19 February 2006

Racism and the Black and Red.


Warning: Long, serious post ahead. I think it is worth your time, but be warned...

Part of me doesn't even want to write about this. Which is why I should write about it. For those seeing this for the first time, let's bring you up to date: During a friendly between RSL and DCU (which was lost 3-1), John Ellinger alleged that he heard DC United coach Piotr Nowak say of RSL trialist Atiba Harris, "Send him back to Africa." Atiba Harris is not african, but instead from St. Kitts. That's neither here nor there, since the phrase "send him back to Africa" regardless of where the player is from is close enough to certain white-power sentiments as to be a racist remark. This allegation occurs during a radio show, and you can find the link courtesy of Joe at We Call it Soccer.

As you can imagine, Big Soccer is all over this one (that's a link to the general DCU forum, since traffic is heavy among multiple threads). DC United responded in a message covered by MASN. Kevin Payne and Doug Hicks say that Piotr Nowak never said "Send him back to Africa" but instead "Send him back to the hospital." Key graf:

The Real Salt Lake technical staff reacted, at that moment, as a group, apparently misunderstanding what Peter had said. DC United has confirmed with US Soccer that the match officials also heard nothing like Real Salt Lake is alleging to have been said, despite the fact that the senior assistant referee working the match was within a few feet of Peter when RSL believes they heard the comment in question.

Now, let's lay the ground rules here. First, if Nowak said "Send him back to Africa," that's a racist comment. Period. The phrase is insulting, implying that a person is being judged by some standard and in failing that standard should be removed from the United States. Any reading of that phrase must take race into account. There is simply no innocous way of saying it. It is racist.

Second, if Nowak had said such a phrase, he would need to fired (or do the right thing and resign). Soccer has a problem with racism, thankfully that problem is typically in Europe and not here in the US. However, that's because US Soccer, and MLS, must have a zero tolerance policy for racism. The sport doesn't need that taint in this country. Even if Piotr Nowak believed he is not a racist, and he said such a thing, he would need to go. Such an act must have consequences, and they would need to be severe. I actually for a time thought of some of the more insensitive coaches in American Sport (JoePa's comments at Penn State for instance), and was thinking how we tend to tolerate it. But we shouldn't, and I won't succumb to the trap of "I like him, I like his team, I can make an excuse this once." There can't be excuses, because it opens to door for the next excuse, or to move the line a little more into what you might be willing to stomach. And once you start doing that, where do you stop?

So there's the deal. If he said what was alleged, he had to go. However, I want to be sure he actually said it. DC United says that he said no such thing. Now, I can't pretend to imagine what he meant by "Send back to the hospital." It doesn't sound right to me. The only way I can imagine it making sense is that he's calling for a player to be taken out with a hard foul (which doesn't reflect well on Piotr, but at least it isn't racist.) So there are reasons to doubt that he actually said such a thing, in that it really doesn't make sense on its own. If that's all we had, I'd probably be calling for Nowak's ouster right now. But it isn't all we have. The DC United players on the bench say that Nowak didn't say "send him back to Africa." Sure, but they could be protecting their coach. So more importantly is the fact that the Assistant Referee didn't hear it, and was apparently in the area to do so. What's more, it is part of an AR's job to detect just that sort of behavior. Under the Laws of the Game, "offensive or insulting or abusive language and/or gestures" are offenses that call for someone to be sent off. The FIFA Fair Play Code states:

Help to kick racism and bigotry out of football. Treat all players and everyone else equally, regardless of their religion, race, sex or national origin.
That's nice words, but the Beunos Aires declarations make them actionable:
requires team coaches and club officials to impose effective punishments upon players in their charge who indulge in or condone any form of racist behavior... requires referees to be more vigilant with regard to gestures or verbal offences of a racist nature between players and/or coaches and/or the public, and to take immediate action to punish offenders and to report such incidents clearly and fully.
In short, if the AR had heard such a thing, it is precisely the sort of thing he is supposed to instantly take action on. That he didn't lends strong credence to me that Piotr Nowak did not in fact say "Send him back to Africa" and supports the idea that what Nowak did say was misheard by the other side.

So after considering all of this, and considering what I know of Piotr Nowak, a man that loves the game and has never shown during his tenure an inch of racism, and seeing that the officials did not detect anything wrong, and that the mainstream media (and Steve Goff, once he had enough for a story, would be all over this) have not yet run with this story, I think the evidence supports Nowak unless something more comes out. In short, this probably was a misunderstanding, and should be treated as such. Nowak didn't say anything racist, or that if the right words were heard could have been interpreted as racist. What happened is over a loud pitch with a lot of noise, someone on RSL heard Nowak incorrectly, and reacted strongly. Do I blame RSL for this? Hell no, if I thought I had heard the same thing, the reaction should be strong. But I should also be open to the fact that perhaps I didn't hear what I thought I did, especially if those in a better position seem to think otherwise. Accordingly, with the evidence I have so far, I don't think Nowak should be fired, I don't think he's a racist, I don't think he made a racist comment, and I think this story should be put to bed. If there's more evidence, then I could change my mind, but with what I have now, this is done with.


At 19 February, 2006 22:44, Anonymous Matt said...

Great..just what the MLS needs.

It is very irresponsible for Ellinger to come out and say something this damaging against PN without any non-RSL witnesses to support his claim. (at least I assume this since no one has come out yet).

We don't know everything in how he handled the situation, but he should have taken it up with game officials, and MLS management..but in a quiet, confidential manner.

Now...PN is labeled as a racist, whether he made the remark or not.

More investigation should be done, players and game officials should be interviewed..

There are very few labels worse in this country that "racist".

I'm not defending Nowak...don't know him...wasn't there obviously.

ANY coach...in ANY sport should be fired for making a comment that stupid...but there must be clear evidence.

At 20 February, 2006 09:40, Blogger D said...

Matt: Much more succinctly argued than what I said, but I agree with most of what you said. The only thing I might object to is Ellinger's behavior to date doesn't bother me. Looks like he was cornered and said what he said, and was probably incensed to have heard what he thought he heard. Fair enough. And I agree, if Nowak had said such a thing, he needs to go. Immediately. But it looks more and more that he didn't say something like that. So Ellinger better be careful before pressing the issue too far. If he does go and make an issue out of this with only the story we know so far, than he's a jerk.

Yeah, this is a mucky situation, but one that I think can resolve itself unless someone does something stupid. Or unless more evidence comes out that Nowak did say something. Which, right now, there isn't ...


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