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At the beginning of this year, we wrote that it was a minor scandal that the BBC was not making more programmes about the nation's favourite pastime. Nowadays, it feels that scarcely a week goes past without another documentary about football. The current commissioning vogue is not for anything that happens on the pitch, but for earnest efforts to explore issues surrounding the sport. In real terms, this generally means documentaries about "isms".
Racism in football is an ideal subject for a populist, pseudo-socio-science documentary. You've got a premise that surely anyone who might watch can get behind: racism is bad, millions of people like football, therefore racism in football is bad and affects millions of people. You've got a huge pool of media-ready talking heads. Their findings are impossible to disprove. You're on the side of the angels.
The latest commendable effort comes with Clarke Carlisle, chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, in the presenter's role. As is the case with everything on TV, from antiques to dead great aunts to children's books, the recent programme was A Very Personal Journey. Clarke himself had never experienced racism in football. However, he didn't have to go far to find a man who had. Two, in fact, were sitting right beside him in the Northampton Town dressing room; black footballers who had been abused by vermin in the crowd, one at home and one abroad. Naturally, the racist incident that took place in the former Baltic state was particularly disgusting in the violence of its language. 'Zigger, zigger, zigger kill the...' Well you can guess the rest. Thank God the Spice Girls didn't go down that lyric route.
Having established that two teammates had been racially abused while playing football, Clarke wondered if he himself "was unique". It may seem churlish to wonder whether one out of three constitutes meaningful uniqueness, but like many of these sorts of programme, what is sought is not rigour but an impressionistic effect. And we a not saying that is necessarily a bad thing. Stan Collymore then spoke about his views on Suarez, and the ensuing Twitter abuse - of the most wretched kind - that he has taken from "a small minority of Liverpool fans." Turns out, there are some real arseholes on the internet.
The programme took as its starting point the Suarez and Terry situations as examples of a worrying trend in British football. There are alien amoeba hidden under space rocks a billion light years away who are bored of hearing Liverpool fans' views on Suarez, so maybe fast forward through this bit of the programme if you catch it on iPlayer. Inconveniently for the programme perhaps, but nevertheless undeniably, the British justice system saw fit to acquit Terry. Whether one acquittal, and one hotly debated FA verdict sans criminal charges constitutes a trend is a debate for elsewhere other than this programme.
Seems to us that racism has several forms: abuse, violence and discrimination. We don't think that anyone is suggesting black players are subject to violent attacks, and given that black Britons form a greater percentage of footballers than in the population as a whole, we are not sure that it could be successfully argued that discrimination is denying playing opportunity. The days when the Big Wrongs of this world thought it was better to have white lads at the back because they were more reliable have quite clearly been consigned to the dustbin of history. We'd also argue that racial abuse from the crowd while not outlawed completely, is considered unacceptable by the vast majority as, it would seem, are on-pitch racial epithets, despite it being a place where abuse of all kinds is deemed to be mere 'banter'.
Indeed, it often seems to us that misogyny is far more endemic in football culture. But it seems you can abuse women all you like and the FA will never take action and can you imagine the abuse anyone who dared to say it was unacceptable would face? Now there's a programme.
The fact that Clarke Carlisle, who is in his early 30s, hadn't experienced any racism himself suggests the issue, while clearly not being eradicated, has undergone a radical transformation since the year of his birth, 1979.
For us, who have been fighting racism one way or another ever since we were old enough to understand what it was all about, such programmes as this are a little wearisome because it is basically the same old same old. There is nothing new brought to the debate that we have not heard said many, many times before. But this is not to say it has no merit; not everyone is as old and wizened as we are. It's worth remembering that TV has to service and enlighten younger people with little experience of the world as well as old dudes like us who look at life through narrowed-eyes, whiskey on our breath and blues in our soul. So this was a useful contribution to the debate and Carlisle an erudite TV presence but, for many, hardly essential viewing.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
Alan's book is called 'Gin And Juice: The Victorian Guide To Parenting' and you can check it out here.
And read John's book, 'The Meat Fix.'