Let me state my bias. In this case I have two that are relevant: Firstly, I am a Liverpool fan – something that I see as a bias, not a handicap as my Manchester United friends might claim! Secondly, I am against racism – in all its forms.
However, the guilty verdict against Luis Suarez, something that condemns him to being labelled a racist, is wrong, flawed and smacks of a political agenda rather than an even-handed strike against racism in sport.
The three man panel led by Paul Goulding QC and consisting of Dennis Smith and Brian Jones handed Suarez an eight match ban and fine of £40 000 for a comment Patrice Evra said Suarez made (at least 10 times) to him during the feisty Liverpool verses Manchester United game on the 15th October. The term used, that Evra took such exception to was, “Negrito” – a common descriptive term used in South America without racial overtone. This much has been collaborated by linguistic and cultural experts and confirmed by Gus Puyot (the current Brighton manager) – a Uruguayan himself who has gone on record as saying that he would back Suarez, “to the death” over this issue. It was a term used by Manchester United player, Hernandez, in describing one of his own teammates in an earlier interview!
There are only three aspects that the panel presiding over this case could consider: The use of the word itself, intent and the context in which it was used. The two former aspects (the use of the word and the intent) would need primary evidence for the charge to stick and punishment metered. This process would take place against the overriding backdrop, or in the prevailing ‘climate’ of Sepp Blatter’s ill-considered comments on racism in football – something that should have no bearing on the deliberation and verdict, but I suspect did. But I’ll get to this later.
So, let’s start with the primary evidence on which such a serious charge would need to be built. Evra claims that Suarez used the word 10 times yet, he was the only one to hear it being used. None of his teammates or any of the officials present heard Suarez saying the word, this in spite of it taking place in a crowded penalty area. Neither could any of a multitude of cameras present confirm Suarez had used the word. So, had Suarez simply denied using the term, it would have come down to Evra’s word against his word. Without any collaborating evidence and the dubious character reference that some maintain Evra represents, there would be no case. Matter closed, let’s go home.
But Suarez never denied using the term – an admission that renders redundant the lack of primary evidence. Whilst this admission removes the need for evidence, it does focus on the intent behind the word. Intent is hard to prove but the fact that Suarez never denies using the term leans heavily in favour of his intent not being one of a racial slur. Why would someone knowingly admit to using the term in this context if he believed it to be a racial slur? Camera angles that recorded this exchange show Suarez’s body language and demeanour to be anything but aggressive or threatening. This alone might not be sufficient to prove intent, but taken with Suarez’s own admission, add up to be able to remove this aspect (intent) off the table.
Which brings us to the context in which this all happened. As in all matters, context brings about meaning which is why for Suarez there was no slur and for Evra there was offence. The complexity of this case sits in this aspect – context.
The panel have ruled that cultural ignorance is no defence in such matters. However, in doing so they have operated from an Anglo-centric worldview – a stance that has already been seen as somewhat arrogant in its interpretation of what does and does not constitute racial insult. The FA have ‘drawn a line in the sand’ and ‘acted with honour‘ is how football scribes Lipton, Maddock and others have interpreted it – but is a line and honour that is essentially English. It is an interpretation that would not stand-up elsewhere and fails to recognise the cultural complexity that sits at the heart of this case. The reality is that there would be many a British term or expression that once removed from the British context, would be deemed racially offensive. Drawing the ‘racial line’ in a multi-cultural context cannot be done from an isolated cultural viewpoint. We live in a world of paradox and this paradoxical complexity extends to culture and the meaning ascribed to language.
Context also has to take into consideration the location – and this happened in England – in ‘their league’. If the FA then rules that this was offensive, have they not every right to do so? Well yes and no. The Premiership is an international cultural melting pot and this has to be considered in looking at setting what is and is not acceptable in the Premiership. Acknowledging and acting on this complexity is a responsibility. In this particular case, one which demanded cultural adaptation and sensitivity, such was overlooked because, ‘this is the Premiership…this is England’. One might be inclined to then add, ‘…and we are here to teach you a lesson!’
Surely a wiser and more prudent course of action would have been to acknowledge the complexity at play and see to it that steps are put in place to educate, create deeper dialogue and invite the players themselves into ‘drawing the line’ to which they would hold themselves accountable? The FA have used the Suarez case to send a strong message but in doing so they have cast an unfair and unwarranted desertion on both individual and club. It wasn’t the case to do this and given the circumstances and (lack of) evidence is unfair and unjust. This after all is very serious charge!
So what of the prevailing ‘backdrop’ referred to earlier? This has to do with the storm FIFA President, Sepp Blatter created by his earlier comments on racism in football. It goes to the tension that exists between UEFA / FIFA and the FA and here was an opportunity for the FA to gain points in their ongoing saga with the world and regional governing bodies. However one interprets the FA verdict, it would be naive to believe it was one delivered without political agenda.
No, the Suarez sentence is one that has no solid arguments. It is a simplistic finding that is attempting to deal with a complex and very real problem. It has found a scapegoat and I suspect neither the Scapegoat nor the Club will go quietly on this…nor should they! Too much is at stake for both them and in the battle that is eradicating racism in sport. In this instance the FA’s in their ‘zero tolerance’ policy and FIFA’s ‘Kick it Out’ campaign have not scored the victories they believe they have.
The next chapter will be John Terry making his way to court in the New Year. If found guilty, the maximum fine will be of no consequence for a player earning a reputed £150 000 a week. What will be of consequence is the proven criminal charge and then seeing what, if anything, the FA do. If Suarez gets an eight game suspension and £40 000, what then for Terry, found to be criminally guilty? The irony is that had the Evra / Suarez incident been handed over to the police and not gone through the FA procedure, it would have been dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence!
So, I am a Liverpool supporter…always have been and always will be. However, the matter of racism is bigger than club loyalty. I am a white (can I say that!?) South African and know something about racism. It should never be tolerated and needs to be opposed wherever found. But I can’t help feel that an injustice has been done and opportunity lost in the FA ‘s arrogant (as some say) and ignorant (as I believe) ‘line in the sand’. Such matters are emotive and deserve our full attention, thought and action. It won’t stop with Suarez as racism is alive and well on the terraces. He will just have to get on with it and live with a tag that is as unfair as it is discriminatory!
The saga is yet to fully play out and so we shall see.