After a month or so away from blogging, this is the first in a couple of posts with a vaguely sporting theme. Don’t worry, though: they’re not really about sport. I know how some people hate that. (For those who don’t, have a look at beyondcowcorner.blogspot.com. But be aware that it hasn’t been updated in a while, as I’ve been doing more of this. This:)
Football. Association football — soccer, that is. Very popular. The nation’s game, according to some. Others aren’t such fans. (Apologies for the rather staccato delivery: I’ve been listening to a series of documentaries about the origins of the BBC, so have a tendency towards clipped, upper-upper class, ‘frightfully proper’ speech at the moment. Get over it. Okay.) Like it or not, though, and unless you’ve been living under a stone/on Mars/[insert metaphor here] for the past couple of years, you’ll be aware that quite a few racism-related controversies have marred the sport of late. In fact, what with John Terry ALLEGEDLY abusing Anton Ferdinand, Luis Suárez doing the same to Patrice Evra, and — only recently — Mark Clattenburg almost certainly not addressing Mikel John Obi in less-than-salubrious terms, one would be forgiven for believing the favourite pastime in the UK at present to be concerted racism, with a smattering of physical exertion thrown in every now and then to liven things up.
I digress. This isn’t a post about sport, honest.
What I want to talk about, keeping in mind racism in football, is a description — some would say self-description — that goes back thirty or so years. In the late 70s and early 80s, supporters of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, for reasons more to do with the geography of North London than anything else, often came from the same socio-economic community, most of whose members were Jewish. (This was way back before the elevation to the Peerage — or indeed knighthood — of the area’s most famous Jewish Spurs supporter, Alan Sugar.) Unimaginative football crowds being the unimaginative football crowds that they are, this led to mass chanting of anti-Semitic abuse, hissing like gas chambers to make reference to the Holocaust, and other rubbish.
Predominant among this general abuse was the term ‘yid’: like the n-word in a different context, a racial slur. (Not sure of the origins, but I know someone who will know; see harmlessdrudgery.blogspot.co.uk for a linguist’s view of lots of things to do with etymology. Hashtag nepotism.) In response, Jewish Spurs supporters of the time, in an effort to take away some of the verbal force of this word, reclaimed it, dubbing themselves the ‘Yid Army’.
Now here’s my problem. While this reclamation is all very well for a Jewish Spurs supporter faced with anti-Semitic abuse in 1982, can the same be said for a supporter 30 years later, who is patently not Jewish? At the risk of going all Carrie Bradshaw, and ending an extended philosophical musing with a string of melodramatic rhetorical questions (*sweeps fringe out of eyes; adjusts glare from product-placed-laptop screen*), is it possible to reclaim a word with racial connotations when you have never — and will never — be the object of such abuse? Can you reappropriate something that didn’t necessarily belong to you in the first place?
I bring up this issue of ‘the y-word’ because it’s been in the news recently. Put simply, Spurs supporters have been chanting y-related self-descriptions, as they have been doing for decades; in light of other racism (Spurs players have been subject to racial abuse whilst on their travels), however, it’s been decided that these chants can’t go on. Which seems fair enough. You can’t say ‘where do you get off calling us racist?? No one’s allowed to be racist about us except us’, or words to that effect. Here’s what the club have said, though, in response to criticisms of their supporters’ chants:
Our guiding principle in respect of the ‘Y-word’ is based on the point of law itself — the distinguishing factor is the intent with which it is used, i.e. if it is used with the deliberate intention to cause offence. This has been the basis of prosecutions of fans of other teams to date.
Now legally, they may well be right — I’m not a lawyer, but it sounds the sort of plausibly ‘legal yet with no common sense’ argument that you get in law. Morally, though? Hmmm.
Which brings me back, as questions of morality in football tend to at the moment, to John Terry. I lose track of whether or not his incredibly expensive legal team got him off the charges of racism (hence the ‘ALLEGEDLY’ above), but regardless of their conclusions, can anyone say with any conviction that he did not use racist language in Ferdinand’s direction? (My, what a lot of rhetorical questions in this post.) Legally he may be in the clear, but does that make him not a racist? Again, hmmm.
This seems to me to be the problem — in football, but also possibly, generalising wildly, in society as a whole. There is now a culture in football of ‘you can’t find me guilty, therefore I’ve done nothing wrong’; in politics, MPs will still try and get away with as much as they can, before saying ‘well, I was only taking what was owed to me’. What sort of message does this send? We’re all in it together? Give me a break.