I had written this a few weeks back, but by the time I made it post-worthy I started thinking that it was no longer current. After reading this story, I now realize that the issue has gotten far more absurd – and dangerous, from a cultural perspective – than it was when speech codes were “merely” limited to the players and anonymous groups of fans.
A quick YouTube search for “worst soccer dives” turns up dozens of compilations of entertainingly ridiculous examples of soccer players dramatically hurling themselves to the ground after (sometimes long after) little or no contact by an opponent. The real victims of these theatrics, aside from the fans, are players who are genuinely injured during the course of the game. Referees and other players – so accustomed to hearing “Wolf! Wolf!!!” – seem to require a minimum 45 seconds of writhing from a downed player, just to be sure that he really means it this time. Some leagues and players are worse than others (Iberia, I’m looking at you), and soccer leagues around the world are finally starting to crack down because they realize how damaging these dives are to the sport’s credibility. Still, “simulation” remains one of the most under-enforced rules in the game.
Whether it is because players are realizing that taking a dive doesn’t quite have the bang for the buck that it used to, or they are trying to up the ante by getting a player suspended instead of merely booked, we have seen the draw-a-flag culture metastasize into something much darker with the recent allegations and policing (literally) of racist language across European soccer leagues. Given the national, regional and ethnic fault lines that run beneath so much of European soccer, few people would be surprised to hear ethnic slurs hurled between fans and players. This is even more the case now that one-time “national leagues” (such as the English Premier League or La Liga) are now becoming internationally diverse; and that national squads now have players that do not necessarily “look” the part (yes, Mario Balotelli is Italian). Like politics, much racism is ultimately local, as the Tottenham Hotspurs are well aware. Because their team is located in a traditionally Jewish section of London, the Spurs often face anti-Semitic cheers and taunts while on the road as well as from visiting fans of their opponents when at home in White Hart Lane.
League rules for sportsmanship and on-field conduct exist to give referees the means to punish players who engage in racist insults on the pitch. Likewise, codes of conduct for fans in soccer stadiums allow stadium staff to eject fans who do the same (read the back of your ticket – it’s there). Enforcing these standards amongst the fans is made significantly more difficult by the size and anonymity of a chanting crowd, but leagues are taking various measures to change the fan culture of European soccer. This task is difficult but not impossible: English soccer eventually managed to rid itself of the stigma of the hooligan era, although one could argue that the hooligan culture has just re-emerged in the form of the racism we are discussing here.
Lately, though, the English have taken a much more heavy-handed approach. Having given up on changing the culture of the game, they are apparently trying to dictate the culture of, well, the culture by summoning the Metropolitan Police after these racial incidents to enforce what could only be described as speech codes within the stadium and on the pitch. Players and fans suspected of engaging in racist speech or gestures are investigated for misdemeanors with names like “racially aggravated public order offense.” For the time being, over on this side of the pond we would call this “saying stupid s**t.” It may get you a yellow card, an ejection or a fine (fan or player) – but not a court appearance. Whether speech laws can change individual minds and the culture any more effectively or quickly than the normal course of cultural evolution is for a different post, and likely someone smarter than me. But considering the level of violence that can occur in the course of a sporting event and still not warrant a criminal investigation (Hello, Zdeno Chara!), the notion that some jackass insult could result in a criminal prosecution is foreign and more than a little offensive to me as an American, a sports fan and a sportsman.
This trend may have finally jumped the shark with Chelsea FC failed attempt to levy charges of racism against referee Mark Clattenburg. Even as a CFC fan I have no problem saying that Chelsea deserved to come out the loser on this attempt to exploit the anti-racial tactics deployed by the Football Association. Chelsea knew the pain of running afoul of these speech-and-conduct regulations with the 5-game suspension of captain John Terry. Whether they wanted to inflict this pain on a referee who they blamed for their loss to Manchester United, whether they wanted to exploit what they saw as the absurdity of these rules, or whether they were just lashing out in the most damaging way (currently) possible, they ultimately shot themselves in the foot in the court of public opinion and credibility. Perhaps the next step will be for Clattenburg to launch a libel or defamation suit against Chelsea – the legal equivalent of him booking Chelsea for simulation.
Hopefully the Chelsea-Clattenburg incident will deter any other club or player from making a spurious charge of racism in order to gain a fleeting advantage over an opponent or game official. The Football Association would do well to take a hard stance against this behavior not just to protect its members’ reputations from the lasting damage of false accusations, but also to not cheapen the impact of true acts of racial or ethnic animosity. An even better outcome would be for the FA and other leagues to realize that while you can demand and enforce good sportsmanship on the field and civil behavior in the stands, no amount of rules, regulations or red cards – and certainly not a court summons – will change what goes on in someone’s mind.