Of the many things that I think are currently wrong with football (and there are many) one of my favourite gripes is the classic “bringing the game into disrepute”. This is something the Football Association are keen to charge players, managers, kit men, fans or strangers passing a football ground when the wind is blowing in a south easterly direction with and I think it’s a largely stupid rule.
Google helpfully defines disrepute as:
The state of being held in low esteem by the public.
So literally the rule means that if you do something that means you have made the game be held in low esteem by the public you are “bringing the game into disrepute”. You can find this rule in section E of the FA rules and regulations under conduct. The wording could not be more heavy handed. It reads like a Ryan Shawcross tackle, don’t what ever you do try to argue with it because you’ll end up broken.
In section E3 (1) we find this little gem:
A Participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not
act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any
one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive,
indecent or insulting words or behaviour.
Now strict adherence to this rule could see quite a few teams in trouble. If you’ve seen Stoke or Wolves play you should feel threatened and abused. In fact if you were unlucky enough to watch Stoke play Aston Villa recently you would be well within your rights to demand a bringing the game into disrepute charge, because anyone who sat through it would definitely had a far worse opinion of football afterwards.
Now in fairness, some aspects of these rules are valuable and unfortunately necessary, notably:
In the event of any breach of Rule E 3(1) including a reference to any one or more
of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation
or disability (an “aggravating factor”), a Regulatory Commission shall consider
the imposition of an increased sanction
It’s sad that in this day and age we need to outline quite so clearly all the ways in which one person should be punished for abusing another. Some might call it “political correctness gone mad” but abuse in all forms is repugnant and wrong. This is no clearer than in the case of Luis Suarez, as when you strongly defend the right of one man to call another man a “negro” you know you’ve gone seriously wrong somewhere. The trouble is we’ve also stopped players and managers from telling the truth. Not in some callous awkward nineteen-fifties sense of using ethnic slurs as descriptions of a player’s character but by stopping them talking about the game.
There is nothing I hate more than hearing a manager say “I’d love to tell you what I think but…” or worse still “I know I’ll get in trouble for this but…” as fans we want to hear what they have to say. Football is a game of opinions and when those are withheld the game is less for it. I think that Match of the Day has suffered hugely from fence sitting pundits, who seem just as afraid to voice a controversial opinion or come down conclusively on any side of an issue as a manager, but they don’t have the luxury of saying they didn’t see it.
I hate Neil Warnock. There is an air of condescension and superiority purveyed by his smile which frankly I find quite detestable. It only gets worse when you get him into an interview after the game. But the moaning, excuses and the blatant chatting of absolute bollocks often add extra satisfaction after you’ve inevitability been incredibly lucky to have beaten his team. However, Warnock’s one saving grace is that at least he doesn’t hold back. It’s hard to accuse him of avoiding controversy by staying quiet on an issue, it’s obvious that his opinion will be completely wrong but at least he offers an opinion.
I recently read a piece in the guardian from the secret footballer, if you’ve not read it you should because it’s usually interesting:
Players are growing increasingly irritated with reporters such as Sky’s Geoff Shreeves, who are allowed to inflame tense situations in the immediate aftermath of a match by calling in to question controversial decisions in the hope of making a more entertaining post-match interview. Sky is only too happy to play back these incidents for managers and players in the tunnel seconds after the final whistle before shoving a microphone into their face to mop up the criticism. I am yet to see Sky called to the FA, which is a shame, as the two would no doubt get on famously.
I have several problems with the points he makes here. Firstly if the players don’t like Geoff Shreeves then tough shit, because he’s great fun to watch. Football is entertainment and I want a more entertaining post-match interview. The media intrusion into the personal lives of professional sports men and woman is wrong. Personally I don’t believe it’s in the public interest to know if they are having an affair or shagging random farm animals regardless of whether they are “trading on a family man image” or not. If you’re a company or a fan and you’re stupid enough to buy or sell something on the basis that it’s got something to do with a popular footballer then you are only asking to be fooled. You can only judge the character of a man in the terms you know him. I love Grant Holt, but I don’t know the man personally. If I found out he had been cheating on his wife, that wouldn’t be nice, but it doesn’t change what he’s done on the pitch, or how he’s conducted himself in interviews or with the fans.
