Mihir Bose: How race can trip us all up

The resignation of Paul Elliott from the FA and other bodies because he used the "n" word in a private text sent to another black player and a business colleague, is both sad and revealing. It is sad because Elliott had, probably still has, the capacity to go from having played the game at the highest level into becoming an excellent football administrator. It is revealing because it shows how attitudes to race, and particularly use of certain racial words, have been transformed in recent years.

Although Elliott did not like being described as an "insider" in many ways he was. This was exemplified by the fact that he advised David Cameron when he held his round table conference on racism in football in Downing Street last February. And in a country like the UK where, unlike many other countries, particularly on the continent, the ex footballer prefers to move from the players lounge to the television studio Elliott was prepared to sit many hours on committees and do his bit for the game.

I have known Paul for a long time having first met him when he had a court case against Dean Saunders after a tackle that ended his career. "The doctor's report," recalls Elliott, "said it was like colliding with a bus." Since then I have got to know him really well and much admired the way he had, until this incident, handled the explosive issue of race.

So a year ago at the height of the John Terry affair, and amidst much discussion about the problems Poland and Ukraine might pose, Elliott, Chelsea's first black captain, was a voice of measured reason. Talking of race he told me, "The most disappointing thing for me is that we thought the problem was licked. We in England have been the leading light in world football in the fight against racism but it has come back to our own playground. We have to ask: did racism really go away? The answer is racism was managed not eradicated."

He went on to point out how social media had made things worse. "The enhancement of technology is actually bringing out the ugliness of people. I don't get involved in Twitter or Facebook. But I've been shown some of the most vociferous abuse I've ever seen: homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, it's been disgraceful. Social media has given racists another platform and they can hide. If they were going to a stadium and behaving like that, they won't get away with it."

Yet with former black players like Sol Campbell arguing that black people should not go to Poland and the Ukraine for the Euros, Elliott was a voice of sanity saying, "What were people saying about South Africa? Don't go. You're going to be mugged, women are going to be raped, you're going to have all sorts of violence there. And what happened? South Africa staged one of the best World Cups ever. It was right to award Poland and Ukraine the Euros because the power of football is so great that it can break down barriers and challenge racism and xenophobia."

And when Mario Balotelli threatened to walk out if he was abused, Elliott advised, "He must first talk to the referee. If the referee takes no action, then the player is justified in taking action himself. I personally wouldn't walk off the pitch because I come from that school of 'don't show weakness'. That is my Jamaican background. My parents showed great fortitude in the face of extreme discrimination when they came to this country. As players, we went through booing, monkey chanting, spitting, bananas, batteries and coins thrown at us and, of course, fellow players abusing us. But my parents taught me to rise above the challenge, not to show any reaction."

So how could a person who has gone through so much make such a terrible mistake? To say the 'n' word, used between two black persons, does not constitute racism is splitting hairs. It was clearly offensive and should not have been used.

Yes, until recently black people themselves used the 'n' word, sometimes in self mockery often to proclaim their anger at the way they had been treated. Nobody who saw a performance of the American band N.W.A could doubt that. I watched them in action in Brixton and in those days the word N in their name was spelled out in full.

And, of course, the 'n' word has been used to expose racism as it was in that seminal essay George Orwell wrote just before the start of the Second World War. The title of the essay was Not Counting N....You can see the full title in Orwell's Collected Essays. In it Orwell, the 20th century's greatest political writer, pointed out that the European democracies claiming to fight for democracy were racist as they had no intention of giving their own non-white colonies, like India, freedom. The freedom they were talking about was restricted to the whites.

Now it will be said all that was a long time ago, the world has moved on. Yes it has and rightly so.

Yet I wonder if by making every indiscretion like that of Elliott a punishable offence we are not devaluing racism. Let us not forget racism has been one of the great scourges of mankind down the ages. Millions have been killed in its name. There is no question Elliott should not have used that word but I hope this solitary mistake, however dreadful, will not mean that he is lost to the game.

As Brendan Batson, one of our pioneering black payers and chairman of Sporting Equals, of which I am a trustee, told me: "Paul has been a great ambassador for Sporting Equals and the game of football. He acknowledges he has made a mistake in his use of language and has stepped down from many of the associations he belonged to particularly in his antiracism work. We hope after a suitable time he will feel comfortable to return and carry on doing the good work he has done in the past."

For if Elliott is lost to the game because he made one horrendous error then that would be a great pity. And far from serving the cause of anti racism it would give comfort and strength to those who denounce any anti-racism measure as political correctness gone too far.

Mihir Bose's latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99

Follow Mihir on twitter @ Mihirbose
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