Over England way, John Terry has been stripped of his national team captaincy. The move comes in the midst of Terry’s ongoing prosecution for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, with a trial on the incident set for the summer. Terry’s leadership of England was under question before, but the controversy surrounding what he allegedly said to Ferdinand was the tipping point for removing him as captain. The FA’s decision wasn’t so much a statement against racism as it was a nod to the distractions Terry’s unresolved legal troubles might cause. Though, from a legal standpoint, their hands might have been tied.
Putting aside the issue of the strange lionization of the England captain and the breathless debate over who will take up the mantle next, the decision to remove Terry refocuses a painfully bright light on the spate of racism affecting English soccer. Even as the Terry decision was hitting the wires, word that a Manchester United fan had been arrested for racial abuse committed during a match with Stoke landed on top of the ever-expanding pile of incidents. That pile includes Luis Suarez and his lack of cultural understanding with Patrice Evra and at least two Liverpool fan arrests for actions deemed to be racially abusive. One of those happened just last week and accidentally made its way into Liverpool’s official website highlight package before the club pulled it down. English standard bearers can’t even get out of their own way on these issues.
Reaction, as viewed by an American tracking these things through the magic of the internet, has been mostly what one would expect. General disgust, screeds on racism and its unfortunate place in English football, calls to action and for change; they’ve all appeared in large quantities, on blog and newspaper sites across England. There’s no doubt that, at the very least, England’s foremost opinion-makes find the racism problems abhorrent. Yet, they continue to happen, and until a significant amount of time passes without another incident, there’s no reason to believe things will get “better” in the short term. Even then, a lack of reported racist behavior on the part of fans or players doesn’t mean it’s not happening, nor does it indicate that racism is waning in English soccer (or further, English culture). Racism is bad, full stop, no matter the venue in which it occurs or the from that it takes. When it comes to racism, the ultimate goal isn’t just to change the behavior, it’s to change the culture. Whether players in England/British fans stop acting racist is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. All of this nonsense only highlights that racism-or the justification that performing racist acts is okay as long as its meant to wind up an opponent-is viewed AS acceptable by entirely too many people. Which is to say, any people at all.
I’m not familiar enough with broader English culture – specifically the evolution of civil rights and any public discourse about racism – to speak on the issue directly. I don’t know, from experience, if racism is prevalent in England. If it is, I don’t know if it’s mostly of the casual variety or the more direct hate-group flavor (both are morally reprehensible, but only one tends towards violence). My familiarity with England, even if it is greater than that of most Americans by virtue of my soccer fandom, is simply not complete enough for me to feel comfortable espousing any opinion on what may or may not be a larger problem there.
What I mean is that I cannot place England’s cultural attitudes about race in relation to the current state of things in the United States, with whose attitudes and flaws in that realm I have personal knowledge. I can, however, say for certain that it’s difficult to imagine incidents similar to those of Terry and the racist fans occurring in American sports. Racist “banter” (banter is a terribly misused word in the Anglo soccer community, just for the record) is either not happening on the fields/courts/rinks and in the stands of American/Canadian pro sports beyond an extremely isolated example, or it is and we simply never hear about it. In a country where fame is as easily attainable through victim-hood as it is through talent and issues of race are so carefully scrutinized, the latter makes little sense.
By no means is that meant to imply that there is no racism in America, or that there are not racists among athletes and fans here. There are. Attitudes about race in the United States are not perfect, and they likely never will be. Still, publicly racist acts in sports are anathema in 2012, and have been for most of my lifetime. To such an extent that we could call the phenomenon “extinct”, America has moved past those eras when racial slurs or gestures were part of the games we play. Rather than them operating as a prism through which racial disharmony is most visible, as is happening right now in England, sports in America are a relative bastion of racial equality (at least on the field; issues of racial prejudice, especially when it comes to the hiring of coaches, remain a hot topic). Imagine for a moment the fallout if a white player in an American league, especially one of the Big Three (NFL, NBA, MLB), called a black player anything approaching what John Terry allegedly called Anton Ferdinand. The resulting fallout would consume ESPN in a fiery ball as their stable of talking heads all exploded simultaneously.
Terry’s (alleged) transgression brings to mind a scene from the movie M*A*S*H, released in 1970 and set during the Korean War of the early 1950’s. The scene wasn’t anachronistic in an American context in 1970, but certainly is today. Sadly, however, it has parallels to Terry’s alleged crime.
Cpl. Judson: Bastard, 88, called me a coon.
Spearchucker: Called you a what?
Cpl. Judson: Coon.
