Jock Talk: Soccer's impotent leadership
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I'll say one thing about professional soccer at the international level: Its leadership deserves an A-plus for consistency in its unwillingness, ineptitude, ineffectiveness, and inability to eradicate cultural flaws and bigotry within its ranks.
Want to hold a women's World Cup on artificial turf on which no men's team would ever be required to tread? Go for it. Want to endure decades of constant threats of stadium riots and fights in the stands? So long as the riff-raff are willing to pay to watch and guzzle beer. Want to eliminate the racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs that repeatedly and predictably spew forth from players and spectators? Talk to the hand, blah, blah, blah – we can't hear you.
The latest incident of the sport's interpretation of its own "no tolerance" policy as a "what the hell" practice came last Sunday when Mexico's national men's team beat El Salvador 3-1 in a CONCACAF Gold Cup match in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. The match was played under a CONCACAF policy in effect since 2014 intended to curb discriminatory behavior and language by athletes and the crowds. Yet as pro-Mexican soccer crowds have done for years, hordes of spectators chanted a homophobic slur every time the Salvadoran goalkeeper lined up for a kick.
Reaction by game officials, enforcers of that policy?
Worse, CONCACAF's policy does not say what behavior it finds offensive. Specifically, it is silent on sexism, transphobia – and homophobia.
CONCACAF is the ruling soccer federation in the Americas. Under its anti-discrimination policy, the match is supposed to be stopped and public service announcements made warning of consequences if the misbehavior does not cease. If that doesn't work, the match is supposed to be suspended a few minutes while the players retreat to the locker room and a second warning to the crowd issued. And if that doesn't work, the match is supposed to end. Period.
But none of that happened on that evening in southern California, a state in which laws are supposed to prevent such behavior in public facilities.
"We never said we were going to do away with it tonight," said CONCACAF spokesman Brent Latham. "We never said there wouldn't be a chant. We've just started working on it – little by little."
Instead, every time the keeper approached the ball to kick it downfield, a vast portion of the crowd displayed its collective two-digit IQ by calling him a "man whore" (trust me, unlike many expressions, it doesn't sound any better in Spanish) and the officials did nothing.
You shouldn't be shocked or surprised. As I said, this has been going on for years and it was banned by the federation three years ago to no effect. As always: unwillingness, ineptitude, ineffectiveness, and inability.
If you were watching the game on television, you may not have noticed it. That's because network producers used generic crowd noise to replace the offensive chant when it occurred, only a few times failing to catch it. In other words, instead of working to make the world a better, more accepting place, soccer officials gave us an "alternative" presentation of ugly reality.
Which leaves me with two questions: How did this happen? And: Who cares?
Well, mobs tend to exhibit mob behavior, but only when the members of the mob think of themselves as a mob, feel empowered to act as a mob, and find no effective negative or positive incentives to be better than a mob. Many sports fans who are not athletes or who once were athletes but have long kissed that role goodbye because of the tyrannies of time and aging – many of them irrationally believe they can be part of the actual competition on the field by their utterances and actions in the stands. They think by spewing forth the most loathsome aspects of their characters they can lift themselves with their group attempt to humiliate individual players. And who is to make them feel otherwise?
The CONCACAF policy is an encouraging but badly constructed attempt to do just that.
Unfortunately, the policy does not clearly spell out the nature of objectionable behavior. The policy is titled "CONCACAF protocol for racist incidents during matches." It refers to "racist (and discriminatory) behavior" and specifies things such as chants and banners. Throughout the document, the protocols are said to be triggered by "racist incidents." There's no mention of what is to be done if the behavior is not racist.
You might excuse that as simply a poor construction, but that sends a message. And the actions against offensive "incidents" are to be taken not by CONCACAF itself, but by the match officials.
That leaves individuals in charge of determining whether non-racist chants are discriminatory. So if that individual official doesn't like gays or women or transgender people, or doesn't think slurs against them are worth making a fuss about – well, chant away!
As to who cares – well, anyone who thinks sports should be a positive experience, should be about the actual competition, and should not be upstaged by spectators misbehaving badly should care. Sports organizations that seek to be positive, inclusive, and non-discriminatory should care. You should care.
Let's see where CONCACAF's heart is, and how much it is willing to put the fight for what's right above the fight for convenience and money. Regardless of the inaction during Sunday's match, CONCACAF has the power to fine the Mexican team. It has the power to order future Mexican matches to be held without spectators or to forfeit matches where offensive behavior occurs. It has the power to kick Mexico out of the tournament. It could force Mexico to bear the cost of the security measures that surely would be required for any attempt to herd spectators away from matches that need to be shut down in the future.
But only if it cares. Otherwise?