Clarke Carlisle, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, was mortified by his organisation’s choice of comedian for its annual awards the other night.
The PFA had picked Reginald D Hunter, enthusing beforehand that “his jokes ring true” and looking forward to his “topical content”. But when, in the event, Mr Hunter made repeated use of the word “n*****”, it didn’t go down too well. The organisers had apparently asked him to avoid talking about race, which may call into question how attentive they were to the CV of a comedian known for such shows as Trophy N*****, A Mystery Wrapped in a N*****, and Pride and Prejudice and N*****s.
Anyway, the PFA, shocked, shocked by the use of the N-word, is now asking for its money back, which raises an interesting question about refunds the next time Luis Suarez deploys an unfortunate epithet. The first signal of such a move came with Mr Carlisle’s comments the day after the ceremony. “We made a really gross error of judgement,” he said. “When you go to a comedy store, you know you might have to leave your moral compass at the door. But the PFA awards dinner is not the time to have an act like that.”
This is a striking idea. Imagine, on the one hand, comedy clubs, those hotbeds of bigotry, full of gleefully amoral punters setting any objections to one side because they just think racism is hilarious; and, on the other, football clubs, where they’re doling out moral compasses, if anything, to the hummus-eating softies who gather to enjoy a game played by gentlemen, and don’t chant vile things, ever, and where no star is so big that his bigotry will be overlooked.
Somehow, that doesn’t ring true. To the outside observer, this doesn’t look like an instance of comedy’s race problem. Instead, it looks like a game so paralysed by anxiety that it is unable to make the distinction between being racist and talking about racism – and unwilling to pay anyone who is attentive to that difference. I’ve seen Mr Hunter perform: his vocabulary is plainly part of a considered attempt at disarming a word that represents something repugnant, a word, as he puts it, “that was designed to hurt me”. “It’s about context,” he has said. “The word itself is not the problem.” We might dispute the wisdom of this position. But the argument is not about moral compasses.
Why can’t football handle this idea? Well, our thinking might be clarified by the game’s attitude to an honour for the striker Ched Evans, a convicted rapist, at last year’s shindig. In the aftermath of that decision, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor helpfully explained that taking him out of the team “would have created more of a storm”. That’s right, folks: the problem isn’t being racist, or being a rapist, or being part of a culture so uninterested in self-criticism that its worst offenders tend to be left with no more than a slapped wrist and an unjustified sense of grievance. The problem isn’t any of that. The problem, as Reginald D Hunter has found to his cost, is talking about it.