Football,  Racism

Suárez suspension: an overreaction

Guest post by Cipriano

Luis Suárez, Liverpool FC’s Uruguayan striker, has been sentenced to an eight-match ban for racist abuse. He was found guilty of using the word ‘negrito’ in addressing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, a black player.

I’m not in any way making excuses for racist abuse, particularly in Britain where it has been frequently proved that the use of racist language is the last step before open racial violence breaks out. Nor am I suggesting that different rules should apply on the football field. In Britain, in contrast to other parts of Europe, racism in football has been largely suppressed, mainly because of the massive contribution made by black players to the success of clubs. A Premiership club which refused to sign black players would be not only quickly condemned but also quickly relegated.

I’m not even complaining about the general agreement to banish certain words from the vocabulary. I was born in East Yorkshire, hardly a multiracial melting-pot. In 1965, when I’d just started school, I was on a bus with my mother, when a black man got on. Having no doubt picked up the word in the playground, I said “Oh look, a nigger!” My mother told me never to use that word again, in such sharp tones that I never have. And quite right too.

But I don’t think Luis Suárez’ mother ever said that. Latin America is much more of an ethnic melting pot and much more relaxed about it (yes, I know that is due to a certain amount of ethnic cleansing in earlier generations, but that is the fault of those who did it and not their great-grandchildren). Suárez’s FA hearing was confronted with footage of Manchester United’s Mexican player Javier Hernández using the same word, in the spirit of harmless banter.

Non-football fans may say “what’s the big deal? Suspended for a couple of months on full and fulsome pay? I should be so lucky”. But eight games is more than a fifth of the season with one’s best player out of action, just as a team is struggling to get back to the top. More to the point, it’s a much severer punishment than is usually meted out to players who have been sent off for fouls which might have caused serious injury.

So, what have the FA achieved here, apart from making life a good deal more difficult for Cipriano’s football team? (Diddums.) If it was an attempt to clamp down hard on ‘racist’ language in football, it’s failed. We all know Suárez is no Ku Klux Klansman, but a Uruguayan who’s been in Britain less than a year and speaks about 20 words of English. All over Liverpool (and Twitter) we’ve started addressing each other as ‘mi negrito’, and that won’t stop any time soon.

While it’s vital to crack down on real racism, we’ve got to be very restrained in setting the boundaries of what one is allowed to say. The law that my mother laid down in 1965 can’t be allowed to extend itself indefinitely.

Anti-racism remains an essential concern in sport, but it is a colossal irony if it is used deliberately to trip up sportsmen whose first language isn’t English. I remember a couple of years ago, when Australian mixed-race cricketer Andrew Symonds wound up India’s Harbhajan Singh to the extent that the latter said something he shouldn’t have and got banned. That’s not what the campaign against racism is for.

And the enmity between Liverpool and Man U is quite severe enough anyway. This will have raised it to boiling point. When Liverpool go to Old Trafford in February I wonder whether Sir Alex Ferguson will risk Evra on the pitch. It may have occurred to one of the Liverpool hardmen that a crunching, career-ending tackle will probably attract a lesser punishment than that which has been meted out to Suárez…

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