24 March 2013

Racism in Football


Coming on the heels of yesterday's look at nationalism in the Serbia-Croatia match, it seems fitting to revisit the problem of racism in football.  With news that AC Milan's Kevin Prince-Boateng and former Gunner Patrick Viera met earlier in the week with officials from the United Nations, it seems that there is finally some serious attention being paid to the problem. Clearly, however, racism in football is not the most pressing issue on the UN's agenda, but confronting it here helps to confront and perhaps eradicate it everywhere.

Boateng himself said, "racism can be found on the streets, at work, and even in football stadiums. There were times in my life when I didn't want to deal with the subject. I tried to ignore racism, similar to a headache that you know will go away if you just wait long enough, but that was a miconception. Racism does not go way. If we don't confront it, it will spread." The more clearly we make it that racism has no place on or around the pitch, the more young fans will understand that it is not acceptable out on the streets.

Racist incidents accidents (man, do those terms sound innocuous, as if these are things that just, sort of happen on their own without people deciding to make them happen) decisions and behavior are, sadly nothing new to sports. Here in the United States it wasn't until 1959 that the Boston Red Sox ended its shameful practice of racist segregation, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color line. Even now, in a society that is as pluralistic and as diverse as ours, with people interacting with all sorts of people who differ from each other, practically forcing everyone to be tolerant if only through exposure, if not actual respect, racism still finds its way in. The global nature of football  mirrors that, with teams fielding players from almost every continent and country imaginable. Still, with that context and that mosaic of cultures, we endure the ugly prospect of racism ruining the beautiful game, not to mention society.  The Premier League and others have done what they can so far, aided by technology that enables them to identify hecklers and fine or ban them, but this is not enough.

I was impressed when Kevin Prince-Boateng of AC Milan walked off the field during a match against Pro Patria after racist chants. I would have been even more impressed if Pro Patria's players did it first— they joined him and supported him, which was wonderful and brave and sends the message that players will not tolerate racism from their own fans. I'd love to see more of that, Sepp Blatter's opinion notwithstanding, whether it's because Rio Ferdinand got hit by a coin or someone tossed a banana at Balotelli or some chump monkey-chants against Jozy Altidore or any of the other acts of brazen stupidity that ruin it for everyone.

Look, I know that fans get drunk before, during, and after matches, and they'll find ways to get under the skin of their opponents, but attacking opponents on the color of their skin goes beyond the pale. And I know that there people in this world who have chosen racist ideas and ideologies for a variety or reasons, and there are still others who are fed racism from an early age.  Finding, fining, banning those people is one step, although legal sanctions (arrest, jail time, etc.) should remain off-limits. Freedom of speech demands that governments should not punish or restrict these opinions, but private organizations should be able to set conditions for admittance to their events. However, those measures do not go far enoughit is time, I believe, to sanction teams themselves for the actions of their fans, beginning with forfeiture of match in which it happens and possibly, Thierry Henry and others have suggested point deductions and relegation. As regrettable as that is for the overwhelming majority of fans who pay good money for tickets and concessions, and as disappointing as that would be for the players who are working hard on the pitch, that might be what it takes to get racism out of the stadiums.

I'm not saying this will end racism itself, but it could help to push it out of at least one more place in our society. As long as there are differences, people will have opinions, and sometimes those opinions will mutate into prejudice and then to racism. After all, we do live in a world in which the nephew of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi can refer to Balotelli as a negretto (translated variously as "little black man", Negro, or, yes, nigger) and get away with it, and supporters of Zenit St. Petersburg can claim that the absence of black players is "an important tradition".  Go read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" if "tradition" is that sacrosanct to you.

Maybe it's time for a little "reverse-colonization", for lack of a better term. When Jackie Robinson and Bill Doby broke through, their own fans abused themuntil they saw the men play and help the team win games. Maybe something similar could work for footballif we can't educate racism out of the game, and if we can't punish it out of the game, maybe just showing those idjits how valuable a player can be to his teamregardless of coloris the only way left: "look, you moron; that guy you called a monkey has been transferred to your team. He just scored you a game-winner. Maybe you're ready to drop the racism?" Along these lines, Boateng has called for a "black Mourinho" or a "Pakistani Guardiola" so that it's more than just players who are involved and affected, it's coaches and managers. This approach might not shine like a moral beacon of equality and compassion and respect, but convincing a racist to change his mind is sometimes like talking to a refridgerator, and, in the end, the ends would justify the means. Andbecause it's not the job of the victims and targets to end racism, just like it's the victims of rape to end rapelet's see some white players, coaches, and managers confront the issue head-on: "Taunt my teammate or opponent with racism, and I walk off the field."

Again, sadly, it may be too much hope for to ever fully stamp racism out, but that's certainly no excuse to stop trying.