If there is one topic in football of late that has stirred heated debate and controversial opinion, it is the recent storm surrounding alleged racism once again rearing it's ugly head in the English game. For many the reaction has been to reaffirm an anti-racism stance and ensure efforts to stamp it out of the game once and for all are doubled, as Twitter users who directed flagrant racism at Sammy Ameobi and Fraizer Campbell discovered. Others, including one or two high profile figures, have sought to play-down the issue and claim there is no problem to address at all other than overly-sensitive people jumping on a bandwagon.
Personally, I have absolutely no doubt that there is still a massive problem with racism, not only in English football but across English society. Granted, black players are no longer being pelted with bananas and subjected to monkey-chants at English grounds as they once were. But that is merely evidence of a change in behaviour, not attitude. Understanding the rules is not enough without understanding why they are important.
Many ask, and with a worrying degree of seriousness, how calling someone 'black' is any different to calling someone 'ginger' or 'fat'. Well this is simply a lack of education, and for that to be the case in a developed multi-cultural country in 2011 is completely unacceptable. There is no long history of ginger people or fat people being dehumanised to justify the removal of their basic rights as far as I am aware. (This is not an academic essay, so I shall not go further into it here, but anyone who still finds themselves unable to comprehend the basic premise of racism really should seek further historical reading on the subject – immediately.)
Yet for me there is an even more worrying aspect to the whole saga.
For whatever reason, Liverpool are a club who provoke more emotion and tribalism than most. So when Luis Suarez was charged by the FA in relation to alleged racist remarks to Patrice Evra, a player from their most heated rivals, it was no surprise to see the club rally around him. The very fact that a Liverpool badge adorned the Uruguayan's chest was reason alone to offer full and blanket support whilst attempting to ignorantly trivialise whatever it was that he might have done.
In fact, the club itself were happy to hop on the bandwagon and promote this point of view. A blog uploaded by a fan dismissing the very notion of any kind of racism being involved and instead laying out an elaborate conspiracy theory based largely around a character assassination of Sir Alex Ferguson was a 'featured' article on the front page of the official club website. "Whatever tripe you throw at him will strengthen the bond between Liverpool FC and Luis Suarez", brags the author with a clear message – football first, principles and common morality after, should they be needed.
Indeed, it seems that all those who happily speak out in an attempt to reject the premise that racism persists in staining football all have something to gain from it being swept under the carpet. For all Sepp Blatter often seems totally out of touch with the world, I refuse to believe he is so far removed from reality that he genuinely believes there is no issue of racism in football. He doesn't seem to mind justifying exotic and impractical World Cup hosting choices in the name of the fight against it, anyway. I am certain, however, that football being blighted with the stigma of racism whilst under his command would adversely effect his ability to hold his position and the wealth and prestige that accompanies it.
Would Gus Poyet be quite so dismissive of the issue if it wasn't one of his personal friends in the firing line? Would Liverpool fans defending Suarez with an impassioned resolve be quite as quick to unconditionally back the accused from a position of total ignorance if he wasn't such an influential and quality player for their own club? Well they don't seem to be quite so vociferous and creative in their conspiracy theories that exonerate John Terry as they are Suarez, lets just put it that way.
And what of the media and their self-anointed anti-racism white knight, Oliver Holt? It was Holt who brought the racism issue back into the public arena in September when he extolled the benefits of introducing 'Rooney Rule' inspired legislation to encourage greater ethnicity in coaching and managerial positions. Whilst I disagreed with his conclusions, believing them to be based upon a false premise, there was little denying that his argument brought a fresh perspective to the debate.
But where is Oliver Holt now? He hasn't gone so far as to abandon his assertions that racism remains an issue, and I understand that there are certain issues of legality to be considered at this stage, however given his strong and commendable anti-racism stance of earlier this year you'd expect the recent issues to simply add further fuel to his crusade and greater meat to his argument. Yet when he did put quill to parchment to cover John Terry's awkward England press-conference, what followed read like a courtroom character witness statement from the Chelsea captain's biographer as it proceeded to praise him for his "stirring words" and "how well he seems to respond to adversity" before reminding us of how he is "revered" at Chelsea. What's that you say? Oliver Holt IS John Terry's biographer? Yes, writing under the alias of Oliver Derbyshire, Holt authored 'John Terry: Captain Marvel, the biography', a book that claims to chronicle the life and career of a 'football legend' and 'national icon'.
I am sure that Mr Holt would, quite reasonably, insist that Terry must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. He recently appeared on an ESPN panel debating the issue in which he described accusations of racist comments on a football pitch as 'easy and very serious allegations to make'. Quite true. Still, blanket branding football chairmen as racists was an easy and very serious accusations to make too, but that didn't stop him from making them in his Rooney Rule argument. This is the kind of pseudo commitment to fighting racism in the game that irks. The mentality that it is a passionately worthy cause for which to fight – until fighting it costs you something. That is the shameful anti-racism double standard.
English football does manage to maintain the charade of full commitment by setting their sights on the easy targets. The people they can presume guilty without fear of reprisals, bad press, and lawsuits funded by multi-millionaire sportsmen – the fans. Last season, one season-ticket holder was arrested at the Stadium of Light and ejected from the premises on the basis of one steward believing him to have made a racist remark, and that was despite multiple witnesses assuring police that no such remark was made by the accused either then or at any other time during the games they could remember watching in his vicinity. He was presumed guilty and banned from the ground pending a predictably fruitless investigation.
"When a fan is accused of racism and gets banned whilst an investigation goes on simply on the strength of one person's claim, its a bit annoying to see a player who has been similarly accused, with clear video evidence, being allowed to keep on playing for club and country during investigations", the fan, who was subsequently cleared and allowed back without any compensation for the games he had paid for yet wrongly banned from attending, told me. Difficult to argue. His story is one echoed by unfortunate individuals at grounds all over the country. The double standard is there and clear for all to see, and appears to exist to simply create the illusion of a commitment from English football to stamping out racism that isn't really there at all.
The purpose here isn't to try and expose individuals as hypocrites or frauds or lay the blame at the feet of any one person. Had it been a star player at my own club, or a close personal friend, or lucrative professional contact that had been accused, then who am I to say that I would have acted any differently? I'd love to say that I would have, but it's a guarantee I couldn't possibly make. My point is that we are either committed to this cause or not, and it must be a football-wide effort embarked upon by every single person associated with the game as the absolute top priority. Nothing less will do, and if we are not going to ensure that then we should stop the pretence. Half-hearted selective outrage will achieve nothing other than the soothing of santcimony.
I recently read an interview with John Barnes in The Telegraph and one particular quote perfectly captured the core of the issue. Barnes was a black player during the darkest times in English football and was infamously pelted with bananas at Goodison Park in the late 80s. "I got racist abuse at Liverpool when I played for Watford. Then I played for Liverpool and didn’t get it". Indeed. As long as any element of subjectivity remains in football's condemnation of racism, then it is time to accept we are just kidding ourselves that it will ever truly be kicked out.