Home > Culture, Politics, Sports > Kicking It Out: Racism and Tribalism in English Football

Kicking It Out: Racism and Tribalism in English Football

As an amplifier for the concerns, obsessions, and divisions of any given society, professional sports can often focus social noise even better than crafted products of entertainment. Major American sports like baseball, basketball, and especially football are often conduits for the seething undercurrents of aggression, class resentment, and racialized hegemony that typify the psyche of the American male (the structure of the latter two sports in the South, especially at the college level, remains the truest inheritance of the slavery system still in existence in the U.S.). Likewise, hockey culture in Canada reflects middle-class assumptions about masculine traits and national character, particularly in opposition to the qualities favoured by European player development systems.

But the global game of soccer (or football, to everyone else not in the flashy thrall of the gridiron) is an even more nimble and adaptable black mirror for social anxieties, bouncing back instances of cultural assumptions onto the collective retinas of each national or sub-national community whose mainstream it enters into. I have written about this several times before, but current footballing events have provided a fascinating case study in the twinned issues of racism and tribalism in the English sphere of the game.

Football, in England and elsewhere (continental Europe especially), is often a breeding ground for expressions of the racial discrimination that underlie the superficial enlightened progressivism of European societies. The terraces from which fans watch the matches are generally awash with mass chants of the vilest and most insulting sort, usually sexual or violent in nature but often racially-charged as well. Racist discrimination on the field and behind the scenes at clubs at all levels is not at all uncommon either. Despite the efforts of highly public activist campaigns like the Kick It Out initiative to reduce such thoughtless hate speech, it continues to be prevalent around the game.

It takes only the merest effort on the part of an un-intrepid reporter to overhear terrace chants about monkeys directed at black players (or bananas thrown at them), witness references to gas chambers directed at clubs like Ajax Amsterdam or Tottenham Hotspur culturally identified with Jews, or any number of other such nasty instances of racial or ethnic targeting. This was precisely the approach taken by former Premier League defender (and head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, the players’ union) Clarke Carlisle in his recent BBC3 documentary, “Is Football Racist?” While there is some value to this kind of anecdotal enumeration vector, Carlisle scratched at its surface manifestations without getting at its roots in the program.

Those roots go down to country-wide discomfort with non-British immigrants, a popular reactionary sentiment that goes back at least a century or more, its clearest and most shameless irruption being the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech given by Enoch Powell in 1968. But the intense tribal solidarity that characterizes club allegiances scrambles our assumptions about such rhetoric, rendering what might seem like straight-up irresponsible discrimination into something much more complex and difficult to pin down.

The incident between Liverpool’s Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez and Manchester United defender Patrice Evra last season in which Suarez was suspended by the Football Association (FA) for racially abusing the black Frenchman was a case study in this. A one-man’s-word-against-another pantomime ensued between supporters of each club, the issue of racial abuse being dribbled back and forth in the give-and-take exchanges of a storied sports rivalry, the seriousness of the charges lost in tribal resentments. For fans of Liverpool, a club identified with left-wing labour and progressivism in general, Evra’s charges were one more blow in a long fight against the conservative, hegemonic Man U that they have long considered to be tilted against them.  Still, putting themselves in the awkward position of defending racial abuse was hardly the proudest moment for Liverpool supporters.

The whole of the East End weeps for thee, Sir John

Even knottier is the recent incident between Chelsea defender John Terry (also an England international) and Queen’s Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand. Although Terry has been England captain before and is one of the country’s elite rearguards, he’s also one of the game’s more notable rogues, leaving behind a trail of on- and off-field incidents that have turned him into a pre-eminent heel to opposing fans. Accused by Ferdinand of racially-tinged comments during a match, Terry was investigated by the FA and even by the British law, acquitted eventually by the latter in a high-profile trial but suspended and removed from the England squad by the former.

If that wasn’t enough trouble, recall that Ferdinand’s brother Rio is also an England international, and the Manchester United defender stuck his nose into the proceedings as well by criticizing Terry’s Chelsea and England teammate (and Ferdinand’s fellow black Briton) Ashley Cole, who testified on Terry’s behalf, on Twitter. Ferdinand referred to Cole as “choc ice”, a perceived knock on his commitment to racial solidarity (“black on the outside, white on the inside”; “Uncle Tom” would be the American equivalent) that got him fined harshly. The situation was even further exacerbated this past weekend by Cole, who tweeted his own annoyance at the FA’s investigation of Terry and only avoided further punishment thanks to a contrite apology.

The key modifier of these sorts of situations in the footballing world is always the tribal loyalties of club and country, which take precedence over fundamental questions of right and wrong. What matters more to supporters is commitment to one’s proper side, a driving tribalism that has turned the English Premier League into one of the world’s most profitable sporting enterprises. But it’s a sentiment that can elide the thornier questions that crop up in the game, racism paramount among them. The ongoing official effort to kick racism out of English football faces an ingrained habit of racial taunting that is perhaps not intentionally linked to discrimination, but has the same effects nonetheless. Shaking the hold of these assumptions on the sport will take a deeper culture change than mere awareness-raising media campaigns can muster, but they are, at least, a beginning to the process.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Sports

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