Let’s start with first principles: I abhor racism in all its ugly, vulgar forms. Don’t mistake me, this isn’t a Sepp Blatter ‘I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black’ preamble. I genuinely loathe it, and this article isn’t in any way intended to defend racist behavior or language. But the ruling by the FA in the racism row between Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Manchester United’s Patrice Evra has triggered off my incredulity circuits, and I have to point out the illogicality of it.
A reiteration of the facts, for those unaware of them: the alleged incident took place in the hotly contested game between the teams at the beginning of October at Anfield. Evra claimed that Suarez used a racial term ‘at least ten times.’ Suarez has consistently denied this. Other than Evra’s personal assignations, no other witness or evidence has come to the public knowledge.
The FA ruled that Suarez had racially abused Evra, and the applied punishment was an 8-game ban and a fine of £40,000. This was despite Evra’s written statement that he did not consider Suarez racist, and the FA accepted, in their opening remarks, that Suarez was not racist. Also in the balance was Evra’s history for claims of abuse of this kind. In 2008 he received a four game ban after an altercation with a groundsman at Stamford Bridge after it was alleged he had made a racist remark.
Despite the tightly closed doors, the information that has come to light is that Suarez used the word ‘negro’ or one very similar. The FA has taken its time ruling on the case due to the unusual cultural angle that, in his native language of Spanish, similar sounding words are common, such as negrito, which are not racially offensive.
The 2003 edition of Collins English Dictionary defines racism as:
1. (Sociology) the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others
2. (Sociology) abusive or aggressive behaviour towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief.
Evra, in the process of the hearing, has freely admitted to abusing Suarez in Spanish and, according to some reports, when Suarez tried to put his hand on Evra, said ‘Don’t touch me, you South American.’ By doing so, he has himself admitted to a form of racism. It’s a serious social misconception to presume racism can only flow in one direction: from white to black (for the record, Suarez is of mixed race – his grandfather was a man of colour.) Racism in this context is the use of terms with the intent of belittling another based on their racial background. Referring therefore to his South American origins is no better than referring to Evra’s African origins. Just because Suarez has paler skin doesn’t make it less racist, like some kind of politically correct Top Trumps. It’s either racist or it isn’t. If so, a punishment no less harsh than the one handed to Suarez should also be doled out to Evra.
There is a taboo around the ‘N-word’ like a police cordon with a ‘do not cross’ tape, but it’s just a word. Context is important. You would not expunge all uses of the word from literature prior to the time it became an unacceptable term, just because social attitudes have changed. It would be acceptable to use the word in the context of a discourse on language use and change, where you might be quoting or discussing the use of the word. If Suarez had actually used the word, it would be acceptable to use the word in this piece about it, although I probably still wouldn’t as out of good taste I decide not to do so. But whether or not he said it and meant it in the context of intending racial abuse is what is under debate.
Racism is a cooperative concept. The first part comes from the express intent of the user, and if they mean offence by their use. The second is in the degree others take offence to it.
The problem is that the FA cannot be seen as soft on the issue of racism. A few weeks ago, FIFA President Sepp Blatter caused uproar when he seemed to suggest in an interview on Fox Soccer, that racism was not a problem within football, and all issues should be settled with a handshake. The FA was quick to denounce Blatter’s remarks as wrong and unrepresentative of their opinions. This is the first case to come under review since then and the degree of punishment is undoubtedly designed to reflect this difference to FIFA.
Not long after the judgement was made, England Captain and Chelsea man John Terry was officially charged by the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) with using racist language during a game. Because the initial complaint was made by a member of the public rather than the player whom he is accused of abusing – QPR’s Anton Ferdinand – the case first goes before the courts rather than the FA. The maximum penalty should he be found guilty is a fine of £2,500. A pittance to a man who earns a reported £150,000 a week, but it would also reflect badly on his reputation. Could the FA, if they want to be seen as harsh but fair, then allow him to represent his country as Captain with that kind of black mark on record? If they do, then fair is not what they are and Luis Suarez is being used as a scapegoat.