protest the team manager’s decision to send one of the squad back to France for bad behavior. The striking players refused to practice for a time, and their performance on the field proved lamentable. Evra had an argument with one of the team’s senior coaches, and a French minister even suggested that he should never play for France again, but he was soon forgiven.

There seems little doubt that Evra is peppery, and the idea that such a man could feel seriously wounded by Suárez’s words is preposterous. Not that anyone would call Suárez gentlemanly. He had been transferred to Liverpool from his Dutch team while serving a seven-game suspension for biting the ear of an opposing player—a moment of sporting spirit that one can watch on YouTube. This unequivocally criminal act led to no prosecution, it is worth noting.

The actual incident between Suárez and Evra was trivial, though by no means polite. Earlier in the game, Suárez had kicked Evra. This prompted the aggrieved Evra to approach Suárez and, by his own admission, shout, “Concha de tu hermana”—an extreme obscenity in Spanish referring to Suárez’s sister, but in the Football Association’s expert opinion roughly equivalent to the English exclamation “fucking hell!” Suárez, also on his own testimony, failed to hear the insult, though when Evra went on to ask why he had kicked him, the tone was doubtless recognizably hostile. Suárez’s response, at least according to him, was that the kick was a “normal foul.” (Even if his account was correct, it suggests that he does not exemplify the sporting spirit captured by the inscription on the outer wall of Lord’s Cricket Ground in London: PLAY UP, PLAY UP, AND PLAY THE GAME. He was claiming, in his own defense, that he had been cheating in the normal fashion.)

However, Evra disputed Suárez’s evidence, charging that the Liverpool player had answered that he had kicked him because he was black. The Spanish word that Suárez used, Evra said, was negro. “Say that to me again, and I’ll punch you,” Evra recalled warning Suárez, after which Suárez replied that he did not speak to blacks. Later in the game, there occurred another exchange of similarly immortal repartee. The Football Association believed Evra’s account, not Suárez’s, and—after completing its investigation, which included evidence from a Uruguayan philologist about the connotations of the word negro in Uruguayan Spanish—pronounced its eight-game suspension and fine. The association refused to suspend Evra for his “Concha de tu hermana,” despite acknowledging that he had started the verbal confrontation and that this somewhat mitigated Suárez’s offense. Thus the officials deemed racial insults not only worse than other insults (as, in many instances, they may be) but infinitely worse, other insults not being punishable at all.

The second incident also occurred last October. Veteran defender John Terry of the Chelsea Football Club, an elite soccer team owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, called a rival player, Anton Ferdinand of the Queen’s Park Rangers—a man with an Irish mother and a West Indian father—a “fucking black cunt.” Terry said it so distinctly that a spectator was able to lip-read it and then complain to the police about it. (If Terry had confined himself to calling Ferdinand a “fucking cunt,” all would have been well.) The police took the matter seriously, investigated it over the course of a week, and charged Terry with using racially abusive language, for which he will soon have to stand criminal trial, facing a possible $3,800 fine. Terry does not deny that he used the offensive words, but he says that he did so only after Ferdinand had first accused him of saying them, to which he then responded, in essence, “I never called you a ‘fucking black cunt,’ as you think I did.” I will not comment on the plausibility of this defense.

Ferdinand claims to have heard the insult and to have been upset by it. But he, too, does not seem to be a man of Henry Jamesian sensibility. In 2006, for example, he was accused of causing a public disturbance after a brawl outside a nightclub in a part of greater London that pacific people tend to avoid. Ferdinand was acquitted because he claimed to have been acting in self-defense: he thought that the people he was fighting were trying to steal his $100,000 watch. (Few British soccer fans or intellectuals complain about the players’ stratospheric salaries, despite the fact that almost all the teams, like the banks bailed out during the financial crisis, lose money.)

But Ferdinand is positively Proustian compared with Terry, who is notorious for the vileness of his conduct. On the day after 9/11, he found himself in a London bar with some Americans. He expressed his sympathy for them by drunkenly mocking them. The rest of his behavior—at least that which reaches public knowledge—is more or less in keeping with this. Such is the high moral tone prevailing in English professional soccer, however, that he was made captain of the English national team. He remained in that position until it came out that he had had sexual relations with a teammate’s girlfriend. Soccer officials feared that Terry’s actions had undermined team morale, stripped him of the captaincy for a while, and then reinstated him. The racism allegations have led officials again to remove Terry from the captaincy, leading some commentators to claim that he is being unfairly pronounced guilty before his trial.

To demand that Terry remain captain because a court of law has yet to find him guilty is to get everything the wrong way around. There should be no criminal trial of Terry at all; but not only should he lose the captaincy for having (on the balance of probability) uttered those offensive words in an insulting way; his known bad character should have barred him from being made captain in the first place—or indeed, from being picked for the English national team. In a minimally decent world, he would have been summarily dismissed from his employment after his performance at the bar. The case of Terry is thus symptomatic of our society’s loss of the powers of moral reasoning.

Once the genie—the accusation of racism—is out of the bottle, it is hard to return it. Not long after the Football Association charged Suárez with racist conduct, it found the accusation turned on itself by the agent of Mario Balotelli, a black player for Manchester’s other team, Manchester City. During a game against Tottenham Hotspur, Balotelli deliberately stamped on a rival player’s head and received a four-game suspension. The agent claimed that the reason for this harsh penalty was the color of Balotelli’s skin.

The Manchester police expressed no interest in what was technically a criminal assault—one that took place in front of tens of thousands of witnesses. Sports fields are notoriously gladiatorial, of course, and players should enjoy a certain degree of aggressive license, particularly at the highest level, where millions of dollars, as well as fame and glory, are at stake. It would be absurd to see the police rush onto the field every time a player lost his temper and committed an act that in another context would (or, at any rate, should) lead to prosecution. But if soccer players who stamp on one another should have some latitude, so should those who call one another bad names, even those involving race. How absurd (and socially destructive) it is that the London police spent a week—yes, a week!—examining the evidence regarding Terry and his exclamation, while more than nine out of ten street robberies or assaults go unsolved.

It is therefore not as if the British police had nothing better to do, as if the only thing any of us had to fear were damage to our brittle feelings by rude language. Another story from Manchester, reported at roughly the same time as the Suárez-Evra affair, illustrates the peculiarity of our modern moral sensibility. A young man named Joseph O’Reilly asked three drunken men why they were kicking over garbage bins; they turned on him, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him unconscious, breaking his jaw and giving him a brain hemorrhage. One of the gang said as he joined in, Clockwork Orange–style, “I’ve just been let out [of prison] for GBH”—grievous bodily harm, according to English law the most serious grade of assault, just below attempted murder. All three left the victim for dead. O’Reilly spent a month in the hospital, had a metal plate inserted into his face, and can now chew only with the right side of his mouth. He fears leaving his home.

Two of the three attackers, David Chrapkowski and Thomas Lane, pleaded guilty and were not even imprisoned. (The third, Oliver O’Neill, out on bail for a previous assault, received a 27-month prison sentence, of which, thanks to automatic remission, he will serve only 13 months.) The judge took Chrapkowski’s protestations of remorse seriously and “punished” him with community service. As he emerged from the court, he was photographed with his arms triumphantly aloft and a big smile on his face. Such was Lane’s contrition—he, too, received community service as a sentence—that he gestured rudely to the press as he walked free.

The sentencing may help explain why the police prefer sifting the entrails of bad language to tackling real lawlessness. If it weren’t for the risk of being accused of a hate crime, I’d call the judge a white idiot.

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