I keep coming back to this piece on Run of Play by Andrew Thomas, “Heaps of Woe.” While it refers to racist chanting by Barcelona fans at Marcelo in the Spanish Super Cup this past August, it could easily apply to the Arsenal fans chanting horrible things at Adebayor in yesterday’s North London derby or Tottenham supporters calling Arsene Wenger a “pedophile.”
Thomas explains the difficulty in assigning moral culpability for what happens in the stands of a football match:
The thing with racism is it doesn’t require a majority. As Batman said, all that is required for evil to prosper is that good men do nothing, and similarly all it takes to make any collection of people – be it a football crowd, a political party, or a country – appear racist, at least to the target, is an audible minority couched in a silent majority. Saying nothing isn’t doing nothing; it’s tacit acceptance, or at least acknowledgement. Unlike a heap of sand, individual members of a crowd are independent moral agents, with free will, and while the very nature of crowds perhaps diminishes that sense of freedom, it would be weak indeed to suggest that it could lead to a justifiable and complete abrogation of responsibility. If someone’s being a prick, you really should be calling them on it.
Realizing the difficulty of putting this ideal into practice, Thomas goes on to look at how “taking responsibility” for your fellow man or woman in the midst of a football match can not only be hard, but downright dangerous. But he argues football being what it is—i.e. a globally-beloved sport with a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions, fans have a greater share of responsibility in ensuring they meet the basic standard of “human decency.”
This is obviously an idealistic goal, and Thomas concedes as much. The only tool clubs effectively have at their disposal to enforce that standard is the stadium ban, which Tottenham is set to use today. But like the death penalty and crime, there is little evidence of correlation between punishment and deterrence. If one set of Arsenal away fans feel it’s appropriate to mention a traumatic, violent attack in relation to a professional footballer playing for a long-time rival, another set will be in behind them, singing the same songs.
The problem here is cultural. If it’s okay in smaller company down at the pub to wish Adebayor had been shot to death in Angola because he plays for your club rival or make homophobic slurs about Sol Campbell because he once wore an Arsenal shirt, then it certainly will be okay to shout in unison in the relative anonymity of the football stand. If it’s de rigeur in football culture to prove yourself “hard” by singing about the Munich air crash, then you will hear it at a football match. Like alcohol, the crowd stretches the id, gives it freedom to break taboos, no matter how vile. The crowd makes it difficult both morally and legally to hold individuals to account for their actions.
Yet again, the stubborn truth remains: all a crowd is a collection of individuals. It’s the same with society as a whole. So I would only add this to Thomas’ prescription about how to stop racism or abuse at football matches: those who aren’t already bigoted, partisan morons have a responsibility to confront abusive language not just in the stands but everywhere, actively, all the time in their own lives. Abuse in football grounds isn’t football’s problem, it’s everyone’s individually, even if they live an ocean away with only a fibre optic cable connecting them to the action.
While it’s fun to blame society for this that and the next thing, it was civilization that stopped us from wiping our bums with our hands or stealing our neighbour’s humidor. Sometimes the mechanism by which civilization enforces these standards is the common law, but usually it’s just simple embarrassment. And the great thing about embarrassment is even one person can use and produce it. It might be hard (or suicidal) to call someone out for abuse in a football stand while they have thousands of others around them singing the same trash, but alone, in bar, or at the office? A few chiding words to someone who should know better can often do yards more harm than a fine. Embarrassment is the civilized person’s most powerful tool in the battle against bigotry.
Which is to say perhaps football doesn’t have a special responsibility to stop abusive fan chants. Neither do “fans.” The responsibility to stop abusive fan chants is yours and yours alone, by confronting the guilty parties and embarrassing them whenever necessary in your own life, no matter what tangential relationship you have with the beautiful game. This is impossibly abstract in theory—sorry! you can’t “fix” fan abuse overnight, with a concrete set of enforceable measures—but incredibly particular in practice. There’s nothing more particular after all than your own lived life.
So, are you up to it?