Spearchucker: OK, that’s an old pro trick, to get you thrown out of the ball game.
Cpl. Judson: Well…
Spearchucker: Why don’t you do the same thing to him?
Cpl. Judson: What, call him a coon?
Maybe the potential American reaction is not so different from what is happening with John Terry (minus the legal trouble in which he finds himself), but the current environment means it’s so unlikely to happen it seems like a waste to speculate on the fallout. The difference between the two cultures isn’t necessarily in how the public or media would respond, but in the fact that none of America’s top white athletes would think to/be stupid enough to use race to trash talk an opponent in the first place. The spark of thought that manifests as speech that flashes in the head of John Terry but doesn’t in his American counterpart looks from here to come down to a level of (football?) cultural acquiescence.
England has criminalized hate speech. Yell racial slurs at a footballer while he’s in the process of competing against you or your team, and risk going to jail. I have no empirical evidence on the impact of such laws, and while I doubt their deterrent effects have any sway on the hearts and minds of racists, I understand why they exist. Punishing a hateful person for subjecting someone to abuse based on color, creed, or religion strikes a chord for justice. Why should racists be allowed to spew their hatred in public?
There will be no criminalization of hate speech in the U.S., not as long as the First Amendment remains in place. The American attitude towards the type of speech in question involves social decorum and questions of right and wrong, but never legality. With free speech – even hateful, vile, disgusting, racist, homophobic speech – protected, the hammer that will fall on any perpetrators will always be wielded by civil concerns rather than criminal ones. If an American John Terry pops up and racially abuses an opponent, he’ll face only the immense public scrutiny and the subsequent fallout of his behavior. If an American fan acts out as those arrested in England have, they’ll face nothing more than a short and fiery backlash. As private citizens, it’s impossible to know how that would ultimately manifest itself. Most likely, that fan or fans would be banned from the stadium, then recede into their lives otherwise forgotten and unpunished.
John Terry is being tried in two courts, that of public opinion and of English law. Is that inherently better, as a mean to shame him and improve racial harmony in England by prosecuting him? England outlawed slavery a generation before the United States, was never in the thrall of the institution as completely as their American cousins, and if they were, removed the question of bondage from the racial equation much sooner, and in a much more peaceable manner, than did America. The American Civil Rights movement was a monumental time in this country’s history that set about a slow reconciliation of many wrongs done, a process that continues to this day. England never faced something so dramatic or long-lasting. What role do those facts play in the cultural conditions that cause John Terry to (allegedly) say something racist on the field? Or for those arrested fans to deem it okay to stand up and shout slurs or mimic monkeys in full view of thousands of their peers?
I don’t know, nor am I going to try to draw a line through history in an attempt to understand why the face of English football is suddenly flush with an unbecoming racist tint. The fact remains that several English fans, and possibly the England captain, chose to use racist behavior in full view of witnesses; beyond “they’re racist”, the why’s hardly matter. What matters is how English football and England culture at large process these events, and whether they can be used to effect change. Meanwhile, back here in America, sports rarely serve such a direct role in the examination of the issue of culturally embedded racism. Occasionally race rides along on a discussion surrounding a player facing controversy (see Michael Vick) or, as mentioned, when qualified minority candidates are passed over for head coaching positions. Racism is never so bluntly discussed because our sporting culture has, hearteningly, rid itself of that behavior.
There’s an element of catch-22 in that, because it means America misses out on a chance to discuss problems that undoubtedly still exist in a forum as popularly visible as sports. The Premier League is England’s most popular and most publicized athletic competition, so while it’s disappointing that racism has reared its shameful head there, the country might benefit from frank recognition of problems that exist under America’s rugs, hidden from view and too often ignored. Racism exists in American sports, from the NFL through Major League Soccer, because racism exists in America. Yet we pretend it doesn’t or deny its insidious impact, charging along as though there is nothing seriously wrong, simply because our fans and players have the wherewithal to watch their tongues in public.
Maybe that’s better, because we couldn’t in good conscious wish for a situation that reveals our heroes to be villains, and subjects someone to racism, just because it leads to self-examination. Maybe it’s better that American history and the progress made has altered behavior to the point that incidents like those occurring in England are stunning to our sensibilities, even if that doesn’t mean we’ve done away with racism. If we try hard enough, sports might help us imagine that racism doesn’t hold sway beyond the lunatic fringes and that America’s multi-ethnic culture is working as it should.
Or, we can simply take solace that American professional sports are now a realm mostly free of racist behavior, as they should be, and address those issues in other arenas.
I imagine that’s how England would prefer it.