Rio, Kick This Out

Rio Ferdinand (pictured here on the right): brave, tireless campaigner for equality.  Well, some forms of equality. Well, sometimes.

The Manchester United defender, Rio Ferdinand, is in the news for his refusal to wear a T-shirt supporting the “Kick It Out” campaign against racism before his club’s Premiership game against Stoke City yesterday.

Ferdinand didn’t refuse to wear the T-shirt on the basis he wants racism to remain a feature of football in this country, but because he doesn’t feel enough is being done to get rid of it.

I wrote a blog post in March of this year arguing that football’s main problem, in this country at least, is not racism but homophobia. Football in this country can reasonably be described as a model of racial harmony: people from all over the world, many of them black, playing a very physical game together, kissing each other when they score, swapping sweat-drenched shirts at the end of a game, and then getting naked and showering with each other afterwards (which makes it all the more odd that it’s still so incredibly difficult for a footballer to be openly gay in this country).

The progress that’s been made in football in a short time is quite astonishing. Racist behaviour is now socially unacceptable in football which is why every incident makes such big news, be it the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra affair or the incident between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand (Rio’s younger brother).

What’s more, English football can also be rightly proud of its progress in comparison with other countries. Not just eastern European countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Serbia, but Italy and Spain too.

Is there still work to do here? I’m sure there is. There always is. No-one will ever argue that we should stop devoting effort to defeating racism in football or elsewhere. But just because there are isolated incidents it doesn’t mean the sport is not committed to dealing with racism institutionally or that it doesn’t take it seriously. Each and every incident attracts the highest possible coverage in the media and it’s dealt with pretty seriously by the clubs and the governing bodies. In John Terry’s case it even became a criminal prosecution, though he was acquitted.

Rio is in trouble for undermining his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who said before Manchester United’s game against Stoke that he expected all his players to wear the T-shirt after the black Reading footballer Jason Roberts had made it clear he wouldn’t be wearing one before his club’s game against Liverpool. After the Stoke game Ferguson said Ferdinand would be “dealt with”.

What should we make of Ferdinand’s refusal to wear the T-shirt? Is it a brave demonstration of his conscience? Is he undermining the Kick It Out campaign? Is he attention-seeking?

Ferdinand is presumably paid to be a footballer and to carry out his manager’s footballing instructions. He is not paid to participate in or agree with each and every campaign that his club or the Football Association might support, but it’s quite possible that player and club have legally agreed, in Ferdinand’s employment contract, that he will take part in campaigns connected with his role as a Manchester United footballer, be they social or commercial ones, and be they club or third party campaigns. This would most probably cover the Kick It Out campaign. If so, Ferdinand should be expected to fulfil his contractual obligations. It’s unlikely he could argue he didn’t understand such a clause in his employment contract because he would undoubtedly have had the wise advice of lawyers and agents to rely on before signing it. If personal conscience now prevents him from keeping within that contract then fine, and I can respect that, but he will have to take whatever legal or disciplinary action comes his way.

There’s an awkward dimension here, too. To put things politely Ferdinand is a bit of a prick. For example:

1. He “forgot” to take a doping test in 2003 and as a result he was suspended from the game for eight months, meaning he couldn’t play for England in the 2004 European Championships in Portugal.

2. He’s not a perfect ambassador or focal point for an anti-racism campaign. Very recently he appeared to endorse a tweet by another user describing the black footballer Ashley Cole as a “choc ice” when Cole supported John Terry’s, rather than Anton Ferdinand’s, version of events in their dispute. “Choc ice” is generally considered a derogatory and racist term for black people who aren’t, well, properly black: black on the outside but white on the inside. Pleasant term.  Pleasant chap. What a great role model in the fight against racism. Presumably in Rio Ferdinand’s world all black people must always agree with all other black people, in which case he should spend less time on a football field (or accidentally escaping from doping testers) and read up a bit on individual liberty. For his “choc ice” escapades Rio Ferdinand was fined £45,000 by the Football Association.

3. Being so committed to fighting racism (try and ignore numbered point 2 for a moment) you would presume he might be equally committed to fighting similar forms of socially unacceptable behaviour. Such as homophobia. Unfortunately not: in 2006 he called Chris Moyles a “faggot” on the DJ’s Radio 1 breakfast show.  As a joke, of course.  As you do. As you can see Ferdinand is also a comic genius. As I argued in my previous post it would be lovely if Rio could devote as much energy to defeating homophobia as he ostensibly does to defeating racism. But don’t hold your breath: Rio needs to maintain his street-cred with the American gangsta rappers he fawns over.  Well you can’t fight social injustices all day long, can you?

Rio, if you don’t want to take part in the Kick It Out campaign I don’t really give a flying fuck.  You’re hardly the high priest of acceptable behaviour anyway.  But if, in your opinion, the Kick It Out campaign is not working (and the progress made in this country suggests you’re wrong), then what do you suggest should be done instead of or in addition to it? If the penalties for being racist are not severe enough, what should they be, in your learned opinion? Is it acceptable for black players like you to endorse terms like “choc ice”? What should be an appropriate penalty for that? Will you lend your support to raising the profile of homophobia in the game?  Or is a bit of queer banter acceptable on the basis it’s, well, queer banter?

Come on Rio, you faggot choc ice (that was a joke, by the way; I know you don’t mind those terms).  What the fuck would you do?

We’re all ears.