Welcome To Football, Where You Are Not What You Do

Frank Lampard of Chelsea scores their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on January 2, 2012 in Wolverhampton, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

You'd think that, by seeing what somebody does, you might be able to work out for yourself what they're like. Not through football's looking glass ...

Before we begin, a warning, for those of you with delicate sensibilities, or are simply bored of the whole thing. This piece is about, in part, the report of the independent committee convened by the FA into the allegations that Luis Suárez racially abused Patrice Evra. It is NOT a piece about whether the decision of that panel was correct, or whether the FA are biased against you, or you, or any of that clattering, dispiriting nonsense. Plenty of that elsewhere on the internet.

Yesterday, Frank Lampard should have been sent off, for a dangerous and reckless challenge on Wolves' Adam Hammill. He wasn't. Subsequent to this, the incident was replayed on Match of the Day, and while there was general agreement that Lampard had been lucky, one of the Vacant Alans -- I forget which, but I suspect Shearer -- noted, sagely and predictably, that "he's not that kind of player".

There is an interesting parallel with the report into the allegations against Luis Suárez. I've written about the allegations and the outcome before, both here and elsewhere, and been keen to stress everywhere that the FA weren't looking at Suárez's character: that they wouldn't be making any pronouncement on whether or not he was "a racist", merely on whether or not he'd done a racist thing. Yet the panel, while they didn't explicitly prove me wrong, did their damndest in their concluding paragraph:

The Charge against Mr Suárez was that he used insulting words which included a reference to Mr Evra's colour. We have found that charge proved on the evidence and arguments put before us. The FA made clear that it did not contend that Mr Suárez acted as he did because he is a racist. Mr Evra said in his evidence that he did not think Mr Suárez is a racist. Mr Suárez said in his evidence that he will not use the word "negro" on a football pitch in England in the future, and we believe that is his genuine and firm intention.

So there you have it. He isn't that sort of player.

Football has an odd relationship with evidence. Traditionally, somebody doing something is evidence that they are the kind of person who does that kind of thing; maybe not constantly, maybe only occasionally, but at least sometimes. Yet in football, the urge to contextualise to the point of exculpation returns again and again: this man, who kicked that man, isn't the sort of man who kicks people. This man, who racially abused that man, isn't the sort of person who racially discriminates against other people.

There's a logic to it, of course: bad challenges are rare things, and reported cases of racial abuse are even rarer (at least at the top of the game). You could quite reasonably argue that attempting to divine a person's character from isolated incidents is bad science. Yet the readiness to deploy the "he's not that kind of player" defence by almost anybody, for almost anybody, feels like a larger and more general tendency, an almost-conscious attempt on the part of football to smooth the rough edges of its protagonists.

The reasons for this persistent bromide are fairly obvious. Managers have to defend their players, and players have to defend their colleagues. Fans have to reconcile their worship with their consciences. Owners have to protect the value of their assets. Governing bodies have to guard the integrity of their competitions. Everyone has to ensure that sponsors and advertisers don't get leery. Despite the fact that the broad mass of professional footballers almost certainly contains every kind of bigot and every kind of idiot -- hey, that's people! -- it's in nobody's interest to acknowledge this.

On Suárez, it obviously doesn't help that nobody seems to be able to agree how many times a person has to be found to have racially abused someone to be considered a racist. Once is enough for some wishy-washy liberal types; the panel were happy to weigh one incident against charity work, cultural mitigation and a promise not to do it again; others are content to allow almost anything 'in the heat of the moment'; still others are genuinely unable to tell the difference between racial abuse and other stripes of conversational nastiness. And of course, racism comes in different intensities and flavours, and manifests itself in a variety of explicit and implicit ways. Proving somebody to be "a racist" is therefore difficult, particularly in a nation where much of the popular press and political establishment are happy to score circulation and polling points in a manner that for legal reasons I should probably describe as "questionable".

(As an aside, don't you miss the old days? When people weren't so sensitive and you could say what you really thought? These days, you can't even call a man that's been found to have racially abused a black man a racist without somebody jumping down your throat. It's political correctness gone mad.)

But with the possible exception of Joey Barton, there is always somebody who is willing to say of any footballer "that bad thing that they just did, right, well, that's not them". Always. Which leads on to the obvious question: well, who was it then? Were they briefly possessed by a malignant spirit that sent them flying in over the top? Did the floating shade of Enoch Powell briefly seize control of the levers?

The trick is in the establishment of the straw man, stitched from extremes and so wholly unfeasible. After all, there isn't a player in the world -- not Henry, not even Barton -- that flies into every tackle with murderous intent, just as the vast majority of racists don't spend all their time wearing white hoods, burning crosses, and blaming immigrants for their own inadequacies. By measuring the conduct of an individual against an unrealistic dipstick, the football fraternity is able to trivialise the offence by comparison. It's pure distraction: next to the ridiculous caricature, suddenly nothing seems so bad.

We know that Lampard isn't a generally violent man. We also know that he could well have broken Hammill's leg and should have walked. The question isn't "who is he?"; it is always "what did he do?". Shifting the scope of debate from action to character allows those who are inclined to make excuses -- for whatever reason -- to cloud the terms of the debate with irrelevance. You don't, or at least you shouldn't, get sent off for being a violent person; you get sent off for doing a violent thing. And you don't get an 8-match ban for being a racist -- as noted above, there are undoubtedly plenty of quiet bigots floating around the league, because footballers are people and a fair number of people really aren't very nice. You get an 8-match ban for doing a racist thing. Which is why Suárez being a racist, or indeed a not-racist, has nothing to do with anything.

By shifting the grounds of the argument from the provable to the nebulous, football is able to avoid taking a look its own internal logic, which is that a player can do almost anything so long as he remains useful. All those who have a stake in Luis Suárez -- and that includes the FA and the Premier League, whose competitions he is participating -- have a vested interest in ensuring that whatever he has done, he is not allowed to become, in the eyes of the public, "a racist"; had the charge been laid against some disposable youth-team player, I doubt we'd have seen t-shirts. It's so common that it becomes almost a reflex: so-and-so did something. Quick! Somebody say that he's not that kind of guy! Crisis averted. God forbid people should draw a conclusion based on, y'know, what actually happened.

Ultimately, in the real world, what you do is who you are. In football, as long as you're useful and when required, the exact opposite can be true. By a man's works, you shall not know him.

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