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The rumor that Eric Dier confronted a fan over racism shows how pervasive the problem is

The Eric Dier incident showed that fans understand soccer’s problem with racism much better than the people who run the sport.

Black and white image of Eric Dier looking out from the stands after he went up to confront a fan.

After Tottenham lost to Norwich on penalties in the FA Cup, Eric Dier went into the stands to confront a fan.

The reason why was unclear at first. He chased an individual up the rows until he finally cornered him and expressed his anger. He had to be held back and separated from the fan by bystanders and security.

One could assume something extreme must have happened to push Dier to such lengths. He isn’t exactly known for having a combative attitude. And he must have known he would be punished by the Football Association for his actions.

Misinformation proliferated soon after videos of the incident were uploaded to social media. A rumor spread that Dier went after the fan because of racial abuse lobbed at teammate Gedson Fernandes after he missed the final spotkick.

This would prove to be false, but that racism was the first thing people thought of to defend Dier’s actions is fascinating. In soccer, fighting racism is seen as valorizing. Dier, through his somewhat aggressive actions, was momentarily hailed as a morally upstanding man — someone whose anger against bigotry superseded his sadness after a heartbreaking defeat. The story goes from one of failure to one of triumph. That the incident occurred after a defeat only makes the valorization stronger. The rumor changed the story of the game, from Spurs’ failure to Dier’s decency.

Even those who could not outright condone a player’s clash with a paying customer had to be understanding. Racism has plagued soccer for a long time, and those in power have done little to make it unacceptable. A player taking matters in his own hands would seem like a great act of compassion. If Dier had gone up to the fan to fight racism, he would be a hero. And in the process, he would force the FA to face its inability to root out bigotry from the game.

The fact that racism was weaponized as an explanation for Dier’s actions shows how easily it has been trivialized. The rumor was believable because racial abuse has become a normal occurrence in soccer. So normal, that unsubstantiated claims short-circuited critical thinking around the incident. It became just another case of racial abuse in soccer among many.

It also turned Fernandes into a prop in Dier’s heroic story. Whoever started the rumor understood racism would spread the video farther than if Dier was angry for any other reason. Racism is a global conversation with real consequences. An event like Dier telling a fan off on behalf of a teammate would pique the attention of media organizations well outside of the football.

But in the end, Dier didn’t go into the stands on behalf of Fernandes. As Jose Mourinho explained after, Dier went into the stands to defend his little brother.

Dier will be punished for his actions. Not only did he confront a fan, but he also put himself in danger. He is a person with emotions, and seeing his brother be abused is a valid enough reason to react angrily. But Dier is also Tottenham’s investment. In the arena, he is essentially a product. His team spent a lot of money on him and his abilities, and fans and their expectations depend on his health. He has to stay safe. He risks too much by going after an idiot.

Players, by accepting a professional contract, also accept the notion that certain abuses are OK if they are borne from frustrations about the way they play. Racism, and other forms of bigotry, are beyond that realm because of their violent historical context and links to identity. Those in power have, for a long time, struggled to distinguish bigotry from regular fan frustration. But the people who spread the idea that Dier was upset about racism genuinely understood the difference.

In the end, Dier’s situation was fairly tame. He didn’t attack the fan, which would have likely led to harsher punishment. Nor did he go to defend Fernandes’ dignity, which would have perhaps forced the FA to reckon with how weak their rules are for combatting racism.

But the rumored cause of the incident was substantial. By way of contrast, it illustrated just how bad racism in soccer has become. Soccer’s fans (and certainly players) understand the problem as well as anyone, to the point that they’ve begun to manipulate it. The FA and other footballing institutions, on the other hand, still don’t seem to be aware of the extent that racism exists. Or worse: they may be too weak or apathetic to ever hope to fix it.