Video footage of Chelsea soccer fans apparently pushing a black man off a train in Paris on Tuesday have startled news followers around the world.
It isn’t hard to see why. Not only do the menacing fans, who were in the French capital to watch their team play Paris Saint-Germain, gruffly prevent the man from boarding the Metro; they then start to chant: “We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it!”
To behave in a racist fashion is bad enough; to boast of being racist takes things to a whole other level of wrongness.
So it’s not surprising that everyone from the French press to FIFA — the Federation Internationale de Football Association — has condemned the men’s behavior, and that the video of the alarming episode is trending on Twitter, accompanied by outraged hashtags.
Yet while it is right to find the conduct of these fans nauseating, it is wrong to hold this incident up as Exhibit A in a show trial of British soccer more broadly.
Sadly, that is what is happening. Many observers are using this incident as hard evidence that British soccer remains an unreconstructed backwater, a sport stuck in a past, malign time, followed by prejudiced people. But actually, soccer isn’t like that anymore.
A columnist for the Daily Mail described the Chelsea men as a “mob of filthy fans” whose behavior was a “throwback to the Eighties terrace culture” — that era when hooliganism was a genuine problem at English soccer games and racist attitudes were fairly widespread. He slams us all for “foolishly believ(ing) this shameful behaviour was a thing of the past.”
The fans’ shoving and chanting spoke to the “lingering nastiness” in the so-called Beautiful Game, said one Guardian writer. Another suggested soccer is inherently racist, because it is “all about feeling that you’re part of one group and are opposed to another group … the mentality of the racist.” So should we assume that soccer fans are more likely than others to harbor hateful thoughts for the Other?
These shrill responses to one ugly incident do a grave disservice to both soccer and the millions of good people — men, women and children of all races — who follow it.
The truth is that racism and violence at British soccer games, which were big problems in the past, have thankfully become rarer and rarer.
According to figures from the UK Home Office, the number of arrests for “racist or indecent chanting” at soccer matches has declined steadily over the past 15 years — from 82 in the 2000/01 soccer season to 21 in 2013/14. (And not all these chants will have been racist; the Home Office doesn’t distinguish between chants that are racist and chants that are foul in other ways, for example, containing sexually explicit words.)
The specter of the rough English hooligan is also disappearing. Home Office figures show that arrests in general at soccer, for all crimes, have declined over 15 years, from more than 4,000 in 2000/01 to 2,273 in 2013/14. And bear in mind that last year there were 30 million attendances at soccer matches. That means a measly 0.0075% of fans got into trouble with police, which is statistically insignificant.
Today, more than 30% of soccer players in Britain are black. This represents a huge increase in the space of a decade: In 2004 the Commission for Racial Equality found that 12.2% of players were black. Can the media outlets deriding soccer for its alleged built-in racism show that 30% of their employees are black?
As the number of black players increased, so the disgusting behavior of some fans of the past has declined.
To be sure, some fans have behaved in a shockingly racist way over the decades. In the 1960s, when black players were a rarer sight, two black players for West Ham United, Clyde Best and Ade Coker, were the victims of monkey chants and banana throwing. As late as the 1980s, bananas were thrown at black players: In one infamous photo from 1987, black Liverpool player John Barnes could be seen kicking off the field a banana that had been hurled at him. Yet it is rare indeed to read newspaper reports of such behavior today.
We should not condemn an entire sport and its millions of followers on the basis of what a tiny number of men did and said on a train in Paris.
In fact, to do so is to promote another kind of prejudice, a view of the largely white working-class fans of soccer as uncouth, stupid, unenlightened. One commentary piece used the word Neanderthal to describe fans.
That’s the great irony of much of the outrage over the Chelsea fans’ terrible behavior: In seeking to expose the alleged prejudices of the soccer family, many observers end up exposing their own.