And sometimes it’s just stupid

Racism is one of those tricky things. When we’re accustomed to the vision of racism as overt violent hatred, we’re beginning to wake up to the realization that racism has more wide-spread roots than lynch mobs and white hoods. It’s not an easy transition to make, especially if you don’t spend your life immersed in it. Those of us for whom it is a major contributing factor to our outlook on the world live in it every day – most others don’t give it a lot of thought unless we have to.

And when you grow up with that ‘classic’ vision of racism, sometimes you end up saying stupid things:

England and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand says he is stunned by Sepp Blatter’s claim that football does not have on-field problems with racism.


Asked whether he thought racism on the pitch was a problem in modern-day football, Blatter told CNN World Sport: “I would deny it. There is no racism. There is maybe one of the players towards another – he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”

And the palms hit the face.

I can understand and appreciate Mr. Blatter’s thought process here. FIFA has made major strides in eliminating racism from the game of soccer, and the kinds of behaviour that would have been tolerated a few years ago is now rightly vilified. So much progress has been made, in fact, that players can learn to look past occasional racist comments that occur in the heat of play, shake hands at the end of a match and be done with it. They days of racism in international soccer are over.

But again, this line of thinking is all predicated on a definition of racism that uses open hostility and violence as its set point. Any actions that fall below that median point are thereby reclassified as ‘not racist’. The problem with this thinking is that while the expression of racism has shifted in size and method of expression, the cognitions that underlie the expression still remain. As evidence of this, the fact that the handshakes and forgiveness on the part of the maligned party are even necessary suggests that racism is still a part of the game, and work still needs to be done.

If Mr. Blatter had said “FIFA has made great strides over the years, and players can expect a welcome and open atmosphere no matter their racial background” that would have been… well, at least less wrong. I’m sure that’s what he wishes he’d said.  What he should have said is that FIFA continues to lead the international community in the fight against racism, and that he was proud of the progress they’d made and would continue to make in the future. What he ended up saying, though, was that racism was fixed and it’s the job of the victims of occasional racist attacks to “be the bigger man” and forgive and forget the little incidents. Boneheaded to be sure.

But interestingly, and also indicative of the “hands-off” approach we take with racism, is the reaction from the other side:

When asked if Blatter should resign, [English sports minister Hugh] Robertson told BBC Radio 5 live: “Yes. I can’t see there’s anything terribly new in this. We’ve been saying this for some time. “What Sepp Blatter said, in this country, is just completely wrong as well as being morally indefensible. Racism is a criminal offence in this country and anybody who’s caught indulging in it will face criminal sanctions. If you’re going to put pressure on Fifa, it’s going to need more than an outcry in this country – and I think that commercial pressure is the one that in the end will tell.”

I find it interesting that the response to racism is either an underreaction, in the case of Mr. Blatter’s tone-deaf dismissal of the reality of racism, or what I see as an over-reaction in calls for him to resign over it. If Mr. Blatter was, for example, in charge of a department of FIFA responsible for addressing racism and equality, then his comments would reveal him to be completely unqualified for his job. However, to say that because he has a backwards view of how racism works in sport that he should be fired (and apparently charged criminally, if Mr. Robertson has his way) is pushing things a bit. To be completely fair to Mr. Robertson and other advocates of Mr. Blatter’s resignation, there appear to be other allegations of mismanagement suggesting that the president is not doing an effective job overall.

If Sepp Blatter resigns, then while FIFA saves some face, they lose a key opportunity to have the conversation out in the open. Mr. Blatter has already expressed publicly that he understands that what he said was wrong, but not why. His comments reveal that he has a deficient understanding of what racism is, or how it is combatted. The answer is not necessarily to install someone who is more enlightened, but to give the public an open forum to learn how race can be discussed, with the end goal being a better-informed FIFA president (and, in so doing, football-watching populace).

Racism is not something that deserves a blind eye or a ‘pat on the head’ response to the occasional bigoted statement. It is not a minor issue, or something that can be settled with a handshake and a kind word. It is a serious problem that deserves serious and ongoing attention, and lots of conversation. Vilifying people who express outmoded racial ideas does not advance that conversation – it shuts it down. Shutting down ‘racists’ doesn’t mean there is less racism, it just robs us of opportunities to explore and parse it.

