You and Whose Army?

When is a racist chant not racist chant? That all depends, according to the British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The English FA recently informed Tottenham Hotspur fans and the club to drop references to themselves as Yids in their chants, to the point of threatening banning orders or criminal charges. The team is located in what was once a very Jewish neighbourhood of London, and in other times was branded by derisive anti-Semitic names by opposing fans – this includes hissing at the Tottenham fans to mimic the sound of gas chambers during the Holocaust. Times change and although one would hardly describe the White Hart Lane neighbourhood as Jewish now, the identity has stuck with the club. Fans calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’ and singing songs of their link to that Jewish past are seen by some fans has having reclaimed those derogatory terms and given them a more positive association.

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Hotspurs fans hoist their flag

Yet it is this same history and identification with their Jewish history that played a role in the recent troubles some of their fans found themselves in last year while visiting Rome to play SS Lazio, a club associated with fascist ultras and a history of being supported by Mussolini. With the very clear presence of anti-Semitism still around, is it possible to reclaim a term like Yid, even as a sort of historical reference to the clubs old roots?

No. As in the above example, the possibility of real anti-Semitism just makes it problematic for fans to continue to refer to themselves as Yids, especially when one Spurs fan estimates that only about 5% of the current fanbase is Jewish. The word hasn’t been reclaimed, it has been appropriated. Non-Jewish Spurs fans can revel in the idea of being the oppressed minority for the duration of the match and leave the term behind as soon as they remove their scarf or jersey. Actual Jews whether they support Spurs or not do not have that luxury. It may not be intended as hate speech, but it certainly is not free of that racist context – even when used in jest.

In steps the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who in the past has blessed the electorate with his opinion of Luis Suarez’s suspension for biting another player. Cameron wanting to appear to stand up for the little guy, says that fans using the term should not be prosecuted. How very generous of him. It’s okay to use a derogatory term about a minority religious group with a history of being persecuted because, “it isn’t motivated by hate.” I can’t wait to see a Spurs supporter dragged before the court and use the Prime Minister as his defense witness.

Of course the response to all this from some Spurs fans was to chant “We’ll sing what we want” during their recent game, although the club has opted for a middle road of surveying its fans and hoping they will voluntarily drop the chant of their own accord.

This is very different from the YSA chant that MLS has tried to stamp out. “You Suck Asshole!” while offensive in a potty mouth sense, does not target anyone other than the opposition keeper, nor can you really make this out to hate speech. Maybe the MLS is afraid that YSA is a gateway chant that will lead to harsher chants in the future?

The Yid Army is also clearly different than many of the North American sports franchises that continue to cling to racist mascots endorsed and marketed by the club. Any Jewish associations Tottenham have had have always been informal and adopted by the fans. In North America the endorsed minority of choice would be Native Americans with the Washington Redskins being the most egregious example, but let’s not forget the Atlanta Braves with their tomahawk chop choreography and the Cleveland Indians and their caricature logo. I’ll throw in the Chicago Blackhawks and Kansas City Chiefs as still problematic in their use and depiction of Native Americans as well. All of these are offensive on one level or another, yet completely acceptable to their sports organizations and many in their fanbase. However, I don’t see any of those franchises making any moves to change their identity anytime soon, they’ll cite the history associated with the name just as much as Cameron excuses the use of anti-Semitic terms as part of Tottenham’s heritage.

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Shirts vs. Skins

This feels like part 2 of my previous post. No sooner did I press “publish” on that entry then English soccer suddenly became all about racism.

Earlier in the week several England U-21s were subjected to racist chants from Serbian fans and the team was attacked by Serbian players and staff as they entered the tunnel following the game. The English FA are considering boycotting future matches in Serbia, and both teams are being hauled up for a review of the game at a UEFA meeting in late November.

Then, back in England, Jason Roberts of Reading announced that he was refusing to wear the “Kick It Out” campaign’s t-shirts during warm-up for the match vs. Liverpool this weekend. In refusing to wear the shirt Roberts is protesting what he has seen as a lack of action by the organization. Said Roberts, “I find it hard to wear a t-shirt after what has happened in the last year.” By that he was referring to the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra incident (where Suarez was banned for 8 games for his racist remarks), and the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident (with public trial and 4 game ban for Terry’s remarks). Even the FA’s handling of the two incidents has come under fire with Suarez getting double the games that Terry got, and Terry still being selected to the England team for Euro 2012, while Anton’s brother Rio was dropped from the team (and then England manager Roy Hodgson decided to explain to some random people in a subway that Rio Ferdinand was done with the English squad).

Many other people involved with the game were very supportive of Roberts’ decision not to wear the t-shirt (including his manager; the rest of his team; Swansea and Swansea’s opponents, Wigan Athletic), but not King Alex of Manchester (I mean Sir Alex!). Sir Alex decided that Roberts stand was ridiculous, because Sir Alex as a rich, white, knight and living football legend surely must have a better understanding of racism in the sport than Jason Roberts (Jason Roberts is a MBE, two ranks lower than Sir Alex – so not a Sir). Sir Alex thinks that not wearing the shirt, “sends out the wrong message.” The message that Sir Alex wants to be out there is that the league and all the players are doing their best to get racism out of the game. What he fails to understand is that Roberts is making a very different, but equally important statement. Roberts is quite clearly unhappy with the progress that the FA and Kick It Out are making at getting racism out of the game. Roberts by not wearing the shirt is quite clearly taking a stand against racism, and against the lip service payed by the FA to the issue of racism in the game. By virtue of his skin colour and the country that he plays in, he takes a stand against racism in football¬†every time¬†he steps on the field. By not wearing the shirt he has called far more attention to the issue in the league than he ever could have by simply toeing the line.

Of course this then would have all died down after Sir Alex’s press conference and Roberts walking onto the field without the t-shirt. However, having put himself out there over how important it was to wear the shirt and insisting that his team would all be wearing them; Man U defender Rio Ferdinand then walks out on Saturday without the shirt on. The furious Sir Alex then said that he was disappointed that Ferdinand let the team down and, “would be dealt with.”

Ahh yes, make an example of a black player on a team by punishing him for not taking part in an anti-racism campaign, especially when that player’s brother was the one who was racially abused by the then captain of the England team. As much as I think Rio Ferdinand was a bit dense for not warning Sir Alex ahead of time that he didn’t plan to wear the t-shirt, if there is anyone in that league (besides his brother Anton, or his teammate Patrice Evra) who probably had good reasons for not wearing that t-shirt it was Rio. The optics of Man U punishing Rio for this would look about as good as the FA giving a four game suspension to a celebrated English player for essentially the same thing that they gave a Uruguayan player a 8 game ban. Oh. Never mind.