Luis Suarez’s Redemption? Sport Needs a Political Conscience

CONTENT NOTE: This piece will include examples of racism, rape culture, domestic violence and transphobia.

by Shane Thomas 

With the recent incidents concerning the footballer, Dani Alves – and the subsequent #weareallmonkeys hashtag, as well as LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling being banned from the NBA, it may give a false impression that the arenas of sport and politics can co-exist in relative comfort. However, the collision of the two is often a problematic one.

There are a few examples one can use to illustrate this, but the one I will focus on is the Liverpool footballer, Luis Suarez winning the 2013/14 FWA (Football Writers Association) Footballer of the Year award, with the Uruguayan’s racial abuse of Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in 2011 now largely ignored by the British football commentariat.

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While thinkpieces have already been penned about the incongruity of feting a player[1] with such a deplorable past, the current narrative around Suarez demands I reassert where I stand.

Suarez is an extremely talented footballer. And if the award was bestowed solely for on-pitch contributions, then he would be the stand-out performer. However, a cursory look at the FWA website, states that the award is given“…to the professional player who by precept and example is considered by a ballot of members to be the footballer of the year.”

While Suarez’s displays this season are not in question, his “example” post-2011 is. Recent comments reveal just how sorry he isn’t. As Dr. Maya Angelou said, “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.” The racist abuse was emetic enough, but to do so and not show any contrition? That’s acceptable, why?

How have we got to a place where many Liverpool fans respond to any criticism of Suarez with overt racism – either trying to parse the “meaning” of his words – or refusal to involve themselves in the discussion? [2] A place where two of Britain’s most reputable football journalists ask if “his penitence is over”, and if he has attained “redemption”?

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Are we in a state of play where one can be redeemed from propagating racist abuse (and showing no remorse) by being exceptional at football?

And the case of Luis Suarez isn’t an aberration where sport is concerned. When politics and sport intersect, it causes many fans to react as a toddler would to cough medicine. “Sport and politics should never mix” is a common refrain. They’re often seen as an unwanted interloper, only here to ruin our fun.

It’s easily forgotten – especially in the age of the “sports-industrial complex” – but sport is meant to be fun. It’s why so many people bother with it. It’s often the sweetener to the pill of our 9-to-5 culture. I imagine most people reading this have returned home from work, mentally drained, and are looking for something to alleviate the stresses of life.

The Times’ journalist, Simon Barnes commented on this; “You can check in logic and perspective when you grope for Sky Sports on the zapper, when you pass through the turnstile, when you turn over the newspaper in your hands and start reading backwards.”

Sport has an ability to bring sheer joy to millions. But it’s a feeling that sadly causes many sports fans to leave morality behind. The blissful aroma of victory becomes a pernicious opiate when one is willing to excuse any behaviour for the pursuit of success.

Suarez racially abuses someone? So what, he scores goals. Riley Cooper says he’ll “fight every n*gger here”? Meh, he’s a handy wide-receiver. Ray Rice is charged with assaulting his (then fiancee)? Yeah, but what a running back, though.

Sport functions too often as a synthetic environment, a comfort blanket insulating one from the rest of the world. But to quote Barnes again, he states,“…the trouble with pretend worlds is that they exist in the real one.”

Issues of sporting bigotry aren’t separate from the rest of our lives. Joey Barton (who has spoken in favour of accepting gay footballers) tweeting transphobia is a microcosm of the permissible allowances made for transphobia in our society. The incessant stories of sexual assault taking place in both North American and British sport are a reflection of society’s rape culture, while those cheering on England during this summer’s World Cup may want to be aware of the propensity for incidents of domestic violence increasing during England matches.

I also wryly shake my head when I see how the British press have – tentatively – approached the topic of the lack of diversity in the nation’s football managers, yet seem unwilling to ask the same questions of the dominance of white (male) faces in their own profession.

As the great Audre Lorde said, “There’s is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” I can be an avid viewer of the World Cup, while finding Brazil’s treatment of its citizens abhorrent. I can be rapt by the Super Bowl, yet think airing a half-time commercial promoting Sodastream is beyond the pale.

