It is, I think, inarguable that English football enjoys an ambiguous relationship with tackles that cross the line from strong or hard to reckless or dangerous. On the one hand, it is overtly and publicly agreed that they are bad things, to be frowned upon, tutted over, and punished. On the other, as neatly evidenced by some of the reaction to Jack Wilshere's lunge into Jermaine Pennant's shins, a willingness to fly into tackles is often held up as demonstrating spirit, desire, passion, or any other of the intangibles that juice the hidden sweet-spots of English football's soul. At least he cares.
The idea that disregard for the safety of others equates to commitment to the cause is, of course, a slightly troubling one, but it makes practical and conceptual sense. The targeted application of violence can be effective in quietening the opposition - this is why teams are asked to "get in the faces" of opponents that "don't like it up them"; two wonderful phrases that look faintly ludicrous written down - and can also be neatly incorporated into the martial understanding of football. Enemies are there for the hurting.
And footballer's legs, with studs designed for grip and purchase, are there for the breaking. One of the most disheartening episodes of the weekend just gone was the baffling decision by some Stoke fans to boo Aaron Ramsey on his return to the Britannia, some 15 months after a clumsy/reckless/monstrous/evil (as you like) Ryan Shawcross challenge snapped his tibia and fibula.
It's probably safe to assume that Stoke's heckling community -- which, for clarity, was by no means the whole stadium -- didn't think Ramsey had exaggerated the contact. Instead, the justifications provided for the catcalls were largely along two lines: one focusing on Arsene Wenger's perceived piousness and moral sanctimony following That Tackle; the other on Ramsey's refusal to accept Ryan Shawcross's proffered apology.
Wenger, you may recall, used the days and weeks afterwards to call for longer bans, suggested matching the length of suspension to the length of recovery, and was for the most part derided for his sanctimony. Of course, there is nothing more offensive to an Englishman than to have his morals called into question by a Frenchman, particularly where it appears that the Frenchman in question may have a point. But to boo Ramsey for the actions of his manager is not a coherent position.
As for the apology, well, it has never been reasonably established quite why a man whose leg is being reconstructed in hospital is honour-bound to accept the apology of the man who put him there; still less has it been shown why refusal to do so is in itself grounds for abuse. Whether the apology was rejected as being insincere, or in a fit of pique, or at the instruction of Wenger, or as part of the grand conspiracy to besmirch the good name of Stoke City, we don't know. Nor do we know if Shawcross and Ramsey have patched things up privately in the meantime. But fundamentally, if Ramsey doesn't want to hear Shawcross say sorry, he doesn't have to.
To refuse an apology, so the theory goes, is to demonstrate to the wider footballing world that you lack "class". The classy thing to do is to shake hands and agree to let bygones be bygones. So Ramsey lacked class, as did Nani, for refusing to speak to Jamie Carragher after the Liverpool man attempted to saw him off just below the knee. Stuart Holden, however, by accepting an apology from Jonny Evans, showed he had class. Interestingly, a predilection toward violent or reckless challenges doesn't appear to make you less classy.
If it is human to err but divine to forgive, it follows that it is human not to forgive. Furthermore, it seems quite reasonable as well. Had Shawcross broken Ramsey's leg in the middle of the street, Ramsey's refusal to shake hands afterwards wouldn't feel so ridiculous. And while the analogy isn't perfect -- football carries an acknowledged risk of injury, after all, and it is generally assumed that reckless challenges do not constitute criminal assault -- it is not hard to imagine that a 19-year-old kid, whose sparkling future hangs by a few inadequate shreds of tendon, might be supremely unconcerned with public affirmations of divinity or class.
There is a pleasing irony in the lack of forgiveness shown by those who spent the weekend barracking Ramsey for his apparent lack of same. And fundamentally, if you're happy with the moral calculation "not accepting an apology is worse than breaking a leg" -- even if you manage to torture yourself into a "well, the first is deliberate, whereas the second was an accident" -- then you need to take a long hard look at yourself. Have a cup of tea, ask your mother for a hug, and then just sit quietly for a moment until your blood pressure subsides. Better? Good.
Brian Phillips, writing over at the Run of Play, has described and defined the phenomenon of hyperpartisanship:
the insane digital-age fragmentation of the experience of being a soccer fan—endless replication, endless mediation, endless interpretation—has meant that fans are no longer in a position to define the meaning of what they see: there’s always another angle, another opinion, another giant voice from the media echoing in your head. Something is always slightly wrong with your perceptions. And when meanings come unmoored in that way, hyperpartisanship becomes extremely attractive. Hyperpartisanship promises to give everything a clear meaning, because it gives you a single, simple principle to test all meanings against. Your club itself becomes the index of all meaning in the game.
We can perhaps understand the Ramsey-baiting as an example of this kind of fandom; because everything is against us, and because the Story of Ramsey's Leg was definitely a thing involving us, it follows that everybody involved in that thing is against us, therefore I'm going to boo. Without wanting to get into the hows and the whys of hyperpartisanship in general - which Phillips does better than I could hope to - I think it might be of assistance in understanding one of the more worrying trends of the Premier League: an increasing fondness for the boos.
Once, the boo was reserved for players who had committed an egregious offence against the club, either through an acrimonious transfer, a history with notable rivals, or some other specific and deplorable sin in the recent past. Now, you can get booed for being in the news, or cheating on your wife, or being Ashley Cole, or having been upset about your double leg-break. And this is to say nothing of those feckless blowhards who see fit to boo their own team for having the temerity not to be ten-nil up at half-time.
Booing is an ancient and noble expression of dissatisfaction, originating in the theatres of ancient Greece. But it is also is simplistic, reductive and dumb; it lacks humour, nuance, or insight; it is both stupid and stupefying. This is not to say that booing is stupid in itself, but the distinction between a theatrical audience and a football crowd is that the crowd is participant in the drama, whereas (in general, anyway), the audience is not. The power of an audience's boo is in its violent impropriety, the breach of the fourth wall from the outside; that's why it doesn't need to be more articulate or to use actual, referential words. The power of a football crowd, by contrast, is in the dialogue it has with the game.
Booing from crowds that are supposed to be participant is, of course, pantomime: Look! The baddy! BOOOOO! And while the pantomime response is perfect for those villains that have "betrayed" the club, its increasing ubiquity is a sign of the flourishing of the more inchoate, dislocated rage that characterises the hyperpartisan. Booing is what you do when you don't have anything to say; as such, it's bound to arise where there's anger but there's no real reason for anger. It says nothing about anything relevant: it does not taunt, it does not mock, and it does not enrage or engage. It's the equivalent of getting to your feet and shouting "I am UPSET!"
As hyperpartisanship robs fans of their sanity and their capacity for joy, it also robs football crowds of their wit and their character; a tragedy that, while perhaps more diffuse, is nonetheless discouragingly bleak. The vivid, vituperative wit that used to flow from the stands is being displaced by a dull, grey monohum. It's grumbling, basically, and nobody's scared of rhubarb. The power of a crowd lies in its ability to engage: cattle-like monotony can simply be tuned out.
So save the boo. Use it wisely and discerningly, for those traitors and scoundrels that stride back into your life, twirling their moustaches and flourishing their black capes. Stoke's very own fans provided the perfect counter-example: where the booing of Ramsey was pointless, the magnificent chorus of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that broke out toward the end of the game was everything that is great about football crowds. It was funny, and it had bite. And you can bet it got to Arsène Wenger -- and poor old Aaron Ramsey, if that's really still your concern -- far more that any volume of witless, thoughtless lowing.