Who would be in Luis Suarez’s shoes this morning? Or boots. The Uruguayan, who's been central to Liverpool F C’s recently revival, has been banned for eight games and fined £40,000 for racially abusing Patrice Evra, a black Man United player. It seems Suarez admitted to calling Evra “a negro”. (Evra, on the other hand, told Suarez “Don’t touch me, you South American”.)
Times change, don’t they? When I was young, to refer to a black man as a negro was considered polite, and to refer to him as a black man was near to insulting. Now it's the other way round. Readers of the work of Mark Twain will know that he features in Huckleberry Finn a character referred to affectionately as “Nigger Jim”. And the earliest joke I can remember featured Paddy the Englishman, Paddy the Irishman, Paddy the Scotchman and a bottle of whiskey. In short, what’s acceptable and even commendable in one age is far from permissible in another. So- did Suarez’s offence merit an eight-match ban plus a £40,000 fine?
I believe No. The FA would claim they're sending a signal that racist abuse will not be tolerated on the football field (or off it); but while I’d applaud their objective, their means in this case is a sledge-hammer cracking a nut. “Negro” isn’t politically correct nowadays but it’s hardly abusive. Then there's the fact that Suarez himself is of mixed race – his grandfather was black. Does that matter?
Well, there’s an unwritten code which allows members of a minority to use pejorative terms which, if used by those outside the group, would invoke outrage. It’s not twelve months since I heard an Irish joke told by an Irishman to a company of Irish people, and everyone appeared to enjoy it. Had it been told by an Englishman he'd have been lucky to get out of the room alive. So is Suarez’s grandfather a factor in his favour?
Reluctantly, because I think Suarez is a truly gifted footballer and Kenny Dalglish a truly impressive manager, the answer is no, Suarez’s grandfather shouldn’t be a factor. If it’s wrong for outsiders to insult a group, then it’s stupid and self-harming for a member of that group to abuse the group. Back on the soccer field, in the intervals between kicking each other or rocketing snot from a nostril, you see (but don’t hear) footballers effing and blinding each other with real feeling. Why isn't that kind of abuse the subject of equally fierce fines and bans?
Because ours is an era of selective moral outrage. You can denounce homophobia and expect applause but should you denounce abortion you'd better be ready for castigation. Likewise in the world of football, a great range of words and actions are reprehensible, but it's those that are identified as racist or sexist which receive immediate denunciation.
What’s that – you say I forgot to add religious abuse in my reprehensible list? Oh come on – sure everyone knows that’s only a bit of banter and fun. Ask Neil Lennon.