And I can want sport to be a place where escapism is a genuine possibility. A place where the only obstacle to achievement is one’s talent and work ethic. A place where we can focus solely on athletic talent, where outside interests don’t exploit sport’s inherent joy.

But until that day comes, we can’t delineate between the athlete and the person, because the two aren’t separate.

And we can’t delineate between sport and politics. Because the two aren’t separate.

[1] – The embedded piece was written towards the end of last season.

[2] – And yes, Liverpool fans, I hold John Terry in equal contempt.

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A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’ the blogging offshoot of the podcasting networkSimply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

 

 

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8 replies

  1. So who are these black football managers who have been denied because of racism? We’ve seen the black former players move into coaching who looked ready to go down the management route, Viv Anderson springs to mind after his short spells at Barnsley and Middlesbrough but he obviously decided it wasn’t for him. People like you don’t seem to appreciate a) management doesn’t appeal to all and b) it takes time for players who want it enough to go through the hurdles to work their way through the system. They’re coming through now. In fact it is changing so much at the academy side that I know a couple of youth squads with only one or two white players in… soon we’ll be getting the calls to stop the “racism” of only selecting black players and along with that development will come more black managers…

    You look to the negatives of sport but there are many positives. The study of homophobia illustrated the disjunction between what fans sing and what they believe – the same has long applied to race. The fact is football/sport has been at the forefront of breaking down prejudice. I watched Mo Farah win his Gold on a camp site surrounded by a whole white middle England crowd, many Daily Mail readers (main newspaper sold in the campsite shop). The cheering was insane. If you look at it critically you can question how or why they were celebrating the success of a “foreigner” a non-British man picking up a medal under a false pretence… you could but no one did. The joy was more in appreciation of Mo Farah than it was for another medal on the chart.

    If you want you can look all over the place of positives… culture of complaint, negativity, make something more of any issue, failure to balance the story… it is all the criticisms we usually direct at tabloids are present in this culture of negativity.

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    • – Great use of the term, “People like you”. Would love to know who these people are?

      – In terms of lack of diversity in British football management, you seem to not get how structural racism works. A lot of management opportunities come from a case of “who you know”. And the inner circle is heavily populated by white people. There are examples of retired black players who have said that they feel that they won’t get given a chance to coach, no matter what qualifications they have. And why should this be about just black people? Britain has a substantial Asian population, and they’re nearly invisible from the game at all levels.

      – Did you seriously just type, ” soon we’ll be getting the calls to stop the “racism” of only selecting black players”? Ok, I take back my previous comment. You appear under a total misapprehension of what racism is. I’ve written on this before – https://mediadiversified.org/2013/10/26/football-whos-the-victim/

      – You also say, “The study of homophobia illustrated the disjunction between what fans sing and what they believe – the same has long applied to race.”. I’d love to see what kind of hair-brained study made that claim.

      – I never said sport didn’t have positives. If it didn’t, I’d have stopped watching. And I also wouldn’t contest that football & sport has (at times) been a positive factor against racism. But that totally misses the point. Sport (or anything else) doesn’t get bonus points for not being racist, sexist, or perpetrating any form of oppression. That should be the norm.

      – As for a “culture of complaint”. It’s because there’s plenty to complain about. The PFA and FWA just awarded someone found guilty of racism – who remains unrepentant – their highest honour. Or how about the homophobia Michael Sam got over the weekend just for making an NFL team? Then there’s the numerous stories of alleged rape from US college sports teams. These are all problems, no?

      – And finally, you state, “I watched Mo Farah win his Gold on a camp site surrounded by a whole white middle England crowd, many Daily Mail readers (main newspaper sold in the campsite shop). The cheering was insane. If you look at it critically you can question how or why they were celebrating the success of a “foreigner” a non-British man picking up a medal under a false pretence… you could but no one did.

