How often do we get to say the exact right thing, make the exact right gesture?
Many years ago, when my wife and I were urban pioneers, we lived in a neighborhood festooned with um … indigenous businessladies. One night while she was out walking the dog, a car rolled up alongside the curb and a man inside the vehicle asked my wife “How much,” presuming that the dog was a brilliant ruse, perhaps. Her response: “Just me, or me AND the dog?”
The would-be Lothario figured things out pretty quickly, and sped off. Perfect response to a ridiculous situation.
When Dani Alves strolled over to take a dead-ball situation during the Villarreal match on Sunday, it’s a safe bet that he had absolutely no aspirations to perfection, aside from a player’s usual striving for excellence. But when the banana came flying at him and he casually picked it up and ate it, attention and focus fully on the pitch and beating Villarreal, it was the perfect response to a ridiculous situation.
Neymar, not missing a beat, Instagrammed a photo of he and his son eating bananas, starting a “we are all monkeys” campaign that spread like wildfire. A Spanish TV newscaster ate a banana on the air. Players such as Kun Aguero have photographed themselves eating a banana, in the selfie as social revolt vein.
Villarreal issued a strong statement condemning the offending “supporter,” and FC Barcelona came out with a statement of its own, expressing full solidarity with Alves and condemning racism.
Once my jaw finished bouncing off the floor as a result of that last incident, something else remarkable happened. The match official, David Fernandez Borbalan, put the banana incident in his official match report so that it is there, for the record. It was as if to say “Your move, RFEF.”
After the match, Dani Alves handled everything with class and style, saying that such things have been part of the Spanish game, and you just can’t dignify them by freaking out. He added a backhanded thank you to the fruit hurler, saying that his father always told him to eat bananas to avoid cramps, so thanks to the person for providing the energy boost that helped him keep running, keep crossing the ball.
And this is how a football club properly deals with racism:
Villarreal CF wants to communicate that the club deeply regrets and condemns the incident that happened yesterday during the match against FC Barcelona in which a fan threw an object onto the field of El Madrigal. Thanks to the security forces and the invaluable assistance of the Yellow crowd, the club has already identified the (perpetrator) and has decided to withdraw his season tickets, permanently banning his access to El Madrigal stadium.
Once again our club would like to express its firm commitment to promoting respect, equality, sportsmanship and fair play both on and off the field and our absolute rejection of any act that is contrary to these principles, such as violence, discrimination, racism and xenophobia.
Racism is an unfortunate part of the modern game, and I really don’t foresee a point in my lifetime where it won’t be. Xenophobia is one of those irresistibly human things that takes us deeper than racism into those vile nether regions of all discrimination. Some might not be a racist, but a sexist. Might not be either, loving all races, creeds and colors, but is bothered by gay people. The omnipresence of the “other” is what makes discrimination so malleable and inescapable.
We hear of incident after incident. In the U.S., the news is filled with the alleged comments and views of NBA owner Donald Sterling. There as everywhere, strong words have come out. What makes that incident noteworthy is that “safe” players such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan, who usually shy away from unequivocal statements because of the potential image/sponsor damage, both came out forcefully against the alleged remarks, saying that there is no place in the NBA for that kind of an individual.
Boateng walked off the pitch during one match. Los Angeles Clippers players dumped their warm-ups in a pile, and loosened up with their warmup shirts turned inside out, as a form of protest. Two of the biggest sports in the world have had incidents that have drawn global attention to racism.
To what end?
Football has racism. Football will have racism. It isn’t cynical to say that, as much as it is reality. Because racism or any other form of discrimination (football has ‘em all) is the belief that your group is better, based on something that is (usually) unalterable. The object of discrimination can’t fix the thing that offends the assailant. They can’t not be black, not be female, not be gay. It’s easy, and it’s obvious to make someone the Other. And as long as humans have the trait that makes them want to be better than someone else, there will be the attendant xenophobia and its byproduct, discrimination.
