Ajax, a leading Dutch soccer club, has historical ties to Amsterdam’s Jewish community. Its fans often refer to the team and themselves as “the Jews.” Feyenoord is a longtime rival.
One of the Dutch ringleaders calmly explained that he has no problem with any Jew anywhere. His were purely anti-Ajax taunts, and the others concurred. I accepted their explanation, put down my (proverbial) sword and went back to having a good time.
Sure, I was 3,400 miles away from home, outnumbered and behind enemy lines. I was also younger and not quite the fighter I am today. Nevertheless, I regret not continuing that argument.
Antisemitism in soccer has reared its ugly head once again. This time it took place on the big stage of England’s Premier League.
Sunday’s game between visiting West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur was ruined by the actions of a group of West Ham fans. Tottenham’s historical and traditional links with London’s Jewish community date back to the late 1890s, and many of its fans — be they Jewish or not — embrace those ties (Ajax fans do similar things). Nevertheless, a minority of the 2,800 traveling Hammers used overt displays of antisemitism to insult their rivals, as the Telegraph succinctly explains.
“Just a matter of days after Tottenham fan Ashley Mills was stabbed before Thursday’s [UEFA] Europa League game in Rome, West Ham supporters sang ‘Viva Lazio’, ‘Can we stab you every week?’ and hissed on several occasions, apparently mocking the mass execution of Jews during the Second World War. Fans also chanted ‘Adolf Hitler, he’s coming for you’ at the Tottenham crowd,” the report says.
Their actions have been universally condemned, two West Ham fans have been arrested and one of them, a season ticket holder at West Ham’s Upton Park, has been given a lifetime ban from attending games.
Both clubs are collaborating on identifying and punishing the perpetrators. They’re working with the Football Association (FA) and the Metropolitan Police to exact justice and make White Hart Lane, Upton Park and every other soccer stadium in Britain more welcoming places to watch games for the masses and more hostile to those who are perceived to be among the “idiotic” fringe.
The flaw in this approach is that it aims for the wrong targets, asks the wrong questions and demands that those least equipped to deal with the situation exact justice on behalf of the reasonable among us.
Those West Ham fans who were involved in the ugly scenes may not have been racists. Perhaps they don’t adhere to the philosophy that, as Bob Marley said, “holds one race superior and another inferior.” After leaving the stadium, they didn’t ransack any synagogues. Nor did they attack they anyone perceived to be Jewish. We don’t know if they regularly engage in activity that makes it impossible for Jews to live happy lives in London or beyond.
These individuals may not be die-hard racists, but they are no beacons of tolerance either. Using Tottenham’s Jewish heritage as an object of abuse disqualifies them from wearing that badge. Judging by their thoughts words, and deeds, it’s more accurate to call them “bigots” — people who regard and treat members of a group with hatred or intolerance. There is a major difference between racists and bigots, as I’ve argued in the past. Racism was built and sustained over thousands of years, and has only recently been discredited by the force of history. But bigotry, its natural offshoot, remains all around us and is far more difficult to eliminate.
This is clearly a case of “banter” gone way too far and way too wrong. Fans everywhere hurl insults and abuse at the opposition. They might not mean what they say about what the goalkeeper’s mother does for a living. If they do, they’re usually wrong. Banter falls under that cherished category of “free speech,” and it shouldn’t be the job of soccer clubs or soccer’s governing bodies to regulate or curtail freedom of speech or expression.
There is a line of decency that “banter” too often crosses, and it’s unclear exactly where that line is. Some fans laugh at chants about a manager being a pedophile. Those same fans react in horror when they hear songs about plane crashes in Munich. Some consider monkey noises and Nazi salutes disgusting. Some Lazio and West Ham fans might not. We may not know where the line of decency is, but we almost always know when it has been crossed.
One of the more respectable people I know says we should draw the line at the soccer itself. Does that mean songs about Fabrice Muamba nearly dying on the field are fair game? The problem with that line is that it usually is drawn around the edges of our own tribe.
So who should draw that line? Who should enforce the laws of decency and punish those that violate them? The FA , UEFA and FIFA are no bastions of progressive and forward-looking action. They weren’t created to play that role, nor should they be the first lines of defense when it comes to combating hatred or bigotry. Some argue that it shouldn’t be the job of police. In most countries, it’s not.
When these organizations take hard-line stances and adopt zero-tolerance approaches, the wrong people often feel the most pain. The reasonable and decent majority of fans are victims when stadiums are closed and clubs are branded with scarlet letters.
We don’t need the police or soccer administrators to tell us that hatred and bigotry is wrong. Nor do we need every English-language columnist on Earth to remind us. We know we’ve gone too far when we say and do things in groups of two, 20, 200, 2,000 or more, that we would never say or do when surrounded (and confronted) by those that don’t agree with us.
A reasonable standard already exists. It’s called “Political Correctness.” Its shortened form, “P.C.” is often used derisively, like it’s such a bad thing. But once we stray from the realm of “P.C.” we seem to fall down that rabbit hole (hearing songs about Arsene Wenger, Hillsborough, Munich, “Yids” and monkeys), which takes us into the cesspool Mike Judge expertly depicted in the film Idiocracy.
What do we do when the line is crossed? Who do we call? UEFA? FIFA? Ghostbusters? When normal fans see and hear idiots going too far, should they say something? Should they fight on behalf of decent, like-minded people? That would make them “P.C. Thugs” by definition. I don’t have the answer to these questions. I’m just a mild-mannered sportswriter, I suppose.
Shall we let idiocracy reign in the stands of Premier League, MLS, college and high-school stadiums? Or does decency have a rightful place in sports? Perhaps individuals should start with the golden rule, draw their own lines and have the courage to confront and challenge hatred and bigotry wherever and whenever they see it — in all forms.
And they shouldn’t wait five years to do it. That’s not good enough. It’s not a matter of defending what’s politically correct. It’s defending what’s correct.
Photo via Facebook/Gareth Bale 11