Is a Racist Comment Racism? – a question of sport and beyond!

It was never my intention to turn this blog into a sports report, but who could have predicted such furore as we have seen/heard since the decision last week to remove the England captaincy from John Terry – he has been accused of using racist language against another player. Unusually, for an often too-slow-to-react sports’ governing body, the Football Association has taken a half step in their decision, but could their reaction have gone further?

This incident has provoked a huge media reaction; front and back pages of every newspaper, radio comment and television coverage. How could I miss this opportunity to write? But, rather than another focus specifically on it or an associated case study, there are many about similar issues, I thought it would be interesting to generalise.

What would happen in any workplace in the UK if an employee is accused of making an overtly discriminatory comment? Most often, the immediate response would be to suspend the person concerned pending an inquiry into the situation. Should the allegation then be proved, there is a well trodden path through disciplinary procedures, leading toward a potential dismissal, the employer would take. The employer can never condone discrimination and not to act would be seen as condoning. They may then become liable themselves.

If the allegation is proven, the employer has to decide if it constitutes enough of a misdemeanour for summary dismissal. If not, perhaps the person has responded to a discriminatory tendency or to an unconscious bias – something we all have as a result of societal and formative years’ education. We can remember David Cameron recently trying to excuse his sexist comment to Angela Eagle, by saying that in the heat of Prime Minister’s Questions things slip out – perhaps his bias was revealed then.

In my experience, most people who have been accused of discrimination are unaware that their words or actions were offensive in the first place. In these cases, careful intervention and re-education may be all that is needed to rectify the situation – along with careful future monitoring.

It may be that an opportunity has arisen to address some of the prevailing attitudes through coaching; something enlightened employers choose, but most still send the person on an equality training programme. Such training does not always have the most beneficial results, though the employer is of course “doing it the right way”. By this stage, people at executive or senior management level will have raised concerned about process – just in case eventual dismissal leads to a tribunal hearing, an action which can be very costly.

Coaching is the preferred method of intervention. A carefully developed programme, which is delivered in a non-accusatory way, can achieve amazing results. However, the likelihood of long-term success is dependent on the level and quality of the intervention. Equality Edge provides “Working with Difference” coaching which has had some excellent results.

So why does today’s football world seem different? When another footballer was accused recently of a similar “crime”, he received an eight match suspension as punishment, but no further sanction. I wonder if Mr Terry’s full time employers, Chelsea Football Club, have been anywhere down the disciplinary path described above, albeit behind closed doors. If in the long run, he is found guilty in court, surely they will then have to react appropriately, or perhaps they believe it is okay for high profile sportspeople to have less than acceptable attitudes and behaviours.

For some, the football authorities took the right course of action and applaud them, whilst for others the intervention was just a knee-jerk reaction in “response to a culture of political correctness” pervading UK society. Perhaps you find yourself in neither camp, suggesting that the FA did not go far enough (neither have Chelsea) and that to deal with racism in the UK, a strong stand must be taken against it whenever it appears.

The message for the football authorities, along with other employers, is that they should never be ambiguous. The FA’s position that “if you’re accused of racism you cannot lead our country, but you can still represent it”, is not a strong position. Maybe it would have been better to acknowledge that having been accused of using racist language he’s suspended and if eventually proven innocent, then he’s reinstated. Simple and unambiguous – racism, sexism, homophobia and all discrimination will not be tolerated at any level or in any place.

So FA, well done on the part step you have taken, are you or Chelsea going to be bold enough to go the rest of the way?

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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8 Responses to Is a Racist Comment Racism? – a question of sport and beyond!

  1. An important issue but is it proportionate?

    The use of racist language can be a crime because the law says so. Society makes the crime but the criminal commits it. What was legal last week may make you a criminal today.

    The “seriousness” of a racist remark on a score from 0 to 10 would be different for many individuals. A simple conviction might or might not imply someone in a leadership role should be removed. Many people who commit so called “financial crimes” remain in post. Many who commit “mortal sins” remain in post – particularly if they relate to adultery.

    In many cases people found guilty of death by dangerous driving continue to live as they did before.

    So what of the “Use of racist language” – I think we are in danger of getting over excited.

  2. jose Jacobs says:

    I think remarks were maade in heat of the moment and translated wrong All could be sorted at club level snd not FA or the court And English coach was right in what he said not guilty before
    a court case is was supporting the player.

  3. Jon Whycer says:

    I tend to agree with both Albert & Jose. I also think there is something of a problem with the boundary between being plain rude and being criminally racist (or homophobic for that matter).

    If a comment is made in a situation that could be defined as ‘public’ (i.e. in the presence of another or others) then by default it would appear to be defined or pursued as criminal. If the recipient of the comment takes offence then then the criminal route again seems to be the default. If the recipient shrugs it off then it could be rudeness and ignored – unless an observer to whom the comment was not directed takes offence and chooses to escalate it.

    We seem to have moved in a direction where the new intolerance is focused on what would previously would have been construed as rudeness, crossness or ignorance. Today we have a society full of poor little souls who cry ‘criminal’, ‘ism’, and ‘phobia’ at every turn and whose responses of outrage have been conditioned by the pervasive influence of political correctness.