      Yes, I did. Have a read. I do actually bother to put a little bit of work in before writing these pieces – http://sportshistoryshow.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/the-politics-of-sport-good-immigrants.html

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    • While I disagree with a number of Shane’s points, he does make good points and a interesting arguement. I do think badly behaved players whether its Suarez and Terry should not be necessarily be ‘championed’ as much.

      I do rate both a lot but what good would their ill-discipline be at crucial moments. Suarez is very lucky that his handball against Ghana didn’t get spotted and Terry almost blew the Champions League for Chelsea a few years back with that punch on Sanchez!

      Both have been on their best behaviour this season but at what point would it creep into their game again. Sportsmanship should be much more encouraged, rather than the ‘his bad behaved but gets the job done’ which may cost a team a World Cup! For that reason, I am glad that Terry no longer plays for England 🙂

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      • Just as a minor correction, Suarez’s handball vs Ghana was spotted. The ref sent him off, but Asamoah Gyan hit the bar with the resultant penalty.

        Not questioning the quality of Terry or Suarez, but I certainly agree about Terry not playing for England. However, my point isn’t just about specific individuals, but an overall culture where certain oppressive behaviours are permissable. And I think a lot of that is due to the paradigm of sport not being political.

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      • Sorry about the Suarez handball comment. I forgot my facts there!

        I suppose the lack of opportunities for black managers and Asian players is certainly rooted in politics with the issue of equal opportunities needing to be addressed.

        However, I am not entirely convinced about on-pitch behaviour being related to politics to the same degree. It seems more related to common decency, sportsmanship and how we treat each other, regardless of the result. For years we’ve seen fouling plus verbal and physical abuse permitted as long as it gets a result and the people who partake in that culture do often get celebrated. That mentality is slowly changing with more people turning against things like sledging and route-one football but as this article does point out there is still some way to go!

        Anyway Shane, we will have to agree to disagree on the role politics plays in on-field behaviour but like you I do hope that one day football can offer geniune escapism than remind us how depressing everday life can be at times!

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        • My concerns re on-pitch behaviour aren’t so much unpleasant acts – although that is an issue worth addressing. But there’s a difference between good sportsmanship, and acting in ways that reify oppression (such as racism, transphobia, ableism etc).

          I feel that’s a symptom of wider social problems in those areas. But I definitely don’t think sport is the only place where these things exist.

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  2. Thing to bear in mind, a number of Liverpool fans did find out that Suarez is 25% Black on his mother’s side plus the FA Report did acknowledge that he had used terms of endearments before to players like Glen Johnson and Yaya Toure, whom did not take offense since this was done in a friendly context.

    Suarez got punished on the basis of using it during the arguement with Evra, which Evra found offensive. I do agree with this since as a mixed-race person, I would only use a term of endearment around someone who I knew well enough as a friend to have that sort of banter with.

    However, I do feel what John Terry did was more worse and deserved a more sevre punishment than the one given to Suarez. It was easier for the mainstream press to do a front page labelling a foreigner as a ‘RACIST’ than a former England captain. This despite Suarez himself being a mixed-race indvidual who grew in a Uruguayan Ghetto and posed for a picture with Lebron James on the day of the incident with Evra. In other words, the whole thing is pretty confusing lol.

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    • Tbh, I don’t think it’s confusing at all. Suarez has as much latitude to use that term as Ryan Giggs. And as you say, there was no ambiguity in terms of the manner in which it was used to Evra.

      I’m with you about the way Terry was given a light ride by the British football commentariat. I also agree that they find it easier to paint racism as a “foreign agent”, something that happens abroad, but not over here any more.

      However, a lot of the negative way Suarez was framed by the press was as much to do – if not more so – with his biting of Branislav Ivanovic, rather than his racial abuse of Evra. And as soon as he started playing well, it didn’t matter if he showed any contrition. Apparently he was “redeemed”.

      Also, posing for a picture with a black athlete really is pretty irrelevant in terms of proving one’s views on race. Plenty of racists have tons of black music on their mp3 players.

      Like

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