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07 February 2013

Berlusconi the biggot: Why we are not living in a post-racial age

Newly-signed AC Milan striker, Mario Balotelli, was again the source of controversy this past weekend, but not for something he did.

"Super" Mario Balotelli unveiled at the Milanello.

Balotelli was the subject of a racist statement uttered by club co-owner Paolo Berlusconi (brother of AC Milan owner and ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi). Paolo Berlusconi used racist language to describe the volatile Italian striker in a political rally for his brother's prime ministerial campaign. The statement, which was captured on a camera phone, at best translates to, "let's go and see the new little black boy of the family play," and at worst, "let's go and see the new little (n word) of the family play."

Paolo Berlusconi speaking at a political rally last week. Berlusconi invited the crowd to "go and see the new little negretto of the family."

While the Berlusconi's have never been tactful orators (see Silvio's description of Barack Obama as having a "sun tan", or Berlusconi's interview alongside former U.S. president, George W. Bush), this new incident represents a new low. It also highlights the pervasiveness of racism in football and in European society in general. Combine this incident with Real Madrid fans' racist taunting (monkey noises) of Dani Alves (who claims that he's experienced similar racism in la liga for the past ten years) last week, and one would be quite accurate in asserting that racism in football is here to stay.

Barcelona and Brazil defender, Dani Alves, claims that he's experienced racism in Spain's la liga for the past decade.

Racism was once a hallmark of football matches. All-time greats, such as Pele, Eusebio, Ruud Gullit, Lillian Thuram, Thierry Henry and others, have described the racist atmospheres in which they played. These players even came to expect such treatment. That racism was a hallmark of football's past, does not excuse its presence in the modern game. Indeed, it shows us how little has changed since the first days that non-white players played in professional leagues.

Former Spain National Team manager, Luis Aragones, for example, once famously commanded midfielder Jose Antonio Reyes to tell "that black shit [Thierry Henry] that you are better than him." Balotelli himself had previously attempted to walk out of a Serie A match against Juventus three years ago when confronted by racist chants from the Juve faithful. Liverpool forward Luis Suarez was fined and banned for several matches during the 2011-2012 season for continuously calling Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, "un negro" on the pitch (language that is somewhat acceptable in the Rio de La Plata region, but not in multiracial societies). In the fall of 2012 ultras from the St. Petersburg-based club, Zenit St Petersburg, created a petition protesting the purchase of black and homosexual players. And perhaps the most egregious recent incident occurred during the 2011-2012 season, when London police brought criminal proceedings against Chelsea defender John Terry for his racist remarks aimed at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand during a match. Terry was also fined and banned several matches for his behavior. 

Luis Suarez (left) was banned for several matches in 2011 and fined for calling Manchester United's Patric Evra a "negro" multiple times.

Despite these recent occurrences, there are some, including FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who would claim that racism is no longer a problem in professional football, that the above incidents are isolated, or that racism is mostly restricted to sporadic bigotry from an Eastern European ultras section. The above examples, however, would suggest otherwise.

There is some truth to FIFA President Sepp Blatter's assertion that racism is a social problem. It is, however, also a "footballing problem." It doesn't take a sociologist to realize that football is not an insular institution immune to wider social problems. If anything, football is a microcosm of the social, economic, and political features of society. The global economic recession, for example, has financially compromised, and even bankrupted certain European clubs, while an exclusive group of wealthy clubs have been generally unaffected (99% vs 1% anybody?). Insofar as it is an integral part of culture and society, what better place to address racism than in a football league?

Certain incidents have prompted harsher punishments from national and international football associations, such as multi-match bans on fan attendance, fines, and threats of tournament exclusion. Both FIFA and UEFA have created anti-racism public relations campaigns ("Kick it out"). The global sportswear giant Nike followed suit in 2005, creating the "Stand Up, Speak Up" anti-racism campaign that they cashed in on by creating advertisements featuring professional footballers wearing their "Livetrong style" black and white bracelets. Yet in spite of all of these efforts, racism continues because none of these actions were sufficient.

Chelsea defenders John Terry (left) and Ashley Cole (right) "do their part" to fight racism. Terry was the subject of an investigation into his alleged use of an epithet towards QPR defender Anton Ferdinand in 2012.

The time has come and gone to "Kick It Out." Corporate anti-racism does not make it "cool" to fight racism. Fines will not change players' attitudes, or make them think twice about using epithets. Stadium bans do not underscore the severity of racism or change fan behavior. There is only one option; an unequivocal hard line.

Players who use racist language towards opponents should be banned for life. Racist crowd chants should be met with the strictest of scrutiny and lifetime team bans from international tournaments, such as the Champions League. While draconian measures may not always work in the criminal justice system (See Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow"), they have never been applied to football. In other words, the threat of exclusion could actually deter racism.

Perhaps Mr. Blatter is correct in asserting that racism is a social problem. But football is part of our social world, so racism is also a "football problem." And before we tackle racism on a macro level, it is also necessary that we tackle it on a micro one, which means applying the most severe punishment to those who engage in racist behavior.

There is no place for racism in football, nor anywhere else in society. It has been said that admitting to a problem is the first step towards recovery. It is therefore time to stop pretending that racism in football no longer exists, and time to get deadly serious about eradicating it from the beautiful game.