In 2011, when Luis Suarez was charged by the Football Association of England for racially abusing Patrice Evra, Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA at the time, tried to wave the matter away.
”There is no racism [on the field], but maybe there is a word or gesture that is not correct,” Blatter said in a CNN interview. “The one affected by this should say this is a game and shake hands.”
The FA eventually fined and suspended Suarez, but Blatter’s statement — from the highest-ranking soccer official in the world at the time — was perhaps a better representation of the barriers to addressing racism in the sport. Punishments for racial abuse are often meager and largely inconsequential. In Suarez’s case, he returned from suspension unrepentant and insulated by his fans. Meanwhile, power-brokers like Blatter continue to debate or deny the existence of racism itself, or suggest that it can be solved by doing very little active work.
In a presentation at the inaugural Soccer Conference at Yale University in February, Ben Carrington, a professor of sociology and journalism at the University of Southern California, used the Suarez incident to discuss the soccer community’s inability to grapple with the complex problem of racism, and the various ways in which racism reinforces itself within the game.
After his presentation, I sat down with Carrington for an hour-long interview, in which we discussed the ways that racism manifests in soccer, the work needed to combat it, and the obligation the sport has to root out bigotry. The conversation weaved across incidents and racism’s roots in sports. But at the end, Carrington was optimistic, championing the magic of sport as a starting point for a better society:
”I think there’s something about sports that’s important to hold on to, too. The possibility of transcendence from the racial constraints that refrain what we do, which isn’t a naive post-racial argument. It’s saying that sports does have the ability to produce those moments of transcendence, and can we use that as the base, the genesis, of anti-racial politics.”
A transcript of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
SB NATION: I want to start off with the “racism without racists” idea and how it’s infused itself in football. Like you said in your presentation, Luis Suarez and John Terry, who was banned by the Football Association for racially abusive language towards Anton Ferdinand, justified their actions with the defense of “Yes, I might have said this very racist thing, but there was no malicious intent.” And we get that in regular society where being called a racist is taken as being worse than the racist actions. What role do you think this denial plays in making sure we sure we never solve the problem within the sport?
BEN CARRINGTON: I think the starting point is that there’s a denial that racism exists. And when an instance of racism is so apparent or visible, then it’s either reframed or displaced. We very rarely have agency. The expression that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva uses, “racism without racists,” implies that there’s no agency. No intent. That racism just exists sometimes, in some nebulous way and we’re not quite sure how or why.
In the talk [at the conference], I looked at the Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez incident in 2011, when an independent commission found that Suarez had racially abused Evra. It was quite clear: lots of experts, lots of testimonies. Suarez’s account was inconsistent, but the same commission that spent months investigating and showing conclusively that Suarez had racially abused Evra, also was at pains to say that Suarez wasn’t a racist.
Even when you get someone like John Terry, who was found to have racially abused Anton Ferdinand. When you have actual proof of Terry calling Ferdinand a “fucking black c**t,” the meaning of that is quite clear, so the defense from Terry was that he was saying it sarcastically. He said that he repeated what he hadn’t said to Ferdinand, in a sarcastic way. Or even when bananas are thrown at black player, or the crowd are making monkey noises—
SB: Yeah, like Gannon’s defense — Phillip Gannon, a Liverpool fan, was given a four-year footballing ban in 2012 after being caught on camera doing a monkey impression at Evra after the Suarez incident — that if you find what he did racist, you’re the real racist for associating black people with monkeys.
BC: Yeah, Gannon abuses Evra, then his solicitor says that if you call that a monkey impersonation, then you must be a racist because you’re seeing racism where there isn’t any. So, there’s this kind of strange moment in which everyone is against racism, but no one actually wants to do anti-racism work.
When you do find examples of racism, it gets reframed because of this fear that no one can be called a racist. Then things don’t get addressed. They’re alluded to, sometimes acknowledged, but then there’s a new game, a new transfer, and we quickly move on. Despite the repeated patterns and existence of evidence, by researchers for 20-plus years, and organizations like Kick It Out in England — who have demonstrated widespread racism, anti-semitism, racist chants, insignia — across Europe and at the top clubs in the world.
