Comment: It's always a potential banana skin but will we ever reach the stage where racism is such an absurdity that it is genuinely laughable?


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The Independent Football

How sad to see John Terry crying again, at the bitter end of yet another agonising battle in his tortuous Champions League war, especially given he has so much to smile about.

In yet another week when the world of sport seems to have descended into a chimpanzees’ tea party of racism, bananas both real and metaphorical flying in all directions, for once all England’s finest centre-half has to worry about is that he yet again won’t be playing in the Champions League final, or the World Cup.

It’s sad that Villarreal have decided not to name publicly the season-ticket holder, now banned for life, who threw a banana in the direction of Barcelona’s hungry mixed-race full-back Dani Alves, because there’s an octogenarian billionaire somewhere in Los Angeles who could do with a friend, and both men suddenly have quite a bit of free time on their hands.

Where do you start with the now very publicly disgraced 80-year-old LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling? Incredibly, it does appear to be true that a man who has owned a basketball team for 33 years, and has written no shortage of multimillion-dollar cheques to black athletes, really did object to his 31-year-old girlfriend – or whatever she really was – posing for a photograph with Magic Johnson, one of the all-time legends of the game, on account of him being one of the 88 per cent of NBA athletes who aren’t white.

To the average British sports fan this might seem like madness indeed. But on closer inspection there is a logic here. To us, sports team ownership is where billionaire businessmen squander their fortunes on a labour of hopeless love, abused all the while by the “real” fans for their occasional unwillingness to micturate their millions up the wall ever faster.

Stateside, it is not so. Sterling bought the Clippers for $12.5m (£7.3m) in 1981, presided over 33 years of minimal investment, during which time they have been consistently derided as the worst franchise in all of American sport, but are now valued at a rather more handsome $575m (£340m).

An old Chris Rock joke springs to mind: “There are no wealthy black people in America. Shaq [O’Neal, retired NBA legend] is rich. The white guy who writes his cheque? He’s wealthy.”

It might be going too far to bring up Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, when he wondered how “any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”. But the former NBA player and anti-racism campaigner John Amaechi has very damningly spoken of the league as possessing a “plantation mentality” – that the black players are the white owner’s slaves.

This all stands in marked contrast to the hero of the hour on this side of the Atlantic, Barça’s Alves, who barely broke stride as he went to take a corner and simply picked up the banana that had been thrown at him and devoured it in a single bite. Instantly on social media the world over Alves was described as having “eaten racism”. Seemingly every footballer – and then every politician – jumped directly on this more jovial anti-racism bandwagon, posting photographs of themselves posing with a banana, a craze everyone seems to think was started by Alves’ Brazilian team-mate Neymar, even though David Miliband got there years before.

It is hard to know what the correct response to all this is. Of course, what happened to Alves isn’t a joke, however lightly he took it, and Villarreal’s actions have been every bit as decisive as the NBA’s. So rightfully harsh is the retribution to any such incident that at least in attitude, if not in socio-economic reality, it can at times feel that we really do live in a post-racist world. Such events become almost laughable.

Enter Jeremy Clarkson. Already his clearly very inadvertent N-word has drawn comparisons – admittedly mainly from Piers Morgan – with Ron Atkinson. If ITV sacked Atkinson, how can the BBC keep Clarkson on, Morgan claims, even though Big Ron’s N-bomb was launched directly at Chelsea’s black centre-half Marcel Desailly, and loaded with the thermonuclear prefix “fucking lazy, thick”, which seems worse than accidentally mumbling it at a Toyota GT86. Even so, it appears the incident very nearly cost him his job.

I happened to go to a Dagenham & Redbridge game last week, in a former heartland of the BNP, and arrived five minutes late to find Chesterfield Town’s black full-back being booed every time he touched the ball. I feared the worst, but the explanation was entirely innocent. “You must be joking!” I was told. “How stupid do you think we are? Half our team’s black. We’re booing him because he’s crashed our lad into the stand and the nasty so-and-so [he actually called him something else] should have had a red.” Normality restored.

Very occasionally, it might be possible to feel just a little bit sorry for someone who probably doesn’t realise the full folly of his words. Earlier this week, South Africa’s Sports Minister made a “joke” about how Kenya “only sends swimmers to the Olympics to drown”. That Fikile Mbalula is black himself doesn’t make it any less crass.

He attempted to speak at an election rally the next day and had not bananas but stones thrown at him. Yet in what could scarcely be a more brilliantly damning indictment of a country’s sports minister, they all missed.