Football’s dark secret

I’ve just been listening to a bit of football on the radio.  Quite an exciting bit of football as it happens: Arsenal football club have just scored 3 times in 15 minutes at the start of the second half and now lead Aston Villa 3-2 in a highly entertaining cup tie.  This is just one of many football stories this week, though as ever with the beautiful game, what happens on the pitch only makes up a fraction of what ends up written in the papers and discussed in pubs across the land.

This week we have Luis Suarez’s continued ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra, John Terry’s court ‘appearance’ for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.  Ferdinand himself received a spent shotgun cartridge in the post this week, which seems rather more than harsh; whether he was racially abused or not, he has surely done nothing to deserve this threat of death?

Football has been blighted by accusations of racism for many years, though thankfully we seem destined never to return to the peak of the 1970s and 80s when it was common for black players to receive monkey chants and have bananas thrown onto the pitch.  The ‘Kick Racism Out’ campaign appears to have been successful, though it’s probably more a case simply that times have changed, along with the notion of what is acceptable and the values of a more enlightened population in general have been reflected in the behaviour of the average football supporter.

So far so good, but as Alan Hansen said recently on Match of the Day whilst talking about the issue of racism in football: ‘there’s still a long way to go’.   He’s right of course, and until racism is ‘kicked out’ completely, we must continue to campaign and to educate.  Unfortunately, in talking about racism, he also used the term ‘coloured people’, which meant that his sane message was lost in a tumult of calls to the BBC demanding his resignation for using such a derogatory term.  OK, so the word coloured isn’t exactly fashionable these days; it’s a term more closely linked to 70s sitcom ‘Mind your Language’ and it does tend to imply that there are only two races in the world: ‘Whites’ and ‘Coloureds’.  But we all knew what Hansen was trying to say, and if his terminology was perhaps less than sound, at least his logic was fine.  In any case, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) surely couldn’t have had a problem, given that the word coloured makes up a pretty key part of their message to the world.

Maybe Hansen should have used the word ‘Black’?  I was under the impression that this was more offensive than ‘coloured’, but I have been informed by several of my friends that this is not so, and actually this term is far less controversial and far less likely to offend.  However, returning to John Terry’s court appearance, we find that he has been investigated and subsequently charged with the offence of calling Anton Ferdinand a ‘black c*nt’ during a recent West London Derby.  Thank God he didn’t call Ferdinand a ‘coloured c*nt’, then the shit would really have hit the fan.  Actually, now I reflect further, isn’t the word c*nt actually rather more offensive than either ‘black’ or ‘coloured’?  Admittedly it has no racial connotations, but I reckon it’s about the most offensive individual word than one can utter in conversation.  

Racial abuse is simply a sub-section of abuse, but due to the behaviour of past generations, it’s a sub-section that lies far higher up the ‘likely to cause public outrage’ scale.  There are undeniably some ignorant cromagnon football supporters that genuinely do believe that black people are genetically inferior to whites, but these are few and far between and are loathed unanimously within the football community.  Most racist abuse is not indicative of an ideology that is unsound; it is simply a clutching at straws way of insulting another member of the human race.  If John Terry called Anton Ferdinand a ‘black c*nt’, it shows him up to be an unpleasant man, not necessarily to be an institutional racist.  Much of the debate around Luis Suarez’s ban concerned the question of whether using a racist term necessarily meant that he himself was a racist.  Surely this is just a case of labeling and semantics?  If I laugh at a sexist joke am I necessarily displaying a serious tendency towards misogynism?  Probably not, though it doesn’t rule it out either.  I would in either case not like to think that my entire belief system and ideological ‘soundness’ could be summarised by one outburst or reaction to a joke.

The problem with football, and more precisely with the fans that follow the sport, is that their own beliefs seem to take a back seat whenever it comes to issues regarding their club, the manager and the players.  Do all Liverpool fans believe that Suarez is not a racist?  Do all Manchester United fans believe that he is?  Do all Chelsea fans really believe that John Terry is not a racist?  Do they even have enough evidence?  Loyalty to a club is one thing, but these issues go far beyond mere support from the terraces.  It is perfectly possible for me to hope that my team will win, whilst also being disappointed in the behaviour of an individual that happens to play for the side I follow.  Football supporters tend to lose their ability to think for themselves on issues involving their club, instead choosing to agree with any sentiments uttered by their players and manager.  It’s so much better to be told what to think by people that you admire rather then actually taking the time to have an opinion yourself.

