Football can do a lot of things. It can turn completely stable people into emotional wrecks, it can play with our emotions like nothing else, save perhaps a member of the opposite sex. In short, it’s a very powerful thing. One thing it should not do, however, is to change our perspective. Not footballing perspective, of course you should feel free to argue that your team is better than my team, your fans are louder than my fans, your grass is greener than our grass. But our general perspective, such as the ability to analyse a serious claim, should be unmoved by which football team we hope scores more goals than the other.
On Saturday, Patrice Evra of Manchester United accused Luis Suarez of Liverpool of making racist remarks towards him. Unfortunately, though the ‘of”s in the previous sentence should not be of importance, they have been made so. It has become about football. This is not an incident about football. It took place on a football pitch, between two men wearing football shirts, but it’s not about football. To bastardise a famous Bill Shankly quote, it’s much more important than that.
Immediately after the allegations were made, a lot of people reacted based on which team they supported. United fans were quick to label Suarez a racist, with certainty, whilst Liverpool fans accused Evra of lying, also with certainty.
The latter however, took a somewhat more sinister form. Liverpool fans, and employees, claimed Evra had a history of playing the ‘race card’. For those who don’t know, the race card refers to exploitation of racist attitudes to gain a personal advantage, typically by falsely accusing others of racism against oneself. In essence, they were saying Evra had in the past lied about being targeted by racial abuse. A very serious claim, I’m sure you’ll agree. It stands to reason that if it is a serious thing to claim racist abuse, it is also a serious thing to claim someone has lied about claiming racial abuse.
Liverpool’s official website columnist, Kristian Walsh, claimed on Twitter that “Patrice Evra has accused racism of three players before today. All three have been cleared.” This tweet was retweeted by hundreds of Liverpool fans, as were similar ones. The problem was, that it wasn’t remotely true, not one bit.
In fact, before Saturday, Evra had accused zero people of racism, not the three quoted by Mr. Walsh and dozens of other Liverpool fans, not two, nor even one. There have been two incidents involving Evra and accusations of racial insults, the only problem is that Evra did not claim in either that he was racially abused – the claims came from others.
In the 2006 case of claimed racial abuse by Steve Finnan, the accusation was levelled at Finnan by a deaf fan who claimed he lip-read the racial slur. Evra declined to complain. A rather odd thing to do for a man with a supposed inclination to play the race card, I’m sure you’ll agree.
In the case with involving Chelsea groundsman, Sam Bethell, it was Mike Phelan and Richard Hartis of Manchester United’s coaching staff who claimed they heard the abuse. As the FA report says “The two witnesses who say they heard those words directed by Mr Bethell at Mr Evra are the Manchester United first team coach Mr Mike Phelan and the goalkeeping coach Mr Richard Hartis.” It later goes on to say “Even if we disregard the fact that Mr Evra has never claimed to have heard such a remark on that day, it is notable that there were several other people far nearer to Mr Bethell at the critical point in time than were either Mr Phelan or Mr Hartis.”
So in reality, Evra accused neither Finnan nor Bethell of a racist remark. The claims were made by others. These are the cold, hard facts.
Liverpool is a club that has been hit hard by lies in the past, namely by the despicable Kelvin Mackenzie and The Sun. One might therefore assume that their fans would be careful to ensure that they themselves endeavor to have the full facts of any case emerge. Of course, accusations of racism against Luis Suarez and accusations of the actions of fans on a day where 96 people died are on different scales, however the principle should remain. If in one instance you abhor lies being told where an accusation is made, you should probably endeavor not do so yourself in another instance.
As I touched on earlier, Manchester United fans who have assumed Suarez’s guilt are also worthy of scorn. Just as a lot of Liverpool fans would have reacted differently if Glen Johnson had accused Nemanja Vidic of racist remarks, so too would a lot United fans. Perhaps even incidents involving Johnson and “playing the race card” would have been fabricated.
“Innocent until proven guilty” should not be a changeable stance. If that’s your belief, it’s your belief. It should not be changed because of which football team you prefer. Of course, just as important as “innocent until proven guilty” is that the lack of a guilty verdict does not necessarily mean innocence. In the 1998 adaption of the old play “12 Angry Men”, a juror slowly and painstakingly convinces his fellow jurors not to convict a seemingly guilty man. In the aftermath of the case, he is asked who he believed committed the murder. He replies, to the amazement of the queror, that he thinks it was probably the man he just convinced everyone to acquit.
If, which seems likely, there is found to be not enough evidence, or none, to prove Suarez made racist remarks, inevitably people will assume that Evra was lying. But surely if your initial requirement to the claims that Suarez was racist was “prove it”, the same logic should be applied to the claims that Evra was lying? A lack of proof does not mean an incident has not happened, it simply means it cannot be proven to have happened. As dangerous as it is to assume Suarez is guilty, it is equally as dangerous to conclude Evra is lying if it cannot be proven. It is for this reason that Liverpool as a club have been irresponsible if they have, as has been reported, called for a ban for Evra if the allegations can’t be proven.
The instant reaction of “he’s lying” to an accusation of racism is not only foolish, but dangerous. Chris Kamara has stated that he was frequently racially abused on the football pitch, but would not report it, as it would be impossible to prove and therefore he would not be believed. A report in 2000 by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded that “there is a fear that when people do report incidents [of racism] they won’t be believed or it won’t be taken seriously”. It is therefore safe to assume that the reaction of people to a claim of racist abuse is quite important, and not merely footballing banter. We are talking about something that can have a severe knock-on effect for other people.
Football is a wonderful thing, but can also be a dangerous thing. When we as football fans are switching our moral views, assuming guilt or fabricating incidents based on the shirt a man is wearing, we have gone too far. We cannot and must not lose perspective because of it. As ridiculous as it is for a man who didn’t have another care in the world on Saturday at 12.45, it is only a game.
The FA’s Evra Report