The thing is, when you’ve just come off the pitch this isn’t an invasion of your personal space. You’re still at work. Your job doesn’t begin and end on the pitch. You have media commitments and with good reason, people pay large amounts of money (which helped to rocket player’s wages) to watch the game, the least you can do is talk to them afterwards. The way football coverage has improved since sky got into the game is staggering, but it terms of access it’s still way behind it’s American equivalents. The football dressing room still retains a forbidden aura for the football reporter. When that door is closed a member of the media wouldn’t dream of walking in there and interviewing which ever player they liked, would they? Well in American sport they would and it’s great. No locking out of the media because you don’t want to answer their questions are a humiliating defeat.
Where I have some sympathy however takes me back to the first part of this blog. The rules stand in the way of the players actually giving an opinion. So Sky are sticking a microphone in their face and asking them pertinent questions that they simply cannot answer without incurring the wrath of the FA. I can see how this might be annoying. It’s the reason so many interviews are actually incredibly boring affairs. Filled to the brim with the same old cliché’s, it’s a monotonous repeat of the safe phrases instilled in players by the club’s media personnel.
There are rules protecting referees. I think these are the sensible to some degree, the job of a ref is hard and managers contently questioning their performance doesn’t help, because the manager is never passing reasonable judgement and there is always an agenda to what they say. Having said this, Premier League referees are well paid professionals. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that in this day and age they should be able to receive significant media training and front up to camera like the players. This would terrify the FA as they would hate for a ref to admit his or her own fallibility because that is never FA policy especially in regards to the ridiculous appeals process with red cards where so often an obvious mistake isn’t overturned.
Nearly a year ago the FA issued further clarification about it’s clamp down on freedom of speech, this time stamping all over social networks, specifically twitter. I think twitter is brilliant. It’s a direct connection between players and fans. Players retain control, they can say as much or as little as they wish and respond to fans in any way they please. For fans it’s a chance to ask their heroes questions and if they are lucky, get an answer, what could be better than that? The trouble is, in the heat of the moment sometimes people say things they shouldn’t. The latest example is Kyle Walker, who had a pop at Man City fans after they lost and called them glory hunters. It’s not a very nice thing to say, but at the same time, it’s hardly abuse is it? It may sadly be true, it would hardly be a surprise if Man City had attracted a large number of new fans given their new found wealth and success.
Then there’s Calton Cole, who made what I’d describe as an ill-advised joke about the Ghana fans when their team was playing England at Wembley. The implication was that some of them may be in this country illegally. It plays on a stereotype but I think you would be hard pressed to call it racist especially when the player in question has an African heritage, it’s not like he’s Jim Davidson. Even if he was, does the fact that he’s an idiot really reflect badly on football? I don’t think so, I think it simply reflects badly on him. The idea the FA seem to want to portray is that everyone in football is universally lovely, even the most naive child knows this isn’t true.
The most ridiculous punishment for a twitter offence was Ryan Babel’s “retweet” of Howard Webb in a Man Utd shirt. He was fined was fined £10,000 and warned as to his future conduct. That’s a seriously expensive mistake at the click of a button. But where do you draw a line? If a player was to tweet a forum post by a fan slagging off a referee’s performance, it would imply he agrees with the fan’s assessment of the game, but that’s what you infer from it. It may be the case that he thought the guy was a moron and found his take on events really funny. Without clarification from the player, you can’t take it one way or the other. The FA want players to be bland automatons off the pitch, fans what the exact opposite. They want to connect with their heroes and share a joke with them.
What I find most troubling is that so often the cases where managers are charged with improper conduct and bringing the game into disrepute are so often the moments of greatest entertainment and we want more of them not less. As long as it’s not abusive, as long as it’s about football, then why not let them say what they want to say? Rather than operating under a ridiculous walking the tightrope system full of half truths and awkward silences. Freedom of speech is a right that football players and managers need to get back from the FA. Open up the dressing room doors and let the media in and lets all sit back and enjoy the show.