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January 10, 2012

Evra, Suarez and Racism on the Football Pitch: If racist insults are punished then so must other insults - argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple argues that the English football authorities are in danger of introducing a system of racialised justice.

George Orwell was interested in pulp fiction as a window on the soul of society, and the football pages of our newspapers are interesting for the same reason. They will no doubt prove invaluable to social historians of the future.

For myself, I cannot recapture the interest in the game that I had as a child, though it is so much better-played now (as well as paid) than it was then. Perhaps it is the excessive, indeed grotesque, importance with which so many people invest it, and their endless talk about it, that has put me off; and I cannot help but wonder whether the game exerts a corrupting, or at least a highly distorting, effect upon the ambitions of many young males. It is to the uneducated of this country what the City and the media are to the educated.

I scan the football pages, then, for what they tell us about our society and country, and most of what they tell us is not very encouraging. The clubs are neither British-owned nor are their players British; on the whole they do not train up British players, and such British players as they have are often undisciplined; the clubs are seldom among the best in Europe, despite their players being the best-paid; and they are not even profitable. British professional football therefore seems like a metaphor for the British economy as a whole: fragile, ill-founded and a playground for spivs.

A football story caught my eye in The Guardian of 2 January. The Headline was Damning judgment makes uncomfortable reading for Liverpool: Report reveals in forensic detail why independent tribunal found Suarez guilty of racially abusing Evra.

A player for Liverpool called Suarez, a Uruguayan, had apparently used the word negro (black in Spanish) several times during a match to insult a player for Manchester United called Evra. Suarez had fouled Evra by kicking him; five minutes later, Evra called Suarez Concha de tu hermana. Suarez did not hear this; but Evra then went on to ask Suarez why he had kicked him. Suarez claimed that he said "It was a normal foul", while Evra claimed that he said, "Because you are black". According to Evra, the edifying exchange continued as follows:

EVRA: Say it to me again, I'm going to punch you.

SUAREZ: I don't speak to blacks.

EVRA: OK, now I think I'm going to punch you.

SUAREZ: Go on, black, black, black.

The independent tribunal believed Evra's accusatory account of the affair rather than the self-exculpatory account of Suarez. I have no reason to suppose that it was wrong to do so.

But The Guardian's report is clearly biased, in order to stimulate the moral outrage of its readers. For example, it says with regard to Evra having called Suarez Concha de tu hermano, that it was:

... literally an obscene term referring to Suarez's sister but one which is commonly used in Spanish as an exclamation.
Not only is the Spanish not here fully translated, so that its full obscenity should not create a bad impression of Evra's conduct, but it confounds exclamation with name-calling. To call out "Shit!" when you have stubbed your toe is distinctly different from going up to someone against whom you have a grudge and saying "Shit!" to him, even if he does not hear it.

This is important, because it is likely that Evra's subsequent question, "Why did you kick me?" was not uttered in the tone of a disinterested enquiry after truth. More likely it was uttered in an aggrieved, aggressive or menacing manner, and this in part accounted for Suarez's manner of reply. After all, the independent tribunal found, as a mitigating circumstance, that Suarez had never been accused of using such language before, though (I am told by someone who follows these things more closely than I) he has not always behaved on the field in a gentlemanly fashion. In other words, he was provoked; and indeed the tribunal found that Evra had started the exchange as another mitigating circumstance, though this was perhaps a little unfair to Evra, since the original foul was committed on and not by him.

The newspaper's claim that "the report reveals in forensic detail" and that it "has brought a new meaning to the word transparency" is belied by its summary of the key findings. Here are the first two:

The question is simply whether the words or behaviour are abusive or insulting. It is not necessary that the alleged offender intends his words or behaviour to be abusive or insulting.

Mr Suarez's use [of the word negro] was not intended as an attempt at conciliation or to establish rapport; neither was it meant in a conciliatory or friendly way. It was not explained by any feeling that a linguistic or cultural relationship had been established between them.

These two findings are contradictory. If the question is "simply" one of whether certain words were used, it does not matter what the motive, thoughts or sentiments behind them were; if the latter do matter, then the question is not "simply" one of whether certain words were used. This is less than forensic exactitude. Whether it is the independent tribunal at fault, or the newspaper, I cannot say.

Quite a lot may ride on a word: for example, one of the reasons the report into the Lawrence case found that the police were institutionally racist was that they did not completely accept that the murder was "purely" racist in motivation. The police argued that the suspects were criminals who were thought to have committed non-racist violent crimes, and therefore their full motives could not be known, at least not without further investigation. In this, surely, they were right; but the damage done by the investigation's accusation has been severe.

In fact, it is perfectly obvious that the motive behind insulting words is important in assessing the seriousness of a case. It is one thing to insult someone through lack of knowledge of social conventions and quite another to do so with the full intention to offend.

