Archive for May 2014

Richard Scudamore’s sexist emails: the triumph of low expectations.

Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, has apologised for the content of a series of his leaked emails, in which he refers to women in derogatory terms.  Scudamore’s former personal assistant, who leaked his emails, stated that “he has no respect for women. I don’t think anyone should have to be exposed to such language and opinions at work.”

A Premier League source, speaking to the Daily Mirror, said that “Richard realises that his comments were inappropriate and wrong but they were not intended for a wider audience. It was meant in a Frankie Howerd style way. His commitment to the equality agenda and anti-discrimination is writ large.” (My italics.)

Whoever the Premier League source was, they have made things worse, since they suggest that Scudamore’s attitude towards women is a pervasive one.  It is worrying if the above statement was carefully crafted by a press team, as it is very revealing for two reasons.  First, to open with a line that Scudamore’s sexism was “not intended for a wider audience” implies that this sexism would somehow be less damaging if no-one knew about it.  Yet this sexism, unseen till now, may already be working to corrosive effect: this sexism may prejudice, for example, every job interview that a woman sits for a senior Premier League position. It may prejudice the budgets allocated to the women’s game, which may come under renewed scrutiny as a result of Scudamore’s comments.  After all, if his commitment to equality and anti-discrimination is indeed “writ large”, we should expect to see robust investment in the women’s game.  All of a sudden, the sums pledged aren’t looking all that substantial.

Secondly, there is the explanation of Scudamore’s comments: that they were meant in a light, comic vein, in the style of Frankie Howerd.  When accused of sexism, there is often an effort among men in football to infantilise themselves: what you might call the “boys will be boys” defence.  “We’re just kidding”, so the argument goes, “chill out”.  However, it’s strange to see these men rely on a defence of youthful irresponsibility, and in the same breath expect to be trusted with billion-pound budgets.

Will Scudamore be disciplined by the Premier League for his comments?  Few seem to think so. Unfortunately, the institution of British football has achieved what you might call “the triumph of low expectation”.  People expect so little in the way of progressive attitudes within the sport that emails such as Scudamore’s are met with a frustrated shrug.  Yet this helplessness is something that women cannot afford.  As Anna Kessel, the Guardian/Observer journalist and co-founder of Women in Football, noted this morning on Twitter, “the impetus lies with everyone else to force [the Premier League] into action”.

Gloria de Piero, the Shadow Equalities Minister, has observed in the Mirror that “Richard Scudamore has let down women supporters, players, referees and coaches.”  I agree with that, and I would go further: he has let down men supporters, players, referees and coaches too, since his emails do not reflect the attitudes of those many men who support the women’s game and the advance of female professionals within the sport as a whole.  The Premier League should make all of this clear in whatever action it now takes.

Jeremy Clarkson, UKIP, and badges of honour.

I was going to leave this Jeremy Clarkson thing alone. Really, I was. I had a load of laundry to do, and I hadn’t eaten yet. But then I read an article by Marina Hyde in the Guardian whose headline claimed that “Revulsion over Jeremy Clarkson has become a badge of honour for the left”. And so, appropriately goaded into a response, like a sleepy bear who has had its belly prodded once too many times with a spitefully sharp stick, here I am.

I am not some paid-up member of an anti-Clarkson fan club. I am busy and Jeremy Clarkson’s racism wastes my time, because every now and then he makes a bigoted comment and I am asked to respond to it.  I don’t sit in wait for him to slip up.  He is a brilliant broadcaster whose show would still be a success if he never said another racist thing again.  And I would honestly rather that he didn’t.  I, for one, am fed up with being expected to serve up elegant, dignified and dispassionate responses each time one of his finely-calibrated jibes – aimed at racial or social groups regarded as too powerless, too humourless, or too distant to reply – emerge into the airwaves.

I am not sure if Ms. Hyde’s article was aimed at the participants in some perverse liberal turf war, but I am not part of it. I am a writer of colour trying to make his career as best he can, and all I see is a man who is making millions of pounds whose casual racism is consistently indulged because he is running one of the world’s most successful shows. Not even a fine. Not even a suspension. Just an “official warning”, or a “final warning”, whatever that is.

Jeremy Clarkson said the word Nigger – let’s look at that word for a moment, uncensored, in all its ugliness – in a manner that was meant to be mischievously offensive.  That’s why he mumbled it. I don’t know why he’s suddenly so mealy-mouthed now, why the cat has got his tongue.  Some of his remarks over the years have been less offensive than others, but most of them have been in the same vague ballpark.  Mexicans, Gypsies, slopes.  The only reason that he’s twitching now, perhaps, is that he’s finally urinated on the live rail of racism, the “N-Word”, that he’s been flirting with for ages.  And the sad truth is that he’s probably spent more time trying to track down whoever leaked that video than he has in reflecting upon just why so many people are genuinely horrified.

My revulsion at Jeremy Clarkson’s racism is not a fashion statement. Neither is my revulsion at some of the defences of him that I have seen this week, which have put me in a state of fury that was almost overwhelming, to the extent that I was afraid to begin writing this article for the uncontrollable rage that might emerge. Because people may scorn UKIP as political outsiders, but their sentiments are already among us. Their sentiments are mainstream, since for years Jeremy Clarkson has been clothing them in a clown suit.

A few months ago I was asked to go on the radio to debate whether UKIP’s use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” was racist. I refused. I refused because I would have found it demeaning. Bongo Bongo Land is so flagrantly racist, I told them, that I didn’t see where the debate was. Here’s what’s going to happen, I said. You’re going to put me on some show with a smooth-talking UKIP spokesperson who’s going to be all innocent and mild-mannered, and I’m going to get angry and possibly lose it, and then the audience will have their Angry Black Man and then people will be asking why we have chips on our shoulders and why we are so mad about everything. So I said no.

