Former FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce has advised James McClean to keep his politics out of football, stating: “Sport and politics should never mix.” Assuming good faith rather than deliberate prejudice on the part of Boyce (and, to be fair to him, he was also critical of the booing endured by McClean during West Bromwich Albion’s opening English Premier League fixture against Manchester City last Monday night), his instruction suffers from a flimsy hollowness on account of naïve oversight.
If Jim Boyce genuinely wants to make the removal of politics from football his business, perhaps, in the interests of logical consistency and, indeed, actually challenging the root of what he evidently perceives to be a problem, rather than single out James McClean, he should first harry those behind national anthem-playing within the game.
Then, if he is still as bothered about the place of politics in the sport as he makes out, he can always put his influential connections to use by working on persuading the custodians of the British game who subject those involved here to the overtly-political, militarised and increasingly-fetishised Remembrance poppy fanfare around November-time each year to drop their pageantry.
Just a thought (and not necessarily indicative of my personal position on political expressions within sport, which I will clarify further below), as he appears to have overlooked that rather glaring snag; it certainly was not James McClean who ever decided to bring the poppy or ‘God Save the Queen’ on to a field of play. In fact, you might even say McClean behaved in complete accordance with Boyce’s preference in that he opted out of observing both political spectacles when the situations arose.
As African-American athlete Vince Matthews said of his and Wayne Collett’s now-seemingly-forgotten, but, at the time, widely-and-officially-condemned, non-engagement with a rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ during their medal award ceremony at the 1972 Munich Olympics:
I wasn’t acting any differently than I usually do, but we were like goldfish in a fishbowl, in front of all those people. If they wanted me to stand at attention, I could’ve probably done that, but it wouldn’t be me, and I was led to believe that the Olympics was for the athlete. We consider ourselves athletes, not politicians, or marching bands. Our athletic competition was over, and we were both happy.
The incident, arising from the two athletes’ inability to honour an anthem, the lyrics of which they did not believe in, on account of the struggle and racism faced by African-Americans in the US, may well be historically overshadowed by the more dramatic, although similarly motivated, Black Power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, but the sentiment expressed by Matthews is surely one with which not only sportsmen and women who have been placed in culturally uncomfortable or politically challenging situations on account of unreasonable social expectations whilst on the field of play can empathise.
The point has also been put forward that the principle of freedom of expression legally and morally protects, not only James McClean, but also those football supporters so keen to demonstrate their ire with him by collectively booing his every touch of the ball from the stands, as well as the likes of insidious troll Alan Parry, who, quite blatantly, in full knowledge of McClean’s nationalist background, threw a veiled, cheap and thoroughly objectionable insult in the player’s direction during Monday night’s match commentary by referring to him as “the Northern Irishman from Londonderry”; the added suggestion has been that to defend McClean on freedom-of-speech grounds, whilst simultaneously criticising those abusing and insulting him, is indicative of some sort of double standard being employed by the critic.
Just to be clear before moving on any further, James McClean identifies very much so as the Irishman from Derry. McClean’s Irish identity is denied rhetorical recognition by many who single him out to assert he is Northern Irish or British, but his identity is thus actually strongly affirmed in the most emphatic way; through that very prejudice that he suffers because of his difference. Parry’s apologists will, of course, protest, “But Parry was only stating facts!” I’m afraid, however, such a line of defence does not absolve Parry. That would be like a racist calling a Pakistani man or woman a “Paki” and similarly protesting in defence, “But I was only stating a fact, your honour!” Perhaps in his or their mind he was stating a fact…
Of course, facts, as social and rhetorical constructs that cannot speak for themselves, are inherently contestable; facts are grounded in generalisations that are, in turn, grounded in assumptions that are no more than the stuff of mere theory. They only become facts through the consent of a specific or particular body politic. Even if what Parry had stated were uncontested facts, an obvious malicious intent to provoke was still evident therein; that is what is ultimately the damning element.
Use of the “official” (according to UK law) but contested title “Londonderry” as an aid to classifying a member of the nationalist community or in the context of identifying or establishing the background of such an individual is both contentious and needlessly provocative. Regardless of whatever political outlook Parry happens to favour himself, or whether even he would actually use the city’s “official” title (that is rarely, if ever, used by the overwhelming majority of the city’s inhabitants) in any other context besides a rotten attempt to fish for a reaction, McClean’s perfectly valid, legal and diplomatically-undisputed Irish identity ought be respected, just like the British identities of Donegal-born unionists, such as Basil McCrea, Willie Hay and Maurice Devenney, should be respected in turn by Irish nationalists and republicans. National identity is a complex matter, especially on the island of Ireland; it is something that transcends political boundaries rather than being bound or defined by them.
To return to the point in relation to freedom of expression, however; protection, as best as is practically possible, of the right to free expression is essential and should be of paramount importance in any healthy and functioning democratic society – any attempted suppression of free speech should rightly be questioned and scrutinised through piercingly critical eyes, for free speech, for one thing, allows us to keep those with power in check – but it certainly does not make one a hypocrite to have a critical word to say of those at the unreasonably expectant, abusive and insulting end of the spectrum of human expression.
