Imagine if Roger Goodell, or Bud Selig or David Stern, after a pair of incidents in which two well-known players were accused of using a racial slur against an opponent, declared there was no racism in his sport.
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Instead, he suggested that everybody just shake hands after the game instead of getting all bent out of shape because, hey, these things happen.
There would be a firestorm, and the commissioner – effusive apologies notwithstanding – would have been booted out by the end of the day. If he were not so lucky, by the end of the week.
And that, sadly, explains how soccer is different.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter made just such a proclamation Wednesday, and rather than offer a retraction or an apology, Blatter reaffirmed his commitment to stamping out racism with a statement posted on FIFA.com. This was accompanied by a photo of Blatter embracing – surprise! – a black man, Tokyo Sexwale, a South African government official who during the apartheid era organized soccer games while in prison on Robben Island.
Blatter stood his ground in an interview Thursday on FOX Soccer (you can see the full interview on FOX Sunday), drawing a distinction between foul language and discrimination on the field, sanding the edges of his previous comments, but refusing to disavow them.
“You should forget what happened on the field of play,” Blatter said of foul play. “Having said that, I go on with all of my determination and energy to go against all discrimination and racism.”
This latest incident is, unfortunately, comically in character for Blatter, who – never mind the steady drumbeat of corruption charges – is a walking font of sexist, racist and homophobic ideas.
Blatter’s idea to draw more interest in women’s soccer: “Let’s get women to play in different and more feminine garb than the men. . . . in tighter shorts, for example.”
Blatter’s suggestion for gays at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal: “I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities.”
When John Terry, the England captain heading into the 2010 World Cup, had an affair with teammate Wayne Bridge’s ex-girlfriend – prompting Bridge to quit the team – Blatter mused: “If this had happened in let’s say Latin countries, then I think he would have applauded.”
It would be nice to think that the culture of soccer, particularly in Europe, is more tolerant – never mind more enlightened – than to allow for this type of knuckle-dragging babble.
And yet, it is found in the chants from the grandstands in far too many European stadiums, as well as in scrums on the field and in the sport’s corridors of power.
As Simon Kuper once chronicled so well in his book, “Soccer Against the Enemy,” much less benevolent power brokers than Blatter – drug lords, terrorists, dictators – have often co-opted the sport to serve their own purposes.
FIFA had gone to great lengths to promote its “Say No to Racism” campaign at the World Cup in South Africa, with ubiquitous banners and statements read to the crowds by players before games.
But Blatter, in a series of interviews this week, said he considered racism on the field stamped out. If a player made derogatory comments toward a black player – as Chelsea’s Terry and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, two of the BPL’s most prominent players, have been accused of doing – then they should just settle it with a handshake afterward.
“There is no racism,” Blatter told CNN. “There is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture, which is not the correct one. . . . We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands. On the field of play sometimes you say something that is not very correct, but then at the end of the game, you have the next game where you can behave better.”
Later, he told Al-Jazeera: “During a match you may say something to somebody who is not exactly looking like you. But at the end . . . it’s forgotten.”
So, throwing a banana at the aging Brazilian star Roberto Carlos (as fans in Russia did recently) is a problem – unless it’s done by a player. Then you shake his hand . . . and ask if he’d like a banana shake?
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, who is the backline partner with Terry for England’s national team and whose brother, Anton, is the player whom Terry is accused of denigrating with an epithet, was incredulous.
“Tell me I have just read Sepp Blatter’s comments on racism in football wrong,” Ferdinand wrote on Twitter. “If not then I am astonished. I feel stupid for thinking that football was taking a leading role against racism. . . . It seems it was just on mute for a while.”
Blatter’s Thursday comments did little to tone down the calls for the 75-year-old to resign – a chorus that is coming with all the determination and energy the players, coaches, administrators, social watchdogs and media in England can muster.
Good luck with that.
On Friday, Blatter said in an interview with the BBC that he was sorry his comments created so much controversy and that there should be "zero tolerance" for anyone committing a racist act on the field.
"Why should I resign?" he asked.
If Blatter is so obtuse or ignorant – or worse – on matters of social significance, grinding his thumb in the eye of women, gays, minorities (and civility), then don’t expect any difference in matters of self-preservation.