I’m normally rather quiet and subdued at football matches and have rarely booed anyone, but when Brighton came to Turf Moor on the 28th of April I booed one of their fullbacks, Gaetan Bong, because he had reported the Burnley native and former Burnley player Jay Rodriguez for a remark made to him during a game between West Bromwich Albion and Brighton. The man next to me was wearing a Kick Racism Out Of Football T-shirt and he also booed. In fact, I think the overwhelming majority did. There was also, apparently, some hostile chanting between rival fans involving mass allegations of racism and homosexuality, but these were confined to the cricket field end and not audible from where I was sitting.
I cannot speak for other people, but my boos had nothing to do with anything Rodriguez said or the fact that the case was not proven. They were a condemnation of the moral preciousness of a football player who would choose to go through a lengthy and damaging procedure in order to try to get a fellow professional punished for a remark made in the heat of the moment. In a long lifetime of playing sport – I retired from cricket at 70 and competitive tennis at 71 – I have heard the most appalling insults involving sexuality, racism, body-shaming and so on. Recently there was a spate of Pakistani teammates being called terrorists. They could almost all be forgotten after the game. Only when threatening behaviour was involved did I try to take action as chairman of a cricket club and, of course, it all came to nothing.
I interviewed two of the first four black players who played for Burnley for an article and I did so largely because they had done a great deal of good beyond football. What I remembered was the loyal and honest efforts they had put in when the club was struggling in the lower divisions. And I particularly remember an old man turning to me in the crowd and saying, “Yon blackie’s t’ownly one wi’ any guts”. When a person of a different race shows strength of character and loyalty to your cause it is impossible not to admire him as an equal or superior human being. If they had spent their time complaining and litigating about racial abuse they would not have changed minds in the way that they did. And it was constant, apparently, at least from opposing fans and players. The situation was summed up by one of them, a striker and sometime winger, who specifically remembered the first time he was not subject to racial abuse by his marker. When they were waiting for a corner to come across he asked after the defender’s health, pointing out that it was normal for people to call him a “black bastard” after he’d run past them on several occasions. Did any of this racism from opponents and opposition fans ever offend him? Not in the least! Did racism ever? Certainly: when it came from coaches and managers who had power over you.
This seems to me to be a rational and proper attitude to the idea of being insulted. Our libel and slander laws depend on the idea of harm coming from what is expressed. The whole point about the Bong-Rodriguez incident is that nobody heard it: Bong did not suffer a loss of prestige, his livelihood was not affected. One version of what was said, extraordinarily mild by the standards I’m used to, was that Rodriguez was alleged to have said that he was black and he smelled. (“Black” cannot be an insult, can it?) I am not, of course, approving of calling people “black bastards” – it would be a very odd thing for me to do since I am pleased to be co-grandparenting with persons born in Nairobi and Amritsar. But I don’t really approve of obesity, divorce, fast cars and many other things without wanting them to be stringently penalised. And, incidentally, I think I would condemn Rodriguez in much stronger terms if Bong was a young, inexperienced player. But he’s not; he’s thirty years old and has played his football in several countries.
It is clear that this kind of regulation and procedure does not exist to prevent harm. It is a piece of social engineering, a thought police effort designed to educate us and keep a lid on certain social problems. But it is so far divorced from common sense and common decency that it merely fosters cynicism. The booing at Burnley has been described as “shameful” and “unacceptable” by several prominent people. The alternative view is that it is Bong’s litigiousness and hyper-sensitivity which is unacceptable and the FA’s making of a statement which implied that Rodriguez was guilty but they couldn’t prove it which was shameful. My informants from an earlier era told me that they had many firm friends who had called them “black bastards” on the field of play back in the day; I don’t imagine Bong and Rodriguez will be having a drink together any time soon. The FA should get on with finding former black players the jobs they deserve rather than involving themselves in petty show trials.
Lincoln Allison May 2018