There is a qualitative difference between what I view to be the two sides of the spectrum here in terms of rationale, intent and the nature of that which has been expressed. As such, of course we can judge the intellectual merits of the two contrasting positions. Just because persons have the legal and moral freedom to express themselves does not mean that all expressions are of equal value or carry equal moral, intellectual or logical weight. Is moronic monkey-chanting and banana-throwing at black players remotely justifiable because it might fall within the definition of “expression”? Of course not; such despicably intolerant ignorance should rightly be criticised, confronted and faced down. I’m afraid the abuse of James McClean is rooted in a similar mindset.
James McClean conscientiously, peacefully and respectfully opted out of observing two poppy displays and later an anthem, threatening or causing absolutely no harm or impediment to anyone else or their ability to celebrate their cultural emblems if they wished or wish to do so. On the other hand, the outraged boo-boys seek to force their will and cultural emblems upon a naturally reluctant, uncomfortable and dissenting non-conformist. Many would go as far as seeking to have McClean somehow thrown out of Britain. Which position of the two is the uncompromising, intrusive and forthrightly disrespectful one here?
Whilst on the topic, Cody Lachey’s curiously-odd but also particularly venomous and downright racist opinion of McClean makes for interesting, if not unsettling, reading if one wishes to get a sense of or insight into the sort of visceral anti-Irish enmity McClean appears to have stirred within a disenfranchised British underbelly unfortunately emotionally and materially susceptible to trusting diversionary and superficial reactionary diagnoses and prescriptions for all-too-discernible social problems; it is breathtakingly and alarmingly hateful and a perfect illustration of the effect and success of the crass modern-day divide-and-rule politics utilised by a manipulative and culturally-hegemonic British establishment keen to smoke-screen and crudely deflect blame and responsibility for society’s ills away from those in control and onto even-lowlier, more-vulnerable or socially-isolated “Others”. As it happens, Lachey was the fellow who was arrested for having sent a death-threat McClean’s way in 2012.
Those deemed by football’s democratically-elec… nay, self-declared moral arbiters to have transgressed the line of purported social propriety will be no strangers to hearing clichéd declarations like those uttered to James McClean by Jim Boyce. As well as naïve – if made in good faith, that is – they also happen to be intrinsically hypocritical. When one declares such – “keep politics out of football” or “football and politics should never mix” – whether one means for it to be perceived as such or not, what is uttered is an inherently political view.
Such statements are undeniably representative of what is a contentious and suppressive point of view that relates to how one believes other humans should act or behave in a particular situation or environment. Why shouldn’t James McClean, for example, stand up for himself, at absolutely no mental or physical harm to anyone else, when his identity is directly confronted by the encroaching majoritarian politics of others on the football field? If one wishes to suggest that he should keep his head down, if only for his own self-protection in a hostile environment, that still does not vindicate the open hostility to which he is subjected in return. Is it right that he should allow himself to be over-run so as not to disturb the overbearing sensibilities of polite or wider society?
Such a point of view as that offered by Jim Boyce would also arouse considerable disagreement with those who prefer in life things a little less anodyne and who see and use their communities’ clubs as vehicles for wider (and entirely innocent) communal expression, as is so common around Europe and beyond. Politics in football do not necessarily have to be unsavoury or nasty; indeed, politics can colour the game and provide it with an emotional rather than purely-statistical character. Contrasting perspectives and differing opinions are a fundamental aspect of civil life. They keep us stimulated, challenged and counter social and intellectual stagnancy. Why shouldn’t football supporters express themselves (politically, if they wish) through the clubs they support and help sustain? Football is a part of wider human culture, after all.
Football clubs have traditionally been channels through which their supporters have expressed or celebrated their communal identities – be they ethnic, national, cultural, religious, political or whatever – and the weekly gathering of a football crowd is one of the few regular outlets contemporary communities and social groups have for the expression of a collective voice. Others within football might try to run the game or clubs in a certain way or through the prism of a particular economic system and others yet may disagree with that; this is all political. FIFA or UEFA’s running of the game is political, given they pursue a particular agenda in self-interest (not that pursuing an agenda in self-interest is necessarily or inherently a bad thing either), as are, naturally, the objections levelled back at them by those within movements like Against Modern Football.
Ordering a supporter to sit down in a stadium when he or she might prefer to stand is political. Enforcing and encouraging policies or initiatives that have the effect of gentrifying, corporatising, commodifying, regulating, sanitising or stage-managing the collective human experience of a football game is political. It is all political by definition. It is not possible to remove this political element from football by virtue of the fact that those running it, those involved in it, the supporters who sustain it and their intrinsic identities are all integral aspects of the game. It is only inevitable that those engaged in the game will provide it with a definite but varied socio-political complexion or character and, given football is a particularly, if not disproportionately, popular social interest (and most certainly not of a separate universe), the game acts as a societal echo-chamber of sorts; it represents a microcosm of wider society, its affairs, developments, dynamics and sometimes-conflicting internal aims, aspirations and politics.
