How to deal with the emotional issue of racism? It’s impossible to provide one defining answer for such a complex problem. Certainly the eight match ban handed to Suarez shows that English football is no longer the place where Stan Collymore could be racially abused for fifteen minutes by one player only to have his complaints fall on deaf ears. Yet by dealing with each individual case as a solitary incident the FA is taking a reductive course of action towards problems that run far deeper than words exchanged in anger on the pitch.
English football tends to take a moral high ground over the rest of the world. When monkey chants ring round a stadium every time Glen Johnson, Ashley Cole or Jermaine Defoe touch the ball we, rightly, expect the FA to speak out. However this has fuelled a media culture which looks for the story ahead of the events. Nowhere was this clearer than in the reporting of a French conference on youth development. The British press jumped upon the mere mention of quotas as ‘evidence’ of racism in the FFA (?). No matter that the idea was quickly dismissed or that the French national team is one of the most diverse in international football, with players coming from many different racial backgrounds.
Eventually the issue of racism becomes shrouded in a ‘holier than thou’ attitude; essentially a ‘my culture’s better than yours’ argument. Whilst a particular type of racism is dealt with in English football it is sheer arrogance to suggest that the issue has gone away. How much of the FA’s executive body is made up of non-white males? Why are there so few black managers in the professional game when there are so many players? The Rooney policy in the NFL means that every position must interview at least one non- white candidate; the amount of black coaches has risen from 6% to 25% in the eight years it was introduced. Obviously positive discrimination has its disadvantages but certainly it can have a good impact.
As Gabriel Marcotti suggests there also seems to be a hierarchy of abuse, where racism is seen as the ultimate wrong. Homophobia is still a major issue in the football community – no player has come out since Justin Fashanu tragically took his own life in 1998, meaning that out of around 4,000 professionals not one is openly gay. Meanwhile Arsenal fan group ‘The Away Boyz’ can sing such hilarious songs as ‘Ashley Cole is a Chelsea Batty Boy’ (with lyrics including ‘the whole of England knows your gay/Because you walk that way’) and Graham Le Saux can be taunted with cries of ‘you take it up the a***’ for reading The Guardian with little comment but as soon as race is mentioned the media goes into meltdown, with lifetime bans being issued and player fronted campaigns. I’m not saying this is wrong, but surely if we eliminate one kind of prejudice we have to eliminate all others alongside it.
The punishment handed to Suarez is of little importance in the fight against discrimination. If it prevents players from uttering racists slurs on the pitch then good, but that’s not where the major problem lies. If the FA wishes to show that it’s serious in dealing with racism it needs to not just tackle the individuals but a culture that fails to establish equality and allows for discrimination in the name of ‘banter’. Only by stepping down from their moral high horse will they begin to address these issues.