That type of denial is interesting. It links to a broader sense in which we invest in sports, in football, as an innocent space. For most people, if you said “There’s no racism in the criminal justice system” even if some people are fairly conservative, they would say, “That’s really not true. There’s bound to be some.” Or if you said, “There’s no forms of inequality within education,” they would probably say, “I’m not sure about that.” But those same people can say, “I believe that in sports, everyone gets a fair chance.”
SB: It’s supposed to be the last beacon of meritocracy.
BC: Yes. We’re so invested in that. In sports being this level playing field. Whoever crosses the line first wins. Fair play. All these metaphors that we use. In that environment, it allows for the reproduction of racism and for people not to see it and to deny it when it does occur.
SB: I was also interested in what you said about allyship of white players when a black player is abused. That you would like to see white players stand with or walk off the field when a black player is abused. I recall when Kevin-Prince Boateng was racially abused while playing for Milan, and he actually did walk off the field, and his teammates followed. The team, even though Milan has its own history of racism, still supported him in public. I thought that could have been the start of something.
But after his situation, things just return back to normal because there’s no real outrage among anyone else but the black players. I think most times in soccer, the incident that you think is going to be the starting point of change, never is, because the status quo re-establishes itself. So, how should we reframe what allyship is, beyond just messages of support? Do you think we will ever get to a point where white players see themselves involved in it, that racism is a moral and human issue, rather than an experience that doesn’t concern them?
BC: I do. I think there are moments in the history of Britain, America, and elsewhere, where you’ve had, often working class movements, where people have taken collective stands based on what’s the right thing to do. Anyone invested in progressive politics, you have to have a sense of solidarity. Solidarity is the bedrock of taking stands because it’s the morally right thing to do. In other areas, we’ve seen examples of this. Someone like Andy Murray in tennis. There are a number of times when Murray will speak up for female tennis players and speak out against sexism within sports media in moments where he doesn’t have to. He’s not being confronted to do so. But for him, it’s the principle.
So, you’re right that the pressure gets put on the black athlete. What will [Mario] Balotelli do? What will Raheem Sterling do? But, what is [Harry] Kane going to do? What is [Andrea] Pirlo going to do? Ideally if they are supportive, it’s not just because the abused player is their teammate, because it implies that if he wasn’t on their team, then they wouldn’t do it.
SB: It naturally helps them be a better team if the abused player stays on the field.
BC: Yeah, you should be doing it as a form of principle based on your ethical disdain for racism. That should occur regardless if it’s a player on the other side. I think if we can change the framework in that sense, and then have more ownership from coaches, managers, owners and executives, to say that we don’t want to be involved in a game where racism is a normalized part of the culture. It’s a pretty low bar if you think about it.
SB: It’s the lowest bar possible.
BC: As much as we commend people for taking an action, what they’ve really said is, “We think you should be able to play professional football, and not be racially abused and compared to primates.” That’s what we’re asking for at this stage.
All these sports make these claims, football especially, as the people’s game. That’s a big claim.
SB: There’s an obligation, especially for a game that advertises itself as being universal, that it should at the least, try to be a safe space for people.
BC: Yeah, you shouldn’t fall back into that canard: That society’s problem is not football’s problem. It also implies that sports are somehow outside of society. Sports are part of society and society is part of sports. That doesn’t negate the obligation to address those issues when they’re confronted in the areas in which you work. I think the bar has been too low and we’ve given too much praise to organizations and those involved in football, for doing the bare minimum.
And worse sometimes is a promotion of football culture where they brand a certain aspect of the game that’s divorced from the reality. It’s a cherry-picked, airbrushed version of football culture. Ironically, they need the enthusiasm. What they’re trying to culture is this robust, vibrant, and creative culture that also has a dark side to it. They weed out the bad elements and produce this Disney-fied, superficial version of football fan culture to package and sell around the world. I think that’s equally problematic because that leads to a misunderstanding of what those cultures are really like. If we don’t understand them, then we can’t change them.
SB: I think that’s what we’re struggling with so much right now. For example, in England and Germany, things are much better than they were years ago, but in Italy, racism is still very much part of the fan culture, where you have ultras for Lazio, Inter, and even Roma. Consistently you’ll get these reports of black players being abused. Especially Lazio ultras who are very open with their bigotry. They get banned for racial abuse, anti-semitism, and all that happens is their stand is closed down for a game, or the team is fined. You have to make it a hard stance where if you’re a bigot, you’re no longer invited to this game.