To pretend that politics and football are separable or separate and mutually-exclusive entities is to impossibly try and deny the human nature of the game’s fraternity and adherents. With human involvement and interaction in any sphere, or where humans try to influence one another in some way or another, comes politics; this is inescapable. When sporting governing bodies or lofty figures tell us that sport and politics should never mix, more often than not, you will find what they are actually telling you is that sport and the politics with which they are not in favour should never mix.
The sterile, middlebrow-friendly stadia of modern football, that, atmospherically-speaking, could, at times, be mistaken for clinics or libraries, are intuitively repellent to thousands of ordinary, decent supporters of the game. Indeed, what were once temples for the whole community are now no longer accessible to so many from lower socio-economic backgrounds priced out of attending (and compelled to sit if they do). The game invariably degenerates into bland, soulless and homogenised insipidity in the absence of the unfettered emotion and humanity grass-roots supporters bring to the table with their various contrasting identities.
I would like to think my own position on the place of politics in sport is less suppressive than that of Jim Boyce’s; essentially, I am of the opinion that if certain powers or people wish to bring or support the bringing of overtly political spectacles such as anthem-playing or poppy-displaying into sport, that is, by and large, fine, but they should at least have the appreciation, manners and common decency to refrain from being intolerantly forceful about it in expecting all others involved to conform.
Politics of hate in sport are, of course, another matter entirely, although it will inevitably be asked; who is ultimately to say whose politics in sport are actually of the “wrong”, “bad” or “nasty” sort? Indeed, making any sort of declaration in respect of that is going to be an inherently political (and subjective) one, although, morally-speaking, I do feel it is possible to make a crucial impartial distinction between the politically-overbearing and deliberately-offensive, or that which is deserving of rebuke and challenge, to my mind, and that which might simply provoke disagreement, but bears no intent to insult or tangible or direct mental or physical harm to others, without feeling a need to employ a knee-jerk and broad-brush “kick it all out” approach to the effect of stifling human and communal expression within football settings generally.
Perhaps that moral distinction need not even be made at all in terms then of ascertaining whether or not certain supporter conduct or behaviour is worthy of suppression. Getting into the murky business of banning or penalising particular verbal or gestural expressions that we, or some people, might find objectionable, but that are otherwise not directly harmful, on the simple basis that some people might find them objectionable is a troubling endeavour; it is inevitably dubious territory in that it is difficult to externally and objectively measure the causing of offence, which is an entirely subjective feeling. To allow for the limitation of expression on such a basis is potentially to allow anyone to stifle it simply upon claiming offence has been taken, irrespective of the intent, nature or visible effect of that expressed. As Bertrand Russell wrote:
It is an essential part of democracy that substantial groups, even majorities, should extend toleration to dissentient groups, however small and however much their sentiments may be outraged. In a democracy it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.
I suggest that the criminal law, which has traditionally, although not always, drawn the limit upon our free expression at the point when it becomes a direct and active source of harm to another, is more than sufficient in acting as a check upon unreasonable supporter behaviour within football settings, which, of course, do not exist within a legal bubble. Societies have always distinguished between thoughts or words and actions or deeds. For governing bodies and those of the upper sporting echelons, however, to purport to be transcending the notion of politics in sport through their daily business, and especially whilst arbitrating over these types of quasi-legal matters, is all just rather false, self-righteous and disingenuous.
In spite of the still-breathing menace presented by (thankfully-less-widespread) racist and homophobic attitudes that, of course, should be condemned and intellectually challenged (and, importantly, that can be dealt with by the enforcement of the law of the land if and when thoughts, words or expressions degenerate into violent actions, if and when such attitudes incite imminent violent action or if and when they devolve into hate crime; not that questionable expression-stifling laws governing this sphere should be automatically immune from stern scrutiny and criticism either, mind), when football authorities impose penalties upon clubs for what they deem to be offending political expressions by their supporters, I submit that such moves are fundamentally more self-interested than socially-progressive (if actually progressive at all, in light of their illiberality); those running football seek to present as apparently neutral and apolitical an image and governing arena as possible, lest potentially-provocative imagery were ever to deter sponsors and investment. The general over-riding political “principle” of the pragmatist opportunists who govern the game runs: do not offend the sensibilities of those from whom the money flows.
Regulations that aim to keep particular unwanted or “incorrect” types of politics out of football are numbing in their effect of neutering, stunting and choking football communities and crowds by disarming them of their human sentiments, character, qualities and emotions. What are football teams really if not channels through which the human identities of their fans can be expressed? Mere vehicles for hyper-capitalist business interests? No more than public-relations play-things for Russian oligarchs and Persian Gulf oil magnates? Why should football players and supporters remain passively docile to the pulling of their game in a direction that might be objectionable to them? Since when did football have to be such a blandly cordial affair?
This piece was also published on Back Page Football.