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The PFA: policing footballers’ thought crimes

The footballers’ union has called for players to be sacked for using racial insults. So much for defending its members.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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‘Once our beer was frothy. But now it’s frothy coffee. Well, fings ain’t what they used to be.’ I was reminded of Lionel Bart’s famous song when I heard that the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) wants racial abuse by footballers to be a sackable offence. Now, call me old fashioned, but aren’t unions supposed to defend their members rather than making it easier for employers to sack them? Unions certainly ain’t what they used to be. Nor for that matter is racism.

Football has seen a spate of alleged racist incidents in the past year. John Terry, the former England captain, is awaiting trial for allegedly calling Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand a ‘f**king black c**t’. Liverpool striker Luiz Suarez was banned for eight matches for calling Manchester United’s Patrice Evra ‘negrito’. FIFA president Sepp Blatter provoked a moral piety-storm in Britain when he suggested that racial abuse on the pitch should be settled with a handshake.

This week, Suarez reignited the race row by describing his punishment as ‘strange and unbelievable’ and saying: ‘Without a single shred of proof, they suspended me.’ Suarez claims that there had been a cultural misunderstanding; that the word ‘negrito’ was not a racial slur in Uruguay. We can argue the toss all day over Suarez’s lost-in-translation defence, but perhaps the biggest cultural misunderstanding was the Uruguayan’s own failure to grasp how British football has changed. Players used to be sufficiently thick-skinned to withstand a bit of ‘verbals’. Today’s footballers are much more easily offended and liable to complain. The traditional unwritten sporting code whereby ‘what’s said on the pitch, stays on the pitch’ no longer holds. Abusive language on the field of play can be picked up by pitchside microphones or, in John Terry’s case, deciphered by lipreaders. More significantly, footballers are increasingly inclined to report racist abuse to the FA or the police.

As I’ve argued before on spiked, the erosion of the distinction between ‘on the record’ public speech and private banter is dangerous. It means that footballers have to be on their guard at all times. They have to mind their language on the pitch, when players often say things they don’t really mean in the heat of battle. In effect, footballers are under perpetual police caution; what’s said on the pitch may be used in evidence against them.

Why is this a problem, you might ask? Well, it has a deeply corrosive effect on human relationships. It fosters mistrust and wariness. Preposterous as it may seem today, there was a time when professional footballers shared a sense of comradeship. There has been a traditional revulsion within English football to acts of gamesmanship such as feigning injury or waving imaginary cards. You still hear old-school former players complain that it is ‘wrong to get a fellow professional’ cautioned or sent off. In 1996, Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel allegedly called Arsenal striker Ian Wright a ‘black bastard’. At the time, Wright refused to make a complaint or reveal what Schmeichel had said to him. ‘I am not in the habit of getting my fellow professionals into trouble’, Wright said. This old-fashioned understanding that professional footballers are all, ultimately, on the same side has all but gone today. They might pay their dues to the PFA but any sense of common interest appears to have been eroded.

With solidarity on the wane, it is little wonder that the players’ union is calling for racial abuse to be a sacking offence. The PFA wants players’ contracts to contain a standard clause prohibiting racial abuse. ‘It would say that racist abuse, if found guilty, will be classed as gross misconduct and a reason to terminate a contract’, explained PFA chairman Gordon Taylor. With unions like these, who needs bad employers? To be honest, this problem isn’t confined to the PFA. The trade-union movement has been at the forefront of pushing employers to adopt formal zero-tolerance policies against racial abuse and harassment. Rather than tackling racist views through argument or facilitating an informal resolution, unions have helped bring about the prohibition of racist language in the workplace.

This brings me back to the question of racism. It certainly ain’t what it used to be. When I was involved in anti-racist campaigns in the 1980s and 90s, we weren’t calling for zero tolerance against racist language. No, we were defending Asian youth from police harassment, protesting about deportations and demanding the closure of detention centres for asylum seekers. It was powerful institutions – the government, the police, the immigration service – which were the root cause of the problem, not name-calling on a football pitch.

Fast-forward to today and it’s clear that anti-racism has morphed into something very different. The 1999 Macpherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was a key turning point: the moment that anti-racism became official state policy. Macpherson introduced the concept of ‘unwitting racism’, effectively transforming a political issue into a psychological problem. The cultural insensitivity of individuals was to blame rather than the institutions of the state. The struggle for equality had been replaced by the multicultural commandment: ‘Thou shalt respect cultural differences.’ Respect is a nice touchy-feely word but, in practice, it means censoring and outlawing disrespectful speech. How else do you combat ‘unwitting racism’?

In post-Macpherson Britain, racist speech is not treated as a political viewpoint that is best combated through argument, but a thought crime which should be punished. In the process of gagging racist speech, the official anti-racists are suffocating the open political debate we need to properly confront bigotry and prejudice. This isn’t just a problem for abusive footballers but for everyone who values freedom and equality.

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

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Topics Politics

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