BC: You’re right. I think there’s a few aspects to it. FIFA likes to talk about its family, its partners. Well, there are other family members for whom this isn’t a good look — Adidas, Nike, Puma, Coca-Cola, some of the big multinational and often American-based companies, who have deals and sponsorship deals with these teams and these leagues. They have to take drastic measures against the teams and leagues to have an effect.
Beyond that, in the UK the changes that began to take place in the early 1990s around the racist football fan cultures came about because of other fans. It wasn’t coming from the Football Association or the sponsors. It was partly the PFA — Professional Footballers’ Association — that began to take action. But other fans were saying that it wasn’t right. So anti-racist groups and fans themselves were the key agents of change. They began to change football culture from the inside, it wasn’t those on the outside.
I’m not as robust on the Italian context but there are some anti-fascist, anti-racist organizations. Often they are linked to football as well, so it’s about the clubs supporting and mobilizing other aspects of fan culture to begin to change and challenge it from within. There’s a tipping point at which the consequences of racism and anti-semitism are so high that people think twice about it. It becomes an isolated incident that occasionally happens, as opposed to happening on a regular basis as part of the main culture. Which is what it is now.
There’s a great quote by Paulo di Canio a few years ago —
SB: When he did the Nazi salute?
BC: When he did the Nazi salute! The fact that he did that, the Il Duce, the Mussolini salute, is interesting. It shows that he did it for the fans, who recognized it and cheered for him. This was him showing support and solidarity with the fans, which normally is the good thing. We would ordinarily say that he’s bonding with the fans and this is what football is all about. But what really struck me is in the interviews after, when he was challenged, he was called a racist and he said, “I’m not a racist, I’m a fascist.”
He was making a clear distinction saying that he was an ultra-nationalist. He believes in fascism as an ideology. Unless we understand those complexities, we’re not going to get close in changing the culture. We need to know how Italian politics infuses the stadiums, with the fanbases, which isn’t to say that you don’t intervene. You absolutely do. You have to intervene on the basis of knowing, for example, the difference between fascist and racist. Which is a long way away from somewhere like the U.K. or Germany. No English or German player can say, “I’m not a racist, I’m a fascist” as a real defense.
SB: I’m also thinking about what you said about how places like England are congratulating themselves because they’re not as bad as other countries. But when it comes to England — even though we still have situations like Chelsea fans being in the news for bigotry — you also still have institutional racism and they don’t seem willing to look at racism in all of its forms. I think England presents a good example of the inability to think about racism more than calling someone the N-word. That it’s an entire system at work. How do you think we can change the thinking away from seeing racism as solitary actions, rather than something that governs life?
BC: It’s going to require social actions, activism, on the part of anti-racism organizations, players, and some journalist themselves. Institutions never change of their own volition. At worst, they will produce bland and largely meaningless diversity and inclusion initiatives that look good on paper but have no effect.
Racism is a complex phenomenon and that’s part of the issue. It’s multifaceted, and it requires a deep theorization to work out how racism works. It’s one of the things that racism does is that it also denies its own existence. So it’s both ideological and material at the same time. It affects how we see the world. It’s also about the ways in which we get to see and not see things. It’s not just an object that we look at, it also conditions how we look at the world and how we see sports.
It’s true when people say “I don’t see racism.” I don’t think they’re lying, I don’t think they really do see it and pretend that they don’t. In a conceptual framework in which they’ve been brought up and educated, from schools to the languages they use, the films they’ve watched, they’ve been brought up in a white-washed world. Just as you put on glasses and there’s a frame from which you see the world? Racism constructs frames that mediate the world as it is and how you understand the world.
Especially if you’re brought up in Britain, which has never come to terms with its colonial past, it’s never had that reckoning. I’m always struck when I go to Germany, somewhere like Berlin, where that reckoning with the Holocaust and the Second World War is visible. However problematically, there is a recognition that the Holocaust is wrong, that Nazi Germany was an affront to humanity.
SB: Yeah, it’s the opposite of the standard excuse for racism of saying, “That’s not who we are.”
