Sir Alex Ferguson spoke to CNN in condemnation of recent allegations, proven or no, of racial abuse in the Premier League and English football as a whole:
“This is a moment where we have to take stock and we should do something about it if it’s surfacing again, and be really hard and firm on any form or shape of racism.
“There have been a couple of examples recently which is not good. In 2012, you can’t believe it. It was obvious maybe 20 years ago and the improvements have been for everyone to see.”
There are several different perspectives one could take on the recent back-and-forth allegations of racial abuse in English football. The obvious one, and Sir Alex’s take, is that English football is clearly taking a turn for the bad old days. Players today apparently feel free to say racist things today (which presumes they weren’t before this season). And fans in turn are doing things like boo Rio Ferdinand because he’s Anton Ferdinand’s brother, who didn’t even make the allegation against Chelsea defender John Terry in the first place (we’ll get to that in a moment).
The other line, and one I happen to believe, is that despite all the odious controversy of this past season involving players like Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez, Anton Ferdinand and John Terry, the fact racism is stealing all the headlines in the UK at the moment is a good thing. In fact, the uncomfortable mood in top flight football, and via Twitter and the rest, represents the beginning of the end of passive acceptance of casual racism in the UK.
Consider how recent incidents came to light. Luis Suarez admitted to using the Spanish word for black repeatedly against Patrice Evra in a football match. While there’s some evidence Evra may have exaggerated Suarez’s use of the word (and the ugly variation thereon), we know from Suarez’s own mouth he did in fact use it.
Perhaps Suarez took a calculated gamble that the unofficial rule of footballing gamesmanship would prevent Evra from complaining. It would be, after all, a matter of he said/he said. Instead, Evra felt confident risking his reputation in coming forward, with all the subsequent controversy it subsequently brought about.
In the Terry/Ferdinand incident, a third party witness was apparently key in coming forward with evidence that Terry may have use racially abusive language toward Anton Ferdinand. Clearly he or she felt it important to report to police what they believe Terry may have said to Ferdinand.
It’s certainly the case that the multi-camera, closely-televised coverage of the Premier League means players and fans are more secure their testimony will be corroborated by filmed evidence. But this technology, while advanced compared to even a decade ago, doesn’t in itself explain the rash of complaints of racial abuse, either from fans or fellow players.
It’s also naive to think that players have only in recent seasons felt comfortable shouting horrible things on a football pitch. Note how Sir Alex Ferguson’s point of reference to the bad old days was not fifty or a hundred years-ago, but a mere two decades. That implies racial abuse was fairly commonplace in England as recently as the early 1990s, and anyone who’s ever lived or traveled in the UK in the last few years likely has a whack of anecdotal evidence casual racism hasn’t exactly disappeared from Blighty since then.
What has slowly shifted over the past few decades however is the general feeling of abhorrence toward overt racial abuse, the fact that it’s now culturally unacceptable across all possible worlds, whether on a football pitch or in an office conference room. I would argue the difference between this season and previous seasons is a new-found courage among players in coming forward, because they know something might be done.
So how to explain the accompanying flurry of racial abuse incidents on Twitter or in the football stands? Whenever an unsaid rule is broken like players accepting racial abuse and “just getting on with it” as many, many commenters have repeated over the past few months, certain fans feel more confident in breaking the unwritten rule that it’s okay to harbour racist views but not to express them publicly. So they take to Twitter to call Sammy Ameobi a n**ger. Additionally, under the warped logic of “partisanship,” some casual bigots regard racist gestures as a demonstration of solidarity with the accused on their team.
For the last few years, many silent racists—the ones who aren’t BNP members outright but sympathize with their cause—were content to keep up appearances. Now some feel the gloves are off. As more and more players come forward over allegations of racism and racial abuse, there will be more push back, more brazen public declarations of racism from fans, and not a few of them either. The ugly side will be exposed for what it is, and the public outrage will alert leaders like Ferguson of the work that still needs to be done to combat the problem, perhaps starting with what they believe constitutes harmless banter at a football match.
Fighting racism isn’t just a matter of a Kick it Out campaign and a few CPS prosecutions. Cultural shifts takes years, decades, whole lifetimes. So as ugly as the the headlines have been over the past few months, they’re just the beginning of the long, final death throes of an ugly, unseen foe.