March 19th, 2012

The Beautiful Game? What Liam Stacey’s Twitter rant says about racism in soccer

Bolton teammates react as Fabrice Muamba is treated on the pitch. Photo by Getty Images.

More than a few of us here at The LAMP are avid soccer fans, and joined the millions of people who were struck with terror on Saturday when Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba suddenly collapsed during a FA (Football Association) Cup quarterfinal versus Tottenham. Within minutes, the incident was trending on Twitter, even as paramedics continued their attempts to resuscitate the 23-year-old midfielder, with members of both teams visibly shaken, crying and praying on the pitch. The game was called—a rarity in a sport where serious injuries are not uncommon—and fans worldwide were left saddened and confused. (Muamba was not in possession of the ball at the time of his collapse, so few cameras caught what happened.) Naturally, they continued to light up the Twitter world with warm wishes for Muamba’s recovery, retweets of the news and outpourings of support for the player’s family and teammates. Except, that is, for Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old biology student in Swansea, who was brought under police custody Sunday night for using his Twitter account to make racially offensive statements about Muamba in particular, and blacks in general.

For those here in the States, being arrested for racist comments might seem a little extreme. Of course, if you make insensitive statements on the level of those made by Liam Stacey, you can expect to be roundly condemned as a racist by the public, and it might even cost you your job, but you won’t be brought before a court and ordered to pay a fine or serve time in jail. The difference is that in the United Kingdom, the Public Order Act of 1986 makes it a crime to incite racial hatred; Stacey himself entered a guilty plea today. His excuses for his behavior have run the gamut–he was drunk at the time, his account was hacked, he tried to delete the comments–but none of it can save him from criminal allegations.

As it happens, the players Liam Stacey watches in the English Premier League have been pretty ugly, and seem undeterred by either a law or by common standards of tolerance and decency. Let me bring you up to speed:

– In October 2011, Chelsea captain John Terry allegedly abused Anton Ferdinand, of the Queens Park Rangers, with a racial slur. As it happened, Terry was also the captain of the English national team, but after his outburst, the FA stripped him of his captaincy (for the second time—another story). Fabio Capello, manager for England, resigned in protest. Chelsea played QPR again in late January, and, over concerns that Terry and Ferdinand  might make an uncomfortable situation even more awkward, the FA told the teams they could skip the traditional pre-game handshake.

– During November 2011, FIFA president Sepp Blatter responds to an interviewer’s question about the John Terry incident, insisting that, “There is no racism…Maybe one of the players has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but the one who is effected by that, he should say that ‘this is a game.’”

– In December 2011, Liverpool’s Luis Suárez was banned from eight matches of play and fined after he was found guilty of making racial slurs against Patrice Evra, of Manchester United. Unlike at the second Chelsea-QPR match, when Manchester United and Liverpool met again in early February 2012, the FA did not exempt them from the pre-game handshake ritual. Suárez took advantage of the opportunity to set an example for the kids once more by refusing to take Evra’s hand.

– Earlier this month, Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, set the bar even higher when he managed to offend both Africans and homosexuals in a Spanish advertisement. The ad was quickly pulled.

I have to wonder if Stacey was responding to what seems to be a racist codification in soccer which has become more visible in recent months. Top-notch soccer players in England are huge celebrities, and just like star athletes in America, there are few moments of their public lives which are not caught on tape, scrutinized and played over and over. Nothing, absolutely nothing, excuses Liam Stacey’s language and abuse. But consider the environment: you have a human rights law which is openly flouted by celebrity athletes which young people are taught to admire. Those athletes are unapologetic when they do something wrong, and their actions are extensively covered by a media which, if not implicitly endorsing and rewarding them for their behavior, at the very least normalizes it. Is it really any surprise that a young fan should follow suit?

–Emily Long

Follow The LAMP on Twitter: @thelampnyc

Follow me on Twitter: @emlong

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