Sport

Football should not carry the can for society’s ills – but can help to remedy them

Football should not carry the can for society’s ills – but can help to remedy them

To be fair to the more risque element of Chelsea’s matchday support, they have been very thorough this week in representing the full political spectrum. On the one hand an ad hoc hostile environment for Anglo-Jamaican British citizens. On the other a little throwaway antisemitism on Thursday night in Hungary. This is exemplary political balance and frankly the BBC for one could learn a great deal from it.

All that remains to complete the circle is for Sterling’s alleged Stamford Bridge abuser to resign from the East Stand and then turn up six months later as an outside Windrush Ticket bet for the next Conservative prime minister. And for Jeremy Corbyn to condemn, with a sad sigh, not specifically these Yid chants but “all kinds of offensive football chanting everywhere”.

It’s funny because it’s true! Or at least, it might not be very funny. But that’s not because it isn’t just a little bit true. Where have we got to, anyway, with racism and football? Have enough people expressed outrage, or weary bafflement? How many more bans, censures and educational measures should we call for? And does anybody out there really think, deep down, that this issue rests solely, or in any serious degree at the door of a profiteering professional spectator sport?

This is the first thing worth saying about all this. It is both accurate and also meaningless to suggest “football” has a racism problem. No matter how convenient it may be to locate all evil in one place, the fact remains “football” is not a discrete, concrete thing, but is simply a reflection and an extension of the society around it

Football can instruct and police the people who come through its doors. At its best it provides an exemplar of how to behave. But in the words of John Barnes in these pages earlier this week: tell a stadium of racists to stop saying racist things and what you’ve got is a bunch of silent racists.

The lesson of the rise in reported abuse, and of viciousness in all its forms, is that our society is producing racists. Football doesn’t make this happen. But it does provide the most visible public space where people get together and shout their brains right down the lens of a TV camera.

Looking back you could almost feel it building during the first half at Stamford Bridge last Saturday. The game had already begun to tilt over to that side of the pitch. At one point Sterling and Riyad Mahrez drew a wave of rage by flipping the ball between them on the touchline as Marcos Alonso flailed about after it, a prop in a beach football training drill.

Later Mahrez left Alonso wandering off the wrong way with that same old move, the most widely-advertised sideways jink in Premier League history, a sideways jink so well-advertised it should probably be up for some kind of industry award at a ceremony full of high-fiving men in red glasses called Tristan.

The crowd bayed and hollered. Sterling came across to take a throw-in. And the words came out (or not: the fan in question denies this). Football gave the words a stage. And while all sports have a duty to police their environment with zero tolerance, to educate, to become the opposite of this in every one of its structures, it would also be dishonest to suggest football put those words there.

Perhaps it is simply a weird coincidence that our elected government has for the last five years been deporting people who moved to this country from Jamaica aged five, and that Raheem Sterling, as a point of interest, also moved to this country from Jamaica aged five. Hmm. Hostile environment you say, to be policed by everyday people. Now what would that look like? At which point, in the documentary film version of this column, the narrator cuts to angry shouting people leaning over an advertising hoarding screaming abuse at a black man.

The finger of blame also points inwards here, back to pages like this one. This is the second thing worth noting about all this, the wider response to Sterling’s own statement on media portrayals of black footballers, the idea that language, imagery and narrative tone fuels a closing down of opportunity, narrowed horizons, fixed ideas.

It is a difficult subject, one that we all have to be willing to be schooled in; to digest the idea that repeatedly calling Paul Pogba lazy or frivolous is likely to reinforce the same historic negative barriers some black players have mentioned this week, the same insulting stereotypes you find in Jim Crow or Tintin in the Congo.

The editorial page of the Sun has already strongly denied that its depiction in its news section of Sterling buying a house for his mother using the words “Lavish … flash … blinged-up … bragging … crystal-encrusted … brother … baby … the lights and shit … the big daddy Rangey” could have contributed to the abuse and racist physical assault he has suffered since.

Maybe it’s right about that. And maybe lessons will be learned too. Above all the idea that it is necessary to believe people when they tell you this matters, that language can be harmful, that these ideas do stick.

Because there is of course an upside. Sport in its pure form is the opposite of all this, the opposite of judging a person on pigment, presenting instead the most thrilling of basic meritocracies. This is its gift, its capacity to inspire and lift us beyond all this mud. It is the job of all of us to live up to it.

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