Tuesday 25 July 2017

Ruling sets precedent in war against mindless abuse

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

I remember being in the dug-out during one game and innocently using the phrase 'monkeying around' about a team-mate who was playing in the match at the time. I use the word 'innocently', meaning there was no reason for choosing that particular phrase ahead of, say, 'messing around' or 'taking the piss'. He had been playing poorly and I was getting frustrated.

However, because the player was mixed race it was immediately taken as a racial slur by the person I said it to, a team-mate who also happened to be mixed race. "That's not gonna get back", he said in a tone that left me in little doubt that what I had said must have had racial connotations and that the player in question would be informed.

I laughed it away and thought nothing more of it, because the player had incorrectly interpreted my choice of phrase to imply it meant something it did not. I've no idea whether he mentioned it to the player I was speaking about, nor do I have any notion how that player may have reacted if he did. If he had approached me afterwards about it I would have been happy to clarify what I had said and exactly what I had meant.

The ban imposed on Luis Suarez affects everyone. The dispute between him and Patrice Evra centred on the interpretation of a particular word and the context in which it was used. Evra deemed it to be offensive, while it is believed Suarez claimed it to be merely descriptive.

In Suarez' home country of Uruguay, the word does not carry the same offensive meaning, but cultural differences seem to have been set aside. The message from the English FA could not be any clearer: the use of words which could be interpreted as racist will no longer be tolerated. With that in mind, I wait with great interest to see how they eventually deal with John Terry.

Terry has been charged by the Crown Prosecution Service with a racially aggravated public order offence. Comments he is alleged to have made in a match against QPR were overheard by a member of the public and the police responded to their complaint. So where Suarez was banned because his choice of words offended the person he spoke to, Terry could be in real trouble for offending the sensitivities of a person he has presumably never met.

Paul Ince came to Terry's defence when he was asked whether the England captain was a racist following the incident which has led to the charge against him. He didn't condone racist language, but said "if you say things in the heat of the moment it doesn't necessarily mean you are a racist".

Ince's own experience with racism in his career adds a certain clout to his views on the issue, but I fully agree that comments made during the emotionally charged atmosphere that players perform in these days do not always accurately reflect their true views.

A football pitch can be a savage place. The level of vile abuse directed at players and managers from the crowd is often repeated between players themselves. If you're naive enough to think it doesn't, or choose to believe it only happens in the lower leagues, think of the reaction of Zinedine Zidane to personal insults from an opponent in the 2006 World Cup final.

I find it hard to distinguish between the mindless abuse about players' wives, mothers or children and chants or comments of a racist nature. All are equally unacceptable in my view, but the most vociferous reactions from those who aim to clean up the game are reserved for exchanges where a player's race may have been mentioned.

But aiming to stamp out such abuse is impractical and unachievable, so mentioning the colour of a player's skin is one of the few remarks which are specifically outlawed. I knew an opponent would

never be sanctioned for threatening to end my career with his next challenge or mocking my nationality, but all players now know that any reference to colour would land them in the kind of trouble currently experienced by Suarez. I would find it hard to avoid causing great offence to a player who has been mercilessly offending me for most of the game. Being the bigger man would be difficult in such circumstances, but that is the challenge set by the ruling on Suarez.

The merits of the Suarez ban and the charges against John Terry occupy the thoughts of many in football, but the reaction in the dressing rooms of clubs all over England would interest me greatly. I don't know many players who hold racist views, but I know many who find the disparity between what is acceptable and what is not to be grossly unfair.

There is no easy solution to all this, for in the most heated and chaotic environments, people will resort to language which is solely aimed at offending others and putting them off their game. The precedent has now been set with this ruling, but if consistency is to be achieved in tackling offensive, ignorant and mindless abuse, the FA need to extend their efforts to matters beyond race. And they shouldn't limit them to what happens on the pitch either.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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