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  1. papango says

    Hugh Robertson has been calling for Sepp Blatter to resign for some time because the man is corrupt, crazy and just all roundedly bad for the game. His racism, fits nicely with his sexism (he has stated female footballers should wear tighter shorts to ‘enhace the aesthetics’) and his generally terribleness. FIFA has a history of ignoring racism in football until pushed to face it.

    There is an important conversation to be had about racism, particularly about the way in which the more subtler types of it effect people, but I think using Sepp Blatter as a starting point will mostly just result in the sort of angry frothing I’m guilty of here. The man is appalling.

  2. says

    The reaction to Blatter’s comments in the UK has been very strong. In the rest of Europe it seemed to be a gaff rather than seen with the same abhorrence. For most of the rest of the world it was largely ignored. I guess it at least raised eyebrows in the States because race in sports has been an issue.
    I was surprised that Blatter “recanted” so quickly because he is usually oblivious to British public opinion.

    In this country Blatter is regarded as overseeing the equivalent of the medieval fiefdom. There is established corruption in fifa and some would say that the President has contributed to that or at least tolerated it. It might be argued that he only took action when it meant the exclusion of an election rival leaving him an unopposed coronation.
    The reaction in Britain was also affected by the fact that two Premier League players were recently charged with racist abuse on the field. Neither offence has yet been proven but one does involve John Terry, the England skipper, and this is also the subject of a police investigation.

    Against this fifa claims a vendetta by the British press that has done most to expose the level of corruption within the organisation. The world football authority will also point out sour grapes in England over the recent failure of a bid to host the World Cup.

    As someone who has a minor role in professional football administration I have to say that the game and the public at large has made enormous steps towards eliminating racism over the time I have been watching football. The English game is dominated by black players with most of them British Afro-Caribbeans but now with a significant number with more direct African roots with citizenship in this country, the wider Europe or still with African nations.

    I have a great regard for the history of the game and in particular my Club. In the sixties there was one player playing a handful of games that was non-white. In the seventies there were a few black players but at recently as 1986 you could see a pre-season squad photo with nothing but white faces. In a recent game my team started with eight black players (and one of the white members was Swedish!) No one really noticed the racial make-up of the team and it was only commented on as a positive aspect of the games progress.

    In the eighties there was overt racism on the terraces, chanting, booing and even the throwing of bananas at black players. There was also a perception that those black players were flair players rather than grafters and so a luxury- a massive racial stereotype. Gradually the abuse stopped as most teams, like mine, contained a significant number of black players.

    Much of that abuse was based on, in some part, ignorance fuelled by the lack of non-white immigrants in parts of England. The most racist parts of England still tend to be those parts with the least racial integration. There are still less than five per cent non-whites in my town but this is changing particularly due to mixed relationships. However the demographic of my Club is still vastly at odds with the local population.

    Interesting there are still concerns about the lack of spread of south Asians into football. This might be as much about the culture and the attraction of cricket. British Asians have proportionally dominated the England team recently and there seems to be few issues with racism there.

    In football the “Kick it Out” campaign has made great strides and it is unusual, in my experience, to find overt racism in the game or on the terraces. When there was a small group who were abusive on one occasion at my Club they were tracked down and banned. The identification was done by the fans mobilising on message boards and social networking sites.

    There are still concerns about the number of coaches and administrators in the game and we are perhaps still working for a break-through there. This means the job is not yet done but I don’t see race as any bar to progress in the game.

    However the British game is preaching zero-tolerance and investigating the county’s skipper for comments made on the pitch. Even as a one of those white administrators I found Blatter’s statement abhorrent and the reaction just what he deserved.

  3. P Smith says

    One can liken Blatter’s situation to that of Ben Roethlisberger.

    When the single accusation is made against a person (corruption or an accusation of rape), one might have a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt.

    When further accusations appear (Blatter’s idiotic comments on racism or further accusations of rape) it’s harder to be patient and you start believing the worst.

    Whether FIFA or the Pittsburgh Steelers, I wouldn’t want either around. It looks like both are supporting and protecting them despite knowing how loathsome both men are. Either clean house or risk looking culpable.


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