And I said no because Bongo Bongo Land is the kind of thing that the racists probably smirked when they were carving up Africa at that conference in Berlin in the 1880s. Hell, for all I know, they may have been mumbling eeny-meeny-miny-mo when they were deciding which territories they wanted for themselves. I don’t know. All I know is that Clarkson has reminded me this week why I hate his casual racism. Because its frequency and popularity are reminders of the very real prejudice that is still acceptable within Britain today. Clarkson’s casual racism is the kind of thing that landlords think when they are deciding not to let properties to black people in the supposed multiracial utopia that is London. It is the kind of thing that led to the racist van campaign. The kind of thing that brings your kids home from school in floods of tears, that makes employers think twice before calling you to interview. It is insidious and it is widespread and we have recently learned from the BBC that Clarkson is not even going to be fined or suspended for it. And I find no comfort, let alone a badge of honour, in any of that.

Donald Sterling and Dani Alves: what next for the NBA, UEFA and FIFA?

The NBA has announced that it is to ban Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers, for life for his recent racist comments: a decision which gives rise, broadly speaking, to two immediate comments.  The first is “thank goodness” and the second is “what took you so long?” Somewhere, in the loud outpouring of public catharsis that accompanies this decision, the sound of this uncomfortable question may be lost.  Yet, if fundamental progress is to be made, it is one that we must strain to hear.

So, again: “what took you so long?”  After all, Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1984.  When LeBron James remarked that there was “no place for Sterling in this league”, the brutal truth was that the NBA had not only indulged his place in the league for thirty years, but allowed him to sup at its very highest table.  When Sterling soon leaves the NBA, following the forced sale of his organisation, with a windfall of hundreds of millions, it may be said of him that he was merely a system error, that he was merely a flawed outlier among a group of mostly decent owners.  The worrying reality is that he may have been the system’s logical result.

In Europe, meanwhile, the Barcelona and Brazil defender Dani Alves attracted worldwide and much-deserved praise for his defiance of a racist Villareal fan, by picking up and eating a banana which the supporter had thrown at him.  Alves’ action triggered a carefully pre-planned viral campaign, where countless footballers, celebrities and members of the public showed solidarity with Alves, posting a series of selfies in which they, too, were eating bananas.  Like Donald Sterling, the fan was banned from his club for life.

Villareal, like the NBA, did the right thing in acting swiftly; but, like the NBA, they hopefully won’t let themselves off the hook so easily.  They should ask why the crowd’s atmosphere enabled this Villareal fan to make a gesture that might have caused King Leopold to cackle. Often, when incidents like this occur, they are written off as the work of an ignorant minority. Yet, for every person who stands up to throw a banana at a black player, how many more silently think of the same player as somewhat less than human?

You have to wonder.  In both the US and Europe, these visceral outbursts of racism are like the appearance of lesions on the skin of society: they are merely symptoms of a severe underlying illness. Specifically: Donald Sterling is a very wealthy man, and the one sure thing about wealth is that you need a very large infrastructure of people to help you acquire it and then keep it. So how many powerful people, knowing of the thoroughly consistent racism on which he built part of his property empire, stood on the same platforms as him and vouched for him as a colleague and friend? And why is it only now that they suddenly see his opinions as apocalyptic in their horror? Was it because his prejudice finally threatened to hit them in the two most painful places of all: their reputations, and their wallets?

The most striking thing about the Donald Sterling and the Villareal incidents is that, in both cases, change had to be forced from outside, not from within.  Had it not been for the actions of a disgruntled lover and a media-savvy footballer, this conversation would not be taking place at all, which suggests a dangerous complacency about the racism throughout the structures of professional sport. The onus must be taken away from the victims of racial discrimination to respond most effectively to the injustice that they have suffered. The current dynamic is too often a case of “ah, it appears that someone has set you on fire. Well, best find some water to put yourself out.”

This NBA decision should not be seen as the final act on this matter, but as the beginning of a new direction that involves severe penalties.  For example, not only should people like Sterling be fined for such behaviour but, upon the forced sale of their franchise, perhaps they should receive a further penalty, expressed as a large percentage of their profit: a “bigotry tax”, if you will.  There should also be a careful look at the racial diversity of the NBA’s executives, since there is a striking disparity between the percentage of non-white players in the NBA – some 81 per cent – the percentage of non-white coaches – some 47 per cent – and the number of non-white owners – just three per cent, or one out of thirty.  Charles Barkley referred to the NBA, given the racial composition of its athletes, as “a black league”; but, at the ownership level, it is still overwhemingly a white one.

Football’s governing bodies – UEFA, in Europe, and FIFA, worldwide – must observe the Sterling affair closely.  After all, football’s clubs also exhibit a troubling lack of diversity at managerial and boardroom level. Of course, FIFA and UEFA are also in an ideal position to apply pressure to those who bankroll the game. One thing that they could usefully do is to identify clubs with a consistent history of racial discrimination, and then warn the sponsors of those clubs that they will be denied the opportunity of being FIFA and UEFA’s official partners at international tournaments: a corporate veto, if you will. The sponsors can then either urge the clubs to change their ways, part company with them, or endure the subsequent damage to their reputations.

It is all very well banning individuals who remind us of the ills that riddle our society. But merely stopping there allows us to maintain the fiction that these acts are freak occurrences, rather than the end product of frequent and openly indulged prejudice. It is only by addressing this awkward reality that we will get anywhere, and that the dismissals of Sterling and the Villareal fan will have any worthwhile legacy.