BC: That hasn’t happened in the U.K. So there’s a nostalgia for Empire. There’s so many Second World War films. If you go back to one of the classic chants that British football fans would sing when they played against West Germany, the fans in the ‘70s and ‘80s would sing, “Two World Wars and One World Cup, Do Da, Do Da.” Just think of the national psyche that requires that. In one hand, it’s humorous, but it’s not humorous to those who died in the wars, it’s not that humorous to the Germans trying to think through what it means to have been involved in two World Wars.
That psyche is so embedded, this sense of British superiority, now means in this moment that while Brits and the footballing establishment never took racism seriously, but the fan groups and the players’ union did, suddenly reclaiming anti-racism has become part of what it means to be English. There’s a kind of anti-racist nationalism. There’s a new nationalism produced on this claim to be anti-racist as a signifier to say that you’re better than those fascist Europeans and those backwards, racist Latin Americans.
And of course America is always crazy racist. So, racism is always displaced. If it is acknowledged in England, it’s in the past. “Yeah, things were bad in the ‘60s and ‘70s, maybe ‘80s, but we’ve dealt with it.” Or, “racism is abroad, overseas, it’s never here.” When it does flare up, we deny it. It’s excused as sarcasm. Or banter … and every time a black person speaks out, there seems to be a backlash asking what is he complaining about, that things aren’t as bad as they are over there, or as they were in the past. And that’s true, but that’s such a low bar to start with. That shouldn’t be the starting point of the conversation.
SB: Even some black players, fans, and writers fall in that trap of saying that, because things are better now than they used to be, that you shouldn’t complain so much.
For example, when I wrote about the racism behind the terms “pace and power” when describing black players, I had to explain to people that it’s not that black players can’t be strong and fast, but they’re always only described as such. When I wrote about it, I had people who I know, black people, saying that it was such a small thing to complain about, and they asked why I was bringing it up. I had to explain to them that because there’s no visceral violence against black players or people, doesn’t mean that the racism is gone. Language is one of the avenues where it lives. That language shapes how black people are thought about.
I think it is difficult, not just explaining to white people that they’re clearing a very low bar on treating and seeing black players as human beings, but you also sometimes have to convince fellow black people, that clearing the low bar isn’t a thing to necessarily be praised. It’s not the goal.
BC: It’s also making the connection between the different parts of the discourse, like language, of how players are described. But also, what’s behind that. Because you do see it manifest in other areas. It’s striking to me when you look at police reports where they justify police shootings of black men, like the Michael Brown case, how quickly police officers will resort to language that describes someone like Michael Brown as a running back. “He hit me like a heavyweight boxer.” They invoke these black sporting stereotypes.
SB: They also invoke the animalistic descriptions as well. Things like “beast” and “animal” that often are seen as compliments in sports, even though they’re reductions of the athlete to a mindless creature.
BC: Yeah, we see this slippage of what appears to be just sports commentary. It reinforces this really powerful trope of black people being more animalistic, with animalistic forms of strength, of power, that are described positively in one context, even though it’s erroneous, but provides a rationale, a justification, for shooting people dead in the streets. The two are connected through the language and the devaluation of the black person within that.
We tend to think that slavery — or in the British context, colonialism — ended a long time ago, but we fail to understand the cultures that enabled that to be produced in the first place, which are existing in modified forms today. The devaluation of black people as less than human.
This even happens with Serena Williams. Anyone who has played a bit of tennis knows that just hitting the ball hard needs incredible technique, as you do in every sport. There’s a high level of intelligence and tactics that goes along with it, especially at the elite level. So, it’s actually not even good sports commentary. It’s a lazy and redundant way to frame the complexity of what human beings do in various sports, to these highly racialized and, in the end, inaccurate tropes.
SB: The other idea that you brought up in your talk that interested me was the constant usage of the utopia of a cosmopolitan world to dismiss racism. It reminded me of how people used to have this idea that old racists would die out, and after a certain number of years, everyone would be so mixed, that there would be no racism.
BC: Racism is like a scavenger ideology. It can change, it can flip things around. It tries to reproduce itself, which is why it’s been so effective. Decades, centuries, after we’ve scientifically disproved a lot of the ideas that racism was based on — differences within humanity, different biological groups, separate races — racism is remarkable in its ability to reinvent itself.