Unfortunately, there is a trend to make the perception of insult (or bullying) the test of whether insult (or bullying) has actually taken place. You are insulted or bullied if you think you have been insulted or bullied, and the only proof required that you have been insulted or bullied is your belief that you have been. No evidence that your belief is reasonable or justified is required; and so bureaucrats, acting in a pseudo-judicial way, have an ever-expanding locus standi to interfere in everyday life.

While in this case the deliberately insulting nature of the words used seems little in doubt, I find it alarming that people are now prepared to go running to the authorities, like children to teacher, over what was, after all, a minor incident that, moreover, was soon over. The very fact that we can run to authorities to ask them to take action over such trivia renders us psychologically fragile and more, not less, liable to insult.

The forensic inexactitude or incompetence of the tribunal, at least as reported in The Guardian, is again shown by a circumstance that is taken to mitigate Suarez's offence: his vow never to use the word negro on an English football pitch again. This, surely, implies that he has not recognised the wrongdoing in itself; for if he had done so, he would have vowed not to use the word anywhere.

There is nothing sacred, after all, about English football pitches; and I am reminded of the notices that appeared in the hospital in which I worked to the effect that henceforth anybody who assaulted a member of the staff in the hospital would be prosecuted. I was pleased, of course; but the corollary, psychologically-speaking if not in strict logic, was that assault in the hospital on people other than the staff, or on the staff other than in the hospital, or indeed in any other circumstances, would not be prosecuted.

There is one final point about the punishment of Suarez, a fine of 40,000 fine and a suspension for eight matches.

Once the commission established that the FA [Football Association] charge against Suarez was proved, the automatic two-match suspension for using insulting words was increased to four because of the racial element.
And it was doubled again because the insult was directed at a particular person and not as a general one.

Now it seems to me a questionable proposition that a racial insult is automatically twice as offensive as, or worthy of twice the punishment of, any other. But there is another question: is Evra now to receive an automatic two-match suspension because he used insulting words to Suarez? That Suarez didn't hear them does not matter: Evra used them, and the circumstances in which he used them suggested that he intended them to insult.

It seems preposterous to me that footballers of all people should be expected to speak like choirboys; but unless Evra is sentenced, it is clear that we live under a regime of racial justice. It does not matter that this racial justice is intended to protect, not harm, minorities; the point is that it is not race- or colour-blind. Moreover, unpleasant gestalt switches have been known to happen. The over-zealous rooters-out of racism and the BNP have more in common than they probably would like to admit, among it a highly racialised view of the world.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. Most recently, he is the author of Mr Clarke's Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, also available as a Kindle download from and from

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Very good article.The hysteria on this issue and race in general makes me think that "anti-racist" is just a codeword for anti-white.

Posted by: KevinPeters at January 11, 2012 08:01 PM

Yes, it is clear that people tie themselves in knots trying to work out what is racist.

Dr Dalrymple makes similar persuasive criticisms of the inquiry related to Stephen Lawrence in this article:

Here is the full report from the Football Association, for anyone who wants it:

Posted by: Dave6245 at January 14, 2012 06:13 PM

'Concha de tu hermana' is a reference to your sister's vulva, her private parts. It is a seriously insulting oath, being only a little less so than 'son of a bitch', probably the very worst oath in the Latin world. Thus the Guardian massively understated the weight of Evra's comments, and ,by their own criteria, it is irrelevant whether Suarez heard it or not. I don't believe in prosecution for 'thoughtcrime', however offensive some may find it. Also, as Dalrymple says, these are grown men telling on each other, thin-skinned and childish. I suggest that if a victim of a crime ,always insist it was racially motivated-remember merely stating it is so is good enough for the law. We have to resist absurdities somehow.

Posted by: Mike Harris at January 15, 2012 03:24 PM

very good article, what gets me is why was evra not given the 2 match ban, and why was he allowed to give his statement 2 days after with step by step video evidence in front of him, yet suarez waited a week before being called to be questioned WITHOUT video evidence, surely you would be deemed more accurate if you were in evra's position. The whole incident was a farce and the fa need to put their hands up and admit their wrong doing's. I think they have alot more to worry about now though because this has already started a frenzy of racism abuse calls. I am by no means a racist but I think this situation has blown a whole new meaning to the word abuse. Other forms of abuse are just as bad, yet you never see an english footballer fined and banned for 8 matches. I think there should be a higher board of directors brought in who the fa have to answer to.

Posted by: karen at January 15, 2012 11:26 PM

The evidence gathering in the report was forensic.
The analysis of the evidance was however, pathetic. To the point where despite the evidence supporting Suarez claim of having said the word once, the panel accepted Evra's claim of multiple use with no evidence what so ever.

The panel decided his own 4 team mates couldn't remember his claims to them that he had been called the word 5 times. They only remembered him telling them of 1 incident. Even Suarez admitted to using the word once.

Anyone who cares can read it and discover the facts.

Posted by: sjmusic at January 16, 2012 04:08 PM
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