Football is no place for the thin-skinned
Britain's football terraces are an ironic and offensive foul-mouthed carnival. If you don't like it, well, tough.
Is football losing its sense of humour? It looks that way, judging by the farcical handwringing over Reginald D Hunter’s comedy turn at the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) awards.
The PFA wants Hunter to hand back his fee after a set littered with the word ‘nigger’. PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle said it had been a ‘huge mistake’ to book the American comedian. The players’ union claims Hunter was expressly told that ‘swearing or any racist references were to be avoided’. It’s a claim which is either naive or disingenuous. It’s a bit like instructing Mr Bean not to pull silly faces. Hunter is known for his explicit racial humour and liberal use of the n-word. It’s his USP. Why, you might ask, is a black man being upbraided for using the word ‘nigger’? Hunter clearly isn’t a racist. Anyone with a handful of brain cells can see that he’s using the n-word ironically. But the irony appears to be lost on football’s officialdom. As Hunter himself put it on his Facebook page, the PFA awards are ‘Irony’s Annual Night Off’.
As the furore over Hunter’s performance shows, the n-word is now considered verboten even if it is not intended as a racial insult. It’s the logical consequence of the 1999 Macpherson Report into the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which defined as racism as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. It’s an entirely subjective definition. Context or intent are not relevant. If someone takes offence, the n-word is considered racist.
This is of course colossal stupidity. Black rappers use the word ‘nigga’ in the same way gay activists reclaimed the word ‘queer’. Black comedians like Reginald D Hunter or Chris Rock use the n-word to poke fun at the absurdities of racial politics. The n-word has an entirely different meaning in this context. It is clearly not used as an insult. If people are offended by the use of the word ‘nigger’ in these contexts, they need to get a sense of humour. Or get a life. The trouble is that the football authorities – and I include the PFA here – have become infected by the PC obsession with language.
The Hunter row is the latest in a series of controversies over the use of ‘offensive’ racial words. Players Luis Suarez and John Terry have been banned for using racially insulting words on the pitch. We can argue the toss over whether Terry or Suarez intended to offend. Perhaps they did. Increasingly, however, the authorities’ zero tolerance approach to racial language is criminalising those who are clearly not intending a racist jibe. Rio Ferdinand was fined £45,000 for tweeting that Arsenal’s Ashley Cole was a ‘choc ice’ – meaning Uncle Tom – for defending Terry in court. In February, former Chelsea defender Paul Elliott, a trustee of the Kick It Out campaign, was forced to resign from the FA’s judicial panel for using the word ‘nigger’ in a private exchange of angry text messages with fellow ex-professional Richard Rufus.
This is what happens when you outlaw evil words. In all these cases, the ‘crime’ was the use of racial words, irrespective of whether a racial slur was intended. Only a Grade A moron could seriously imagine that Paul Elliott and Rio Ferdinand, both of whom are black, are racist bigots. Yet the Society of Black Lawyers, the Grand Inquisitors of racial etiquette, has pledged to report all allegations of racial abuse to the police. They have accused Spurs fans of anti-Semitism because they call themselves the ‘Yid Army’. The society threatened to lodge a police complaint despite the fact that the word ‘yid’ is used by Spurs fans as a badge of honour in defiance of anti-Semitic abuse. Context, you’d think, is everything here. Not so, says the society. We perceive it to be racist, therefore it is racist.
This new football culture, with its joyless intolerance of offensive language, sits uneasily with traditional terrace culture. The latter hasn’t died out. On Tuesday I was at the New Den to watch Millwall v Palace. Both sets of fans spent the best part of the game trading insults. Palace fans made ‘spaz’ gestures and sang ‘You stupid bastards, you fought your own fans’ – a reference to the recent internecine Wembley brawl. There was a song alleging that Jimmy Savile had enjoyed sexual relations with Millwall right back Alan Dunne. Barrel-chested centre-half Danny Shittu was serenaded with chants of ‘you fat bastard’. And so it went on.
It was crude, tasteless, childish, and decidedly un-PC. But here’s the thing: nobody took offence. Danny Shittu smiled and gave the visiting fans a ‘bring it on’ gesture. Millwall supporters laughed, gesticulated mockingly, and roared ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’, a chant which celebrates the club’s pariah status.
Here was the old thick-skinned terrace culture in which fans can take a bit of name-calling without complaining to the police. Most of us aren’t offended because we know that the insults are ironic. Fans don’t believe that the opposition are ‘inbreds’ or ‘paedophiles’ or ‘sheep shaggers’. The banter is just part of football’s foul-mouthed carnival. A football stadium is, traditionally, a place where the social norms are temporarily relaxed. It’s where grown men sing, swear and generally behave like kids for 90 minutes. We wouldn’t dream of behaving in this way at work or in a restaurant. Context is all important.
The problem is that the easily offended ‘mind your language’ culture isn’t really compatible with the old thick-skinned terrace culture. Something has to give. Once you begin to criminalise ‘offensive’ words, the old football culture starts being eroded. Complaint replaces banter. Taking offence starts to become football’s default setting. Fans are ejected and banned for swearing or indecent chanting. Players are hauled before tribunals for name-calling. Football phone-in programmes are dominated by thin-skinned whingers and wannabe police informants complaining about provocative goal celebrations and abusive chanting. The killjoys don’t see the irony. They don’t get the joke. Football starts to lose its sense of humour. And if that happens, football is irreparably damaged.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.