It’s about producing a common sense view of the world, which is accepted and understood, or reproduced. Even if that view of the world turns out not to be true. I think the cosmopolitan — this idea that if you travel, you engage in different cultures, you learn multiple languages, you develop a cosmopolitan sensibility, which is like an openness to others — that somehow that displaces racism.
Linked to that is this notion of education. The cosmopolitan is more educated, and the more educated you become, the less likely you are to be fooled by racism. But I’m not convinced of that. It depends on what education are we learning. Much of the education is still premised upon a very particular way of looking at the world. So in the West, this is the whole point of anti-colonial struggles. To challenge the colonizer model of the world — that Europe is the center, the center of time, of geography, all things like liberty, democracy, enlightenment, come out from Europe and spreads to the rest of the world. That framework privileges certain white European identities as being inherently superior and better than everybody else.
SB: The idea of the Western canon.
BC: Right, and so cosmopolitan is closely allied to that. The sense in which the cosmopolitan, the European intellectual — who knows French, German, Italian, and maybe learns a bit Sanskrit, maybe Mandarin — has traveled around the world, knows different cuisines, cultures, different histories, but I think at the core of it, is still this white European center. There’s still an arrogance there. There’s still a superiority embedded within it.
This is one of the dangers when we talk about the diversity of the English Premier League, or even the national teams. Take England as an example, there’s been a few games now where there’s been a majority of black players playing. That’s symbolically a big shift, but there are very few South Asian players, and the South Asian population is actually bigger than black British populations in England. So there’s a kind of way it’s held up to be multicultural, while ignoring the biggest racial minority group in England. Who, due to stereotyping, are simply denied opportunity to play at the highest level.
Even with the black players, that’s still only in the playing field. As we talked about earlier, the minute you take a step back to look at the coaches, the managers, and the rest—
SB: It’s not surprising that the players, the labor, is still —
BC: There’s still an exploitation of black labor. You extract as much as you possibly can while those bodies are still working, in a highly racialized environment where you deny racism. And when any of those players speak out, they’re asked what they’re complaining about. And silenced by saying that they’ve been paid a lot of money.
There’s this self-congratulatory arrogance that we are somehow better than these other sports, these other countries, because of our mixture, but that mixture has come about primarily for economic reasons. The owners of the clubs in the English Premier League didn’t sit down and say that they would like to have more French, Spaniards, or Brazilians. It was about who were the best players they could get, at the cheapest possible price, who were better than the local English players. It wasn’t driven by any cosmopolitan spirit, it was driven by economics.
There’s a great academic that says that Britain had a multicultural drift. We drifted into multiculturalism. It wasn’t a plan. It wasn’t desired. He also said, “We are here, because you are there.” The reason why there’s so many black and brown folks in Britain, is because you had the British Empire who went out to certain countries.
SB: My mother and I used to play this game where we watched national team games, since she’s really good at pointing out which players are African and what parts of Africa they’re from. We would compete to see who can correctly guess the heritage of certain players. Even when we were watching France when they won the World Cup, and their multiculturalism was being celebrated, there was still the uncomfortable idea that the reason they were like that is because of France’s history in Africa.
BC: The European countries have been painstakingly slow in acknowledging the horrors of colonization, to take active steps to say that they recognize that history as injustices against humanity. The discourse in Europe right now seems to be that there was a time when one part of Europe was really, really racist, but that we’ve gotten over that. We’ve never really had a fundamental reckoning, so it’s not that surprising when it’s hard for us to conceive the manifestations of that history in contemporary forms of racism.
SB: I think the displacement of racism that happens often is also followed by an idea that racism elsewhere isn’t really racism. Which is very present in the recent controversies about blackface with players like Andres Iniesta or Antoine Griezmann.
In terms of Iniesta, the defense was that blackface is just part of their celebration of Three Kings Day, and we’re being too sensitive about it. This claims that racist actions aren’t racist where those players are from, and we’re being unfair by complaining and holding them to an American or English standard. That because Iniesta or Griezmann doesn’t see blackface as offensive, that it’s really not. People for some reason, tend to take their talking points from those in power, rather than the ones affected by the racism.
