Football is absolutely infested with banter and it needs stamping out.
There’s a podcast called The Footballer’s Football Podcast made by Callum Wilson and Michail Antonio, which can be a very interesting insight into the Premier League footballer lifestyle. In one episode they talk about players “being loud and having banter”. It sounds nightmarish, but it also sounds entirely typical.
Michail tells a story, between gasps of laughter, of someone shitting into a teammate’s shoe and it being discovered by the unfortunate victim. The boys found this unbearably funny. Other sample comments from their dressing rooms are that “the banter is unreal” though Callum can’t match the shoe poo and confesses at Newcastle United it is “just cutting socks off – the usual banter.” Of course.
Callum also tells us no-one would have banter with Allan Saint-Maximin, because “he wouldn’t get it”. Perhaps because he is an adult.
Callum is 29, Michail is a 30-year-old. It is like hearing two 13-year-olds giggling over a practical joke at the back of the class.
Think about it for a moment. Can you imagine defecating into someone’s shoes? Can you imagine cutting the toes off your pals’ socks? How about smearing Deep Heat in a fellow player’s underpants? How about cutting the sleeves out of a friend’s suit or cutting a tie in half, or hiding someone’s car keys in a pile of dog shit? And then imagine thinking any of this is hilariously funny.
But all of this and much, much more routinely happens in football. All of this is, yes, banter.
There is something that speaks of arrested development about such behaviour and in their attitudes to such behaviour. Maybe I’m just a uniquely miserable sod, but none of the above is remotely funny, is it? It is all too horrible. But to Callum and Michail it is pant-wettingly hilarious.
There’s no reason to doubt that these two men are perfectly decent people. But they’ve spent their adult lives in the weird, insular world of English football culture and so I’m not even sure they understand how unlike normal behaviour this all is. Nor how extreme it sounds to us. Nor how repulsive.
Yet football culture, at least in England, somehow facilitates it, endorses it even. The people who do the banter don’t have to behave like this, and can easily not behave like this and probably are not like this in other areas of their life, but in the dressing room, their banter is still ‘unreal’. Given the slightest encouragement they fall into it so easily. We can hear this in broadcasting too.
The former player on TV or radio doesn’t need much encouragement to start having banter. Then comes the performative too-loud laughing, the leg squeezing and the over-amusement about how you or someone else had no pace, at someone’s dress sense and the ceaseless piss-taking of literally anything, especially anything that sounds ‘intellectual’. Use a ‘posh’ word and you’re a professor of linguistics. Ling-what? Ha ha…he knows all the words, does the professor.
In reality, it doesn’t seem that different to bullying really. It certainly walks in the same postcode.
This is clearly a male thing. It is born and lives in male environments. I’d wager no female footballers have shit in a teammates’ shoe, but am happy to be proven wrong. You might think this banter is great, or you might think it irrelevant to the rest of us. They live a strange and different life, so what if they want to behave like superannuated children, just leave them to it. Take the ladz bantz away and what will they have? But there is an important broader context for this male behaviour. It does leak out of the locker room into society.
There is an overlap between banter and sexism, racism and everything up to sexual assault. The ‘it was just banter’ defence is in play all the time. It was used in cricket recently to excuse racism. In other words, if we tolerate banter culture, we are, in effect, tolerating everything else that sometimes comes with it and is associated with it. Clearly, it is a spectrum. but one end of it doesn’t exist without the other.
Shitting in someone’s shoe (and I still can’t believe that I’m writing that) is but a short distance away from “Can’t you take a joke, luv?” and everything that implies. If you’re prepared to do the former, what is really beyond you? Seriously. As you squat over the shoe, what on earth is going through your mind? Putting a flare up your arse probably seems very conservative behaviour.
There is also another important consideration. What if the banter culture is actually putting talented people off a career in football? I hated banter (not that it was called that) at school and would do anything to avoid being the subject of it. Humiliation and mockery were its twin attack dogs. Such bullying was not taken seriously, even if it was upsetting to those subjected to it. You were expected to toughen up. But toughen up, in practice just meant swallowing down your emotions and developing a shell to hide behind. Or you could just do unto others what was being done unto you. Indeed, many would recommend you do so, like it would somehow help to make other people as miserable as yourself. There’s no reason to believe this isn’t happening in football. Banter will be alienating talent from the game from an early age.
If you hate banter culture but are good at football, where do you go? You’re going to have to throw yourself into a group where some, maybe even the majority, are going to behave terribly towards you, in the name of some perverted sort of fun. If you stand aloof from it, there will be consequences. Are you really going to do your best work in that environment? You’re going to have to fight battles all the time. And who wants to do that? Talent may be being choked off before it even properly develops because kids who can’t bear the banter will just go and do something else.
Banter casts its net far and wide to include so much destructive male behaviour in society, both physically and mentally. It leaks into chants at games, the gas chamber noises, poverty chants, Hillsborough chants, on and on and on the ‘just banter’ goes.
This isn’t just a small thing. We’ve got this horrible male culture, which is directly linked to sexism, racism, oppression, bullying and assault, which may be responsible for putting many off the game and which many other men also absolutely hate and look on it with slack jawed incredulity that grown men could behave like this. It badly needs addressing.
The only people in favour of banter are the people who perpetuate it. There will be players who hate and dread it, others who just think the perpetrators are idiots. But they still have to tolerate it. Why do clubs let some indulge in this horrible behaviour? Are managers enablers for it? Do they think it is good for team spirit? If so, have they done any work to see if this is true or if players are just co-opted into it for fear of looking like a spoilsport, which is the way so much social bullying works.
Football needs to be intolerant of this deeply embedded culture. Taking it away doesn’t mean a life without humour, without laughing, without celebration or friendship. It doesn’t mean we can’t take the pish out of friends. That is all totally different.
There is nothing po-faced about being totally anti banter. Banter is unacceptable and we need that to be said loud and clear. So put that shoe down and pull your pants up.