Sunday, September 1, 2013

Liverpool, Hate Speech and Luis Suarez

There was a time when the name of Liverpool FC was synonymous with professionalism. During the 1970s and 80s - an unforgettable era of unprecedented success for the red half of Merseyside – the club exuded a certain understated class. From the pitch, through the coaching team, all the way to the boardroom they conducted themselves with decency and a quiet humility: the team was clinical; the bootroom assumed a legendary status; transfers were completed behind closed doors. As the chairman of that time, John Smith, was fond of saying, “We’re a very, very modest club at Liverpool. We don’t talk. We don’t boast. But we’re very professional.” It was the “Liverpool Way”. Standards have slipped considerably since those glory days. Both on and off the field.
 
The latest controversy to befall the club revolves around an ill-advised and distinctly distasteful comment on social media. Ahead of today’s clash with Manchester United, Liverpool’s official Twitter account asked fans to propose songs that could be played over the tannoy at half time. Someone tweeted back a suggested playlist comprising songs making reference to the Munich air disaster of 1958, an event which cost the lives of 23 of the 43 passengers aboard the Lord Burghley, including a number of Man Utd players and staff. Rather than condoning the comment – or even ignoring it – @LFC responded by saying, “Have you been sneaking a look at the dressing room iPod?”
 
In fairness, the club took responsibility after a host of complaints, deleting the tweet and launching an internal investigation. There was never a suggestion that their account had been hacked, a defence so often employed by individuals and organisations as though it were a virtual get out of jail free card. But it was still a shocking occurrence. When it comes to football banter supporters know that there is very little regarded as off-limits. Yet there are lines that must not be crossed – and the tragedy of Munich is one such example. Anyone connected with Liverpool should know this only too well having on occasion endured their own torment at the hands of opposition fans mocking the dead of Hillsborough. Even from the oft-skewed viewpoint of tribal loyalty such actions make little sense. Those Liverpool fans who consider Munich a laughing matter would do well to remember that Matt Busby, then United manager and a passenger on that fateful day, had himself been a Liverpool player in the 1930s, playing 115 games for the club, many as captain.
 
This latest fiasco does little to dispel the air of wanton haplessness that has for the past two years periodically engulfed Liverpool. A month ago the club made the news after a letter to staff advising of their responsibility to combat hate speech was leaked to the press. It contained a list of words deemed to be unacceptable on the grounds of their racist, sexist, homophobic or abelist nature. No doubt such policies are commonplace at every Premier League club; nevertheless the Reds drew unfavourable coverage. In part this was the result of people cloaking their bigotry in concerns over freedom of speech - and on more than one occasion I read online a left-wing variant of this familiar reprise: “How can a multinational like Liverpool PLC tell us working class football fans what to say?!”
 
Other commentators could barely conceal their suspicions that this was yet another example of political correctness gone mad. A whole number of right wingers caustically enquired whether such epithets as ‘Don’t be a woman’, ‘Man up’ and ‘You play like a girl’ really warranted inclusion on the list. In doing so they missed not only the gendered nature of the phrases but ignored the fact that Liverpool women’s team have been just as successful as their male counterparts over the past few years, and with far fewer resources. It is perhaps surprising apocryphal stories of Steven Gerrard being told to “woman-up” did not feature in the tabloids. Given the generally progressive content of the letter Liverpool might feel that, in the eyes of a hyper-critical, football obsessed media, they can’t do right for doing wrong.
 
It must be said, however, that simply outlawing certain aspects of language is not an ideal solution. As a socialist I would rather have an argument with someone, in the hope of changing their mind, than simply shut them up altogether. But as a football club Liverpool have a responsibility to ensure that Anfield is a space free of discrimination for employees and supporters alike. While seemingly a top-down mechanism their prohibition of certain words and phrases also reflects the changing nature of what society deems acceptable, and the increasing demographic diversity of those who attend games. Still there was one very good reason to criticise the club over the question of hate-speech. Why? Because Suarez they Suarez looked Suarez like Suarez hypocrites. Suarez, Suarez, Suarez.
 
Back in October 2011, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was banned by the Football Association for eight matches having been found guilty of verbally abusing Patrice Evra during a match against Manchester United. Suarez had offered a defence of cultural misunderstanding, claiming that in his native Uruguay the words he used would have been interpreted as friendly rather than derogatory. It was a flimsy excuse but nowhere near as shabby as the line coming out of Anfield. In a desperate bid to defend their star striker (and most valuable asset) they lurched from outright denial to insinuating that there had been a conspiracy against both the club and the player, and suggested that United manager, Alex Ferguson, had unduly swayed the FA. It was an unedifying sight, compounded by the decision to have players wear t-shirts emblazoned with an image of Suarez while warming up before a game.
 
A once proud club – one that had a respectable record of combatting racial discrimination, and had been the first top-flight club represented at a Pride event – saw their name dragged through the mud. Their reputation, and that of manager Kenny Dalglish, was sacrificed for a player believed to be guilty by all but the most partisan observer. Suarez repaid their misguided loyalty by biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovich, thus incurring another lengthy ban, before spending the summer attempting to engineer a move away from Merseyside. With no hint of shame he claimed to be the victim of a vendetta orchestrated by the English media.
 
Liverpool still have much to do if they are to repair their image. Ensuring that the right things are being said is only half the battle – for in the beginning is the deed, not the word. If Liverpool had been serious about tackling bigotry they should have sent the unrepentant Suarez packing at the earliest opportunity, making sure that the door hit him on the backside on his way out. They did not do so because they are convinced that he must remain as an integral part of the team if they are to revive the glory days of twenty-five years ago. What they don’t yet seem to realise is that the Liverpool Football Club of that era was defined as much by what happened behind the scenes as by what happened on the pitch.