BC: It’s tricky. You need to often change the terms of which the debate is taking place. The debate right now is being framed in a particular way that makes any deep discussion really difficult.
But whenever you do some research, you realize that there is a lot of anti-racism work being done within places like Uruguay and Spain. They don’t have a large voice and tend to be marginalized but there is a recognition that some of those things are problematic. The dominant culture doesn’t recognize that, then uses it as a mask or cover to avoid any outside criticism. Which then gets reframed as outsiders not understanding them.
Which is ironic, because many of these same societies espouse things like universal rights, but to them, anti-racism can’t be universal. Anti-racism is very particular to each location. We suddenly can’t make any connections between global formations of racism and the privileging of whiteness and the debasement of blackness. To them, that can’t be the starting point. They’re right that we do need to understand those traditions, we shouldn’t have a dismissal of them, but that can also include a critique of the racist origins of those traditions as well. The two things can go together.
With the Suarez case, it’s true that “negro” can just mean “black,” but it can also mean other things when it’s context-specific. It may well be that there’s been a normalization of racist discourse.
SB: Yes, just because it’s very casual and normal for him to say things like that to black people, doesn’t mean that it’s not offensive.
BC: Yeah, and maybe to him it doesn’t seem racist, but the stereotype that it’s predicated on is racist. The problem needs a multilevel analysis.
I think the intervention needs to be made by people who are into football, who actually know the games — the players and tactic — but also have this critical faculty. There’s this great book by C. L. R. James called Beyond A Boundary, published in 1963. The book is about cricket in the Caribbeans, cricket in the West Indies. He calls it, Beyond a Boundary and the boundary is the boundary line in cricket, and he says that to truly understand cricket, you need to understand everything happening outside of the boundary.
There’s the great line where he says, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” What do they know about sports who only sports know? If all you really know is the players and the statistics, you don’t really know the sport. You don’t actually understand sports.
SB: Last topic. We’ve talked about market logic in regards to racism in sports earlier. Sometimes people try to understand racism through market logic, to champion anti-racism under the argument that it’s good for business. It’s always difficult to tell people why that logic is dangerous. It’s similar to the exceptional immigrant argument. That immigrants should be allowed in because one of them may become the next Steve Jobs. That they will benefit the country economically.
How would we go about changing the conversation away from championing anti-racism in sports under the idea that it will benefit teams or leagues, even though that might be true, because that is still not why racism needs to be confronted?
BC: Yeah, I think it’s one of the downsides of a certain type of diversity talk or diversity politics that says, “Look, you might not like the blacks or the women, but economically it might be good for your corporation to do so.”
Of course, that may or may not be true, but then if there’s a study that shows that’s not the case, then you’ve sold it on the basis of this economic rationale and then those groups have to be pushed out again.
We should go back to very foundational principles … and sports often embodies this, a lot of the discourses around sports like the Olympics is based upon what can the human body do? What feats of brilliance can human beings with a ball, with a stick, with their feet, or arms, produce? Those moments of transcendence.
There’s a good line that really struck me by Caryl Phillips, a British writer who is a fan of Leeds, and Leeds had some of the most racist fans in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Caryl talks about what it’s like being a black kid going to watch Leeds while surrounded by predominantly white, mainly working class guys, who occasionally would shout racist abuse to black players. Sometimes even black players on their own team.
Caryl calls out some of his fellow Leeds fans for shouting racist abuse, but he also says that there was a moment before when a black player scored for Leeds and we were all jumping together. Caryl says, “I want to hold on to that moment when we were cheering together. I want to hold on to that moment, not to deny those other moments, but there was a moment when you were hugging me, and we were cheering as Leeds fans. That moment in which we stripped away the race, the gender, the class, and the politics. When we were celebrating our side scoring a goal. That was the best moment.”
And so he writes from that perspective, and I think there’s something about sports that’s important to hold on to, too. The possibility of transcendence from the racial constraints that refrain what we do, which isn’t a naive post-racial argument. It’s saying that sports does have the ability to produce those moments of transcendence, and can we use that as the base, the genesis, of anti-racial politics? Not to deny racism, as what seems to happen in the liberal conservative version, but say that there’s a possibility, and we see flashes of it. Let’s use that to do better anti-racist work. I think that’s the promise that football holds out.