On racism: The depressing truth behind coverage of the Clattenburg affair

Shaun Botterill

I suppose it's time to reflect on racism yet again, which is totally what I had anticipated when I founded a blog about football. I know, the online world is currently teeming with a drab shoal of Mark Clattenburg opinion pieces, and this is probably one more frenetic and slightly confused anchovy to be added to the fray before some humpback whale of Important News comes and wipes the whole story away with a mighty upward plunge of its gaping maw*.

*I don't know why I went with this metaphor, but I figured if I was writing about racism on a football blog I might as well take the time to talk about whales, too.

Anyway. Clattenburg is alleged to have been alleged to have said some naughty things to John Obi Mikel during Chelsea's 3-2 loss at the hands of Manchester United on Sunday. I think it's important to make that distinction -- the club has submitted an official complaint about his language, sure, but nowhere have they made any specific allegations, leaving the tabloids, Britain's great bastions of honesty, to fill in the gaps.

The reaction to the claims made in the press has been predictably disheartening, especially when they're contrasted with the response to the incidents involving Luis Suarez and John Terry in the previous season. Let's recap, for those who've somehow forgotten.

Luis Suarez is accused by Patrice Evra of racial abuse during a highly-charged match between Manchester United and Liverpool. Most fans condemn Suarez immediately, leading Liverpool supporters to maintain an impassioned (and slightly bizarre) defence of their striker until Suarez is banned for eight games in a one-man's-word-against-the-other show trial.

Shortly after the Suarez incident, John Terry was caught on camera appearing to hurl racist abuse towards Queens Park Rangers centre back Anton Ferdinand. Terry was immediately condemned by everyone not affiliated with Chelsea and was ultimately cleared in court before the FA used their lower standard of proof to hit him with a four-game ban, which he's currently serving.

And now we have Mark Clattenburg. Given the meta-allegation that he referred to Mikel as a 'monkey', we might have expected the good, decent, Kick It Out-supporting British public to come down on the side of the potentially abused black player. Instead, Chelsea are being accused of spinning the drama out of whole cloth in revenge for the awful officiating performance at Stamford Bridge, and Mikel is the one being treated like a villain.

In the first two cases, which involved not-particularly-liked players, 'neutral' supporters were only too happy to get behind the supposed victims. There's something admirable about coming out strongly against racism, so it's difficult to fault those angry with Suarez or Terry despite the weird brand of vigilante justice esposed in condemning them.

But the Clattenburg allegations have been handled completely differently. And the reason, I think, is obvious.

It's because this isn't about race. Not really, anyway. Sure, the racism germ is there -- the public knows it should be offended because we've been told over and over again how evil racism is. But the problem is that you can't make people inherently indifferent about the whole shebang care. The best they do is fake it, using something they know to be morally correct and wielding it like a club to smite their enemies.

This sordid affair has revealed the dirty truth behind the spectre of racism in football: Nobody is taking it seriously. Yes, it's big news when a player someone doesn't like gets accused, but the reason it's big news is because people want more reasons to hate that player and the club they're attached to. And when an unpopular club makes a racism accusation of their own, they're just vindictive liars who should be punished.

This sort of inconsistency of response -- for my money we should take care to condemn racism whenever it appears while bearing in mind that misunderstandings do happen and that before forming a lynch mob we should also ensure that the accused has their say as well-- is exactly what one would expect from the press if they were more interested in stoking the flames of tribalism rather than mounting a coherent attack on racism. And that's pathetic.

Should we be looking to combat racism, wherever it may be? Absolutely. But we should be fighting racism because it's wrong, not because we don't like someone. Instead of looking for justice in football, papers are looking to make supporters hate one another that little bit more while the FA twiddles its thumbs trying to seem even marginally competent.

There's something deeply ironic about using accusations of bigotry in racism in order to pursue an agenda of (admittedly lesser) bigotry in tribalism. Here's a thought -- how about we try to look beyond club affiliation and our petty likes and dislikes when we're dealing with issues that actually matter? I think that would be grand.

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