Of Handshakes and Finger-Pointing

In Opinion, Sport on September 29, 2012 at 1:56 PM

So, John Terry is a racist… or said something ‘racist’… according to three people… but not another dozen or so. And inevitably, the papers and social media explode with righteous indignation and moral finger-pointing.

I’m not really going to jump on that bandwagon; not due to any moral objections, merely that everything that could be said kind of has been already – and, paradoxically, through all the unsavoury racial controversy in football recently, anyone with half a brain cell has got the point anyway that racism (at least not connected with tricky issues of crime, immigration etc.) is an unarguably Bad Thing.

What I do have a little bit of an issue with, though, is some of the muddle-headed hysteria surrounding it. By some unfortunate coincidence (or some Machiavellian plotting by football scriptwriters up in the sky), the first time after The Incident that John Terry and Anton Ferdinand met in a match with a pre-game handshake, the goalless draw at Loftus Road just over a fortnight ago, coincided with the shocking revelations of police corruption and cover-ups that tragically tarred the (now almost certainly clean) reputation of those who died in the Hillsborough tragedy.

This led to many, in the media or not, decrying the footballers’ (supposed) childish bickering in light of such sobering news. Such rash comparison is unsurprising in the red tops, but it’s in evidence elsewhere too, including in the putatively respectable Independent. In an opinion piece for the centre-left national, entitled ‘posturing would have shamed a schoolyard’, Michael Calvin claimed: “Searching questions about human nature have been asked in the aftermath of the Hillsborough panel’s report. The Premier League’s post-Olympic era began at Loftus Road with pettiness and theatrical vindictiveness. Business as usual, in other words.”

A reasonable comparison at first glance, perhaps, and certainly not malicious, but it’s not an altogether fair one. One is a case of police cronyism and misinformation; the other a case of racially inflammatory language – both abhorrent (especially if as clear-cut as typically alleged) of course, but completely different moral precedents. It’s not as if Terry called for the comparison – frankly, if he is as calculatedly self-serving as is supposed, he’d have more sense.

And James Lawton, the paper’s chief sports writer was also in on the act, suggesting in the headline of the piece ‘if in this of all weeks we are obsessed by a handshake, the game really is up’. He argued: “Yesterday’s furore over the quandary of whether to shake a hand or apply another measure of bitterness to the atmosphere of the national game seemed especially petty at the end of the week of Hillsborough, one in which so much old and apparently unbreakable anger had finally been recognised with unexpected honesty and regret.”

The point about the handshake is also somewhat illogical. Of course, in a sense it’s just a handshake, but it’s the symbolic value that’s important. Using the same logic, applause is merely a collision of hands; physical swearing merely the raising of a particular finger – rather than gestures which speak volumes about human relationships. Call me pretentious if you will, but I think the handshake in sport stands for a sincere acknowledgement that one’s opponent – while undoubtedly going for the same, singular victory – has an equal right to compete and has done/will do so in a fair manner; a very healthy lesson for life in general which must be lived with others but experienced alone.

Clearly Ferdinand has good reason to believe this doesn’t apply to Terry (even more in hindsight after the FA’s verdict, whatever the truth of the situation), because he probably felt Terry doesn’t think it applies to him. And clearly team mates of the respective players equally felt this. So why should they have shaken hands? And why is it ‘petty’ and ‘vindictive’ that they did not? Terry offering a conciliatory hand is decent – and surely Ferdinand took the most respectable course of his action for his grievance? Would it have seemed manly to sit the game out? Or was the ‘mature’ act for this tricky situation to knock Terry’s lights out? Somehow I don’t think so. There is a great irony in newspaper columnists, though undoubtedly Not Racist (as they seem so pleased to tell us), decrying the way players have dealt with the problem, as if they, and not the players themselves, have a monopoly on grandstanding over moral issues.

Of course, Ferdinand could have shaken Terry’s hand; but – if, as nearly everyone believes, he has good reason to suspect racism – why should he have? It would have probably only served to undermine the great strides football has taken to root racism out of the game, indeed society. Personally this would have been a bigger setback for race relations in football than the current system, as in a game played and watched by millions, two isolated incidents – one of which there is still significant doubt over* (Suarez/Evra the  other) – surely do not in and of themselves represent a return to the dark ages. Indeed, I’d argue the righteous indignation from nearly all is a sign of how far football has come since only around 30 years ago when bananas would be thrown from the stands at players like John Barnes.

(*All the FA statement conclusively stated was that Terry used “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour […] which included a reference to colour and/or race” – which Terry himself admitted in court, defending himself by saying he was using the words in question…in question. Perhaps this is a factor in the disparity between Terry’s four-game and Suarez’s eight-game ban)

For surely, for all the ills of the undoubted globalisation and increasingly ginormous amounts of money in football, this has only had a beneficial effect on race relations. In an extremely – sometimes brutally – measurable, meritocratic field, it makes pure business sense to support players from all over the world (especially if your club can take a player from a poor African club in return for next to nothing). To be blunt, teams and their fans are very unlikely to favour the less gifted white player over the more gifted Nigerian, Mexican or Russian because, all sensible social considerations aside, they won’t be as successful or lucrative if they do. It is not an ideal world where some people had to/have to see a person can manipulate a ball with his feet well to be a  respectable member of society, but, hey, it’s a means  to an end. But it’s by no means all just the almost accidental benefit of the free market; there has been a lot of very positive work in terms of bans and fines for offenders, the Kick It Out organisation endorsed by almost all if not all football league clubs, and community work organised by clubs.

None of this is to necessarily absolve Terry – or others – of culpability, just to ask for an end to the conflating of different issues and the rash jumping to conclusions. I think few would argue that Terry, at least from his media image, is a particularly nice, wholesome character, but this by no means necessarily makes him a racist, as it seems many think. There are loads of twats who aren’t racist (though I don’t think the reverse is true). Based on his childhood and career in which he has played with and against many black players, under intense media pressure and in many heated moments, it certainly seems unlikely that such an incident would only occur when he was 30 if he really was racist (italicised because it’s not necessarily a black and white issue, so to speak). As the football cliché goes, at the end of the day, two different investigations have returned opposing verdicts, so let’s just treat the situation as it is; with requisite uncertainty and free from extraneous character assassination, blanket statements on racism in football and comparisons to a police scandal.

But by all means, call Terry a heartless, adulterous, glory-grabbing cunt if you want…

Joel Durston

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