Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Racial abuse in sports

It seems there's been an outbreak of racial abuse in the sporting world.  First, Luis Suarez, a Uruguayan playing for Liverpool FC, was accused by his opponent Patrice Evra, a Frenchman born in Senegal and playing for Manchester United, of "saying a certain word to him at least ten times".  Unlike me, the Guardian was willing to put the word in writing.  Suarez denies it, saying "I go to the field with the maximum illusion of a little child who enjoys what he does, not to create conflicts".  There seems to be no supporting evidence for the allegation from all the cameras, microphones, players and officials at the match, so it may not be true.

Second, John Terry, a white Englishman playing for Chelsea FC, was accused on the basis of video evidence of having racially abused his opponent, Anton Ferdinand, an Englishman whose mother is Irish and whose father is from Santa Lucia.  Again the Guardian's report is frank as to the words allegedly used, and includes a video of the incident which seems to bear out the allegation.  (It seems to me that Terry follows up with another insult, obscene but not racial,)  Terry's defence is that he did use the words, but only in order to deny having used them.  If you call that a defence.

Third, Steve Williams, a white golf caddie from New Zealand, speaking at an (off-the-record) awards ceremony for caddies, used a racial epithet in speaking disrespectfully of his former employer Tiger Woods, an American golfer of impressively mixed race.  Williams, whose cut of Woods' winnings made him one of New Zealand's highest-earning 'sportsmen', quickly apologized.

All three alleged culprits have been defended with statements that they are not racists.  I see no reason to doubt that, except in so far as we are all a bit racist.  It doesn't matter, the issue is not what they thought, but what they said.

I'm thinking about how bad all this is, and what should be done about it.  Provided that there's no threat to public order, I don't want to censor what jokes people can tell, so whereas I shan't be hiring him as a public speaker, Williams should escape formal sanction.  But using a person's membership of an oppressed ethnic group as an insult really is nasty in a way that's difficult for white people to understand, unless perhaps they're Jewish.  Sportsmen should not have to put up with this sort of abuse on the field of play.  The Football Association has a Disciplinary Handbook which includes in its list of offences "use of abusive words" and stipulates that an offence aggravated by reference to race or colour incurs double the punishment.  That should cover it.  But Terry has been selected in the England squad for international matches on Saturday and the following Tuesday.  "He is innocent until proven guilty", says the manager.  So are prisoners on remand, but that doesn't mean they go free until a verdict is reached.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police say they are formally investigating the allegation against Terry (and thereby delaying the FA inquiry).  It would be helpful if they'd specify what crime they think he may have committed.  It can't be a racially aggravated offence under Part II of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, because no one thinks it's a crime for footballers to swear at each other non-racially.  It can't be the use of abusive language intended or likely to stir up racial hatred, under Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 because no one seems to have been listening to what Terry said.  Perhaps it's inciting the Met to waste police time.

Incidentally, I agree with the Guardian's policy of reproducing the exact words when reporting on these incidents.  I don't see what's gained by writing in asterisks (the Guardian quotes Charlotte Brontë's preface to Wuthering Heights on this).  But since they've published what was allegedly said, I needn't.


  1. "Terry's defence is that he did use the words, but only in order to deny having used them"

    ITYM "mention"

  2. "It can't be a racially aggravated offence under Part II of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, because no one thinks it's a crime for footballers to swear at each other non-racially."

    Without intending to speculate on what the possible charges under investigation might be, there's an interesting flaw of logic in your comment. ("Interesting" in the sense that I can't identify the type of fallacy at play here; you appear to have put together the elements of the crime in the wrong way so it smells a bit like the Fallacies of Composition or Division, but neither's quite it.)

    The "racially aggravated" offences created under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 are not "things that would otherwise have been crimes **were there no racial element**, but which are also racially aggravated within the meaning of Section 28". The part in stars is extraneous.

    If the allegation, in your terms, is that a sportsman was "swearing racially at another", then that's the thing that has to be adjudged e.g. under the Public Order Act 1986, after which it's almost a nailed-on certainty that it will also qualify as "racially aggravated". It's not the criminality of the fictitious deed of "swearing at the other player, but with the racial epithets censored out" that matters. Given the added force carried by racial insults, it's entirely possible they would qualify as causing "intentional harassment, alarm or distress" or even "fear or provocation of violence" whereas non-racial versions may be considered a legally acceptable part and parcel of a sporting contest.

  3. Good point: a court might accept a defence of "reasonable conduct" under 4A(3b) of the POA from a player who swore at an opponent without referring to his race, but not from one who did so refer.

    In this particular case, I think the charge would fail under 4A(1) - no one claims to have heard what Terry said, so no one can have been caused harassment, alarm or distress. Unless you count sensitive souls who lip-read his words on video.