On Friday, I was at Google’s London HQ for a debate about racism in football; specifically, whether Mario Balotelli would be justified in walking off the pitch if he received racist abuse from fans, something which he said he would do. I was arguing that he would be justified in doing so, and I have included my argument below. It was an excellent discussion, which also featured fellow Blizzard writer Philippe Auclair, footballer Louis Saha, diversity campaigner Femi Otitoju and writers Anthony Clavane and Andrei Kurkov. We eventually came to the position that it would be most powerful if a player walked off the pitch with his team-mates following him in support; below are the remarks with which I began the evening.
If a player walks off the pitch after receiving racist abuse, what is he trying to say?
Some would say he is telling his team-mates: “I am selfish. I am putting my anger ahead of the team.”
Some would say he is telling UEFA: “I don’t respect the rules. It’s the referee’s job to decide whether a game should be postponed or cancelled due to racist abuse.”
Some – perhaps most – would say he is telling racists: “I am letting you win. You have shattered me in spirit. I can withstand your chants no longer.”
Some would tell this player to “do the talking with your feet, on the pitch. That’s how you deal with the racists.”
But there is another way to look at this. Last June, Roberto Carlos – the former Brazil let-back – was playing in a Russian league match, when a banana was thrown at him by a fan. Carlos left the field, and was so upset afterwards that he said he was considering retirement. He said afterwards that he was outraged, sickened and disgusted.
When Carlos walked off the pitch, I think he was trying to say this:
“I am a man first, and a footballer second. I am a grown man, not an animal, and I am not a creature on display for your entertainment. You have come to a stadium, to watch human beings play football. This is my place of work, and if you will treat it like a zoo, I will show that this pitch is not a cage, and I will leave it.”
Sporting excellence does not always get rid of racism. To the racist, a monkey who leaps ten feet in the air is still a monkey. What seems to get rid of racism is frustration. The reason that Rosa Parks’ refusal to get to the back of the bus is so powerful is that it was so human. She was exhausted by being pushed about – she was sick of the established way of things. And we can relate to that.
When it comes to football, maybe we need the spirit of Rosa Parks again. Maybe we need someone to say: “I’m not going to keep calm about this. I’m not going to sit at the back of the bus. It is 2012, and it is still a world where someone feels comfortable enough to stand up in a crowd of his or her peers and shout abuse that masters once shouted at their slaves.”
Of course, if a player were to walk off like this in defiance of the referee, he would automatically receive a booking. But I would argue that, in order to achieve faster and lasting progress, a yellow card is a small price to pay.