The Rational Ref

Taking soft stance on 'zero tolerance' is wrong

There is still an in-group attitude among traditionalists to dismiss racist, sexist and homophobic sneers as harmless banter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2014, 9:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2014, 9:29pm

The sweeper role is apparently also effective whenever there is a carpet nearby. Keeping offensive actions and attitudes - like racism, sexism and homophobia - under wraps is what keeps soccer in the dark ages and traditionalists in power.

Revelations regarding racist phone texts, with 42-year-old Malky Mackay calling Cardiff City's Chinese Malaysian owner Vincent Tan a "chink" and South Korea midfielder Kim Bo-kyung and his representatives "fkn chinkys", show just how offensive attitudes are tolerated and easily dismissed as innocuous banter.

Mackay's public apology would seem to suggest such "in-group" acceptance within the British game: "I am not racist, I am not sexist, I am no homophobe and I am not anti-Semitic, and the people that know me know that and I do understand it's the people that don't know me that I've got to convince of that."

The English Premier League may well be the "best league in the world", having successfully penetrated most markets around the world, but as a global institution it must take a long hard look at its old-fashioned attitudes towards minorities.

Competition organisers are quick to reassure us there is "zero tolerance". Yet high-profile offenders regularly escape with essentially a slap on the wrists.

So what can the FA do to fight discrimination and offensive behaviour? One key lesson is that public naming and shaming appears to be an effective deterrent as well as an unforgettably chastening lesson.

Mackay was about to be considered for the vacant Crystal Palace job but, in light of his racist texts and e-mails, this opportunity was swiftly taken away from him. The FA could further fine and suspend Mackay, with ex-FA chairman David Triesman calling for at least a one-year ban.

One key lesson is that public naming and shaming appears to be an effective deterrent as well as an unforgettably chastening lesson

Fifa would also do well to increase its penalties. Jeffrey Webb, the Fifa vice-president in charge of the anti-discrimination task force, suggested it follow the NBA's example in sanctioning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for making racist remarks. Sterling was banned for life from basketball, fined a maximum US$2.5 million and forced to sell the club.

Although Fifa has outlawed referees' sound recordings from being broadcast to the public, there is no reason why broadcasters cannot play audio that their own commercial equipment picks up on the pitch and technical areas. Making the game more "real" to viewers would encourage better social behaviour and ultimately help deter players, coaches and supporters to "speak no evil".

At live matches Brazilian and Mexican supporters often chant the word puto at opposing goalkeepers taking goal kicks. In England, they tend to chant "you're s***t ahhh!" and broadcasters usually muffle out such chants. While both are offensive, only one has discriminatory undertones. Puto is an insulting Spanish word that describes someone as cowardly or weak, and it almost always carries a homophobic suggestion, too. It has a similar connotation to calling someone a "f****t" in English, and both these attitudes have its roots in a culture of homophobia in soccer.

In defence of his Mexican supporters, coach Miguel Herrera said: "Its not that bad. We're with our fans. It's something they do to pressure the opposing goalkeeper."

But what if the opposing goalkeeper really is gay, or if TV viewers who have no real experience visiting crowded stadia are offended by the chants? What does Fifa and other authorities really mean by "zero tolerance"?

Last season, when I wrote that a coach in an amateur league called me a "yellow ****", I received mostly e-mails of support that condemned such behaviour. However, one respondent stood out by insisting that the term "gweilo" was just as offensive. While most Chinese who understand English would be offended by the use of "yellow", not every foreigner who understands Chinese is offended by being called a "gweilo" because its social meaning has changed.

To avoid confusion, the boundaries of discrimination need to be defined and explained. So bringing this topic out from under the carpet is a step in the right direction.


  • A final note: The opening match of Hong Kong's Premier League between Kitchee and Wofoo Tai Po next month will see a female as the fourth official. What reaction, if any, will the soccer community have on this fantastic achievement? Will any slurs about her be taken as sexist or simply dismissed as harmless banter?


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