But maybe they are the sensible ones, bearing in mind how difficult it is to engage anyone on the subject of racism without either being labelled as a woolly liberal or as a racist oneself.  After all, several of my best friends are coloured, or should that be black?

All rather depressing

So the roving eye of the British public moves on.  Bored of ‘occupy’, bored of bankers and bored of arguments over who’s being racist on twitter (for the moment), it settles on the issue of depression, and depression in sport in particular.  

Gary Speed kicked it all off when he went and hung himself.  It was as shocking as it was surprising.  That day, twitter was full of the standard ‘RIP Gary’, but was also inundated with messages urging people to spread the awareness about depression.  This seemed odd; no valid reason has ever been suggested as to why Gary Speed would take his own life, and yet the twitter-ati clearly decided that it was an open and shut case, and the D word needed to get out.  This made no more sense than the average man in the street, who upon hearing about a plane crash, immediately campaigns for greater public awareness of testicular cancer.

Depression does seem to affect a large number of sportsmen, and the incidences of suicide (especially in cricket) are certainly higher than most other professions.  Marcus Trescothick’s well publicised battle with the disease is a case in point, and it’s clear that many sportsmen struggle to cope with life once their playing careers are finished.  Ex-Hull City striker Dean Windass spoke to the Guardian this week, keen to admit (possibly as catharsis) that he was ‘close to ending it all’ this week.

I’m not an expert, but the link between sportsmen and depression seems to make sense.  The weight of public expectation, the mighty highs and cavernous lows and the ‘back to earth with a bump’ that accompanies the end of one’s playing career would indeed cause some of the less robust personalities to struggle to deal with the harsh realities of ‘real’ life.  I was amazed that a colleague of mine chose to rail against this phenomena, expressing utter contempt for these sufferers and an amazement that they could be afflicted in this manner, given that they were performing in a role that many ordinary folk would give their eye-teeth to take on.  ‘Let them go and meet the maimed soldiers from Afghanistan’ she wailed, ‘then they’d know how lucky they are’.  I’m pretty sure this is not how depression works.  It would be easy to snap out of things if all one had to do was to be introduced to someone more worthy and/or more unlucky.  I’m sure that the bi-polar Stephen Fry is aware that he is a clever, successful man, and very much the nation’s favourite uncle.  This doesn’t seem to make him snap out of the medical condition with which he is afflicted.

As if to satisfy the public’s curiosity with all things depressive, and hot on the heels of Gary Speed, came Andrew Flintoff, who opened his heart on his depressive past.  Less convincing this one: his depression apparently co-incided with his only tour as England captain.  As England slumped to only their second ever 5-0 Ashes defeat, and their first for 85 years, Flintoff admitted that he had felt down and had struggled to get out of bed in the morning.  He had even started to drink too much.  None of this seemed all that surprising.  Legendary boozer Flintoff had carried on boozing.  He had also felt pretty low and gutted that his team were being comprehensively thrashed.  This isn’t a depressive episode, it’s just a bad day (or few weeks) at the office.  Miraculously, this depressive episode seemed to pass once England started playing a little better.

Fintoff’s mate Steve Harmison has now chipped in, blaming his lack of form on foreign pitches on depression.  ‘I didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s what it must have been’.  Give it a label Steve, just to make yourself feel better.

The saddest thing of all is that many people do need to change their opinion of his disease, which is misunderstood and brushed under the carpet all too often.  However, the more that celebrities trivialise depression and use it merely as a catch-all label to magic away the natural lows of their profession, the more that it will remain misunderstood.  Ironically, by bringing it into the public eye in this manner, it is likely to provide just a few minutes of pub chat, and less likely to kick-start any worthwhile debate on the issue.  

It’s all just so depressing.