Clubs can make statements, football can have campaigns, players can be banned for x or y number of matches, stadiums can be empty. These gestures make some feel like “See? They are doing something,” even as we acknowledge that a big part of such gestures for many is palliative. It’s like an apology, which too frequently serves to make the person making the apology feel better. “There. Glad that’s over.”
Then the game returns to “normal.” Everyone wants things to be back to normal. When you fight with a friend or loved one you regret the fight, but what you most regret is the upset to normalcy. Strife is nasty. So is being confronted by the tangible evidence of man’s inhumanity toward man. It makes us uncomfortable. So let’s don t-shirts and armbands, make a statement and return to normal.
This doesn’t mean that the efforts, the campaigns, the gestures aren’t sincere. They often are. But all of them put together don’t change a single, solitary thing about racism. We know it sucks. We know that people don’t approve. We know it’s a black eye on the game that we all love. Duh. Sadly, the gestures and campaigns also serve to remind us of something we don’t really want to admit: that maybe, just maybe, racism isn’t solvable by any of those kinds of things. That like charity, the end of racism begins at home.
Longtime readers here will recall my Camp Nou incident, where during halftime of a match I was attending a young kid from the posh seats saw me and made a clearly racist, monkey-like gesture to his father. The dad smiled, “Oh, you little card,” not at all uncomfortably until they noticed that I was watching them. Then it got VERY uncomfortable. I shook my head, predominantly because that’s kinda all that you can do in a situation like that. Show clear disapproval and the belief that while someone might think they are superior for the simple biological marker of skin color, that ain’t always the case.
That kid learned what he knew from the parent who tacitly approved it by not kneeling down and sternly explaining to that kid why what he did was wrong, laying out how absurd it was to for the kid to return to his seat and cheer for a team that included Lillian Thuram, Toure Yaya, Eric Abidal and Samuel Eto’o with a clear conscience. That is the time to stop racism. What in the hell is a FIFA campaign going to do when the people who the kid looks up to says “It’s okay to discriminate.”
That kid probably continues to go to Barça matches. Maybe an incident happens in his life that makes him understand everyone can be lumped in asshats and non-asshats. And that ain’t color, gender or sexual orientation specific. But more often nothing happens because just as we segregate ourselves into groups of Barça supporters, we tend to gather among friends who share the same views. It’s uncomfortable not to. It’s a safe bet that the Villarreal banana thrower was at the match with like-minded souls. So where is the disapproval? To that group, racism is fine. It’s what you’re supposed to do.
We scoff and snark, call them silly or worse, but they don’t care, because beliefs supersede all. Racists have kids, and those kids have kids. Allegiance to a football club is deep and usually lifelong, so the racists potentially keep raising generations of racists. You fix that not with campaigns, but in homes and seats around the perpetrators. Today, word came down that the Villarreal member has been identified and expelled. The identification came with the help of those seated nearby. And that’s how you do it. If a racist speaks up, people around him say “Hey, that is enough of that crap. It isn’t right.” And the racists learn they aren’t wanted, even if they don’t change their views.
This doesn’t augur well for a football future in which black players won’t suffer monkey chants, hurled bananas and the like. English football fans feel better about themselves because their FA has cracked down on racism in a way that makes racists much less likely to act on their views, even as that reluctance to act doesn’t make them any less racist. It doesn’t remove racism from the game, it just removes the overt gesture from the game. Dependent upon how much discrimination you have had to deal with in your life, you might or might not prefer to know who dislikes you because of how you are. The devil you know, right?
But the absence of a gesture doesn’t mean you don’t have racism. It just means that you can’t see it. Whether that is any better is up to you. For most of us, it’s better. We can’t see it, so it isn’t there. Personally, I want racists out in the open. I want to have the hope that kids will see how ugly it is. I want to have the hope that the kid who has a shirt with Alves/22 on the back of it will ask his father why those people over there are being mean to his favorite player. I want to have the hope that the kid will resolve to not be like that, and then raise his children not to be like that.
That is when racism begins to be erased from our game, which is what has to happen for the game to be truly better, rather than beautiful and “normal” until yet another incident turns it ugly again.