    Not only is freedom of expression under attack in some ways – if I have an opinion about certain things there are those who would deny my right to express it – but so is freedom of thought if I’m obliged to go on some form of ‘re-education’ programme. Sometimes appropriate but not always, and if allowed to get out of hand, well, China under Mao and present day North Korea were and are both enthusiastic exponents of ‘re-education’ of thought. I agree with Michael that ‘non-accusatory coaching’ carefully implemented is likely to be a more appropriate route in most cases.

    The key has to be for responses to be proportionate and appropriate and therefore address a very wide spectrum.

    So the next question has to be, how do we now criminalise politically correct intolerance to satisfy those of us who are aggressively outraged by those who feel the need to use vilification and criminal proceedings to deal with what we see as minor aberrations of human behaviour? Surely we have to politicise intolerance of intolerance.

  4. Alan Ogrizovic says:

    Let me first say that I am not a fan of John Terry either as captain or player so I will try to retain an unbiased approach.

    The facts are that a racism accusation is yet to be proven thanks to the CPS intervening unnecessarily. The reason I say this is that the penalty that the courts will issue if found guilty will pale into insignificace versus any punishment issued by the FA (refer to Suarez situation). So, football should have been allowed to get on with the case, done it quickly and everything would have been resolved one way or the other by now.

    Has the FA intervened appropriately, well, no, I’m not sure that they aren’t guilty of inconsistency. If they were going to remove the captaincy prior to any case being heard, then they should have done it as soon as the decision to issue the charge was made. The only thing that has changed is the delay post Euro 2012. I do however believe that Terry cannot continue as captain as it is just not in the interests of the England team, so in that respect the right decision has been made if a couple of months late. I would have prefered that he be suspended for international duty until the case was heard, but due to CPS’s unnecessary involvement, this was never feasible.

    Now, was Terry guilty of making a racist comment, yes, I am convinced he was. Does this make John Terry a racist individual, no I doubt that very much. John Terry has been viewed by many (Chelsea managers, England Managers, FA …), and they have all concluded that he has true leadership qualities. I doubt that he would be held in such high esteem had he been racially predjudice. Also, John Terry regularly plays with and against players of different races/cultures, and in a long career has never transgressed, if he had I am sure the media would have been on to it by now.

    I do not believe that racism has any place in society but we must differentiate between behaviour in the heat of the moment and the real issue of whether someone is racially predjudiced or not. I think people are very very quick to play the race card, whilst we seem to accept other unpleasant acts of anti equality behaviour (eg, you fat xxxxxxx). And what about our poor English cricketers being called “pommie xxxxxxxx”, this was just laughed off. So, I do think there is a difference and the reason people do transgress in the way they do in the heat of the moment, is that they will have grown up with comments like these being commonplace. It doesn’t make it right, but neither should we judge someone as being racist on this basis.

    If found guilty of making racist remarks I think Terry should be punished for that alone, because as England captain he has the responsibility of setting an example. He should be stripped of the both England and Chelsea captaincy and receive an appropriate playing ban. Everyone makes mistakes, it isn’t murder or theft, lets get it over and move on.

  5. Amogene Parris says:

    Unconscious bias inevitably comes out in the heat of the moment which is why political correctness can never solve deep seated prejudice. The truth is you can’t keep out what’s inside in highly charged environments. This in my opinion is why games like football are plagued with controversy when passion takes over and there is a lot to lose. In cricket sledging is an acceptable practice that no-one questions. It appears that sporting activities are not subject to the same standards as those in the workplace and this is a mystery to me. Does such behaviour count as criminal intent? Perhaps not, surely this is all about gaining an advantage in that particular sport – is it fair? Again, perhaps not. The rules of each sporting activity should incorporate clear guidance as to acceptable behaviour and what the penalties are for non-compliance – it’s not enough to be PC.

    As for the FA’s action, it is probably too little, too late and most likely a PC one. Fans, footballers and the media have no idea what action will be taken and by whom when racist comments are made, whether in the heat of the moment or deliberately. For me the outcomes should be the same and leave no doubt for speculation by players and spectators. What such ambiguity does is provide a fertile feeding ground for media comment which quite frankly has been rather frenzied. There is no consistent policy applied nor are intervention actions at club level and by the FA clear. Coaching may be just one solution in a suite of developmental solutions.

  6. Jon Whycer says:

    An addendum to my earlier post:

    The Macpherson Inquiry (1999) defined a racist incident as: ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’

    A victim does not have to be physically attacked or injured to be a victim of a racist crime. They may be subject to racist abuse about their perceived or actual racist or ethnic identity.

    Therefore, one person’s one of rudeness or insensitivity immediately becomes another’s hate crime. I for one dislike the lack of possibility for there to be shades of grey and seemingly for common sense to be allowed to prevail where appropriate.

    • The Macpherson definition is just plain silly and should be changed – an insane person could thus be guilty of racism or even a child. political correctness gone mad.

      • Jon Whycer says:

        Political correctness went mad a long time ago! Technically, an insane person or a child under 10 would not be held criminally liable. Nonetheless, as with much legislation dealing withe discrimination, equality and human rights, it provides considerable opportunity for abuse and mis-application.

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