He already said he was sorry. He’s already been punished. Everyone’s entitled to a second chance. — People
If Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy was a teacher, politician, lawyer, or even a mediocre soccer player, and was caught on camera calling someone of east Asian descent a “jap” several times, no one would be surprised by a subsequent firing, resignation, or the immediate announcement of a substance abuse problem and enrollment in rehab. Understandably.
But instead, after Vardy was caught on camera at a casino doing just that, in July 2015, Leicester handed its new, shiny England international a “substantial fine” and diversity awareness training—a tried and tested racism rehabilitation formula.
“The club will make no further comment on the matter, which it now deems to be closed,” Leicester told us after Vardy’s punishment was announced. The underlying sentiment seemed to be: we’re done with the issue, so you should be, too.
Thus, Vardy continued playing and, this weekend, he broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in 11 consecutive Premier League games, against van Nistelrooy’s old team, Manchester United, no less. The world celebrated:
Vardy’s feat was possible, in part, because he’s a natural goal-scorer. Just as important, he was simply able to play when he, arguably, should have spent a shift on the sidelines.
Vardy’s period of uninterrupted employment, in most other work environs, would likely be untenable because, increasingly, more employers, in 2015, don’t have the luxury of being seen as condoning that kind of disgusting public behavior. Casually dropping racial slurs on camera and expecting a limp apology and an assortment of other empty gestures to end the matter shouldn’t be standard operating procedure in a world where we pretend to have no tolerance for intolerance. Yet here we are, lying to ourselves once again.
This isn’t a matter of demanding Vardy’s expulsion from all soccer-related matters, or to say that there’s nothing impressive about Vardy’s goal scoring accomplishment. The reality is that, even if he was suspended, he could very well have come back later and scored in 11 consecutive games. Rather, the question we need to ask ourselves is what type of behavior are we willing to condone just because someone can score a bunch of goals, consecutively.
The answer: “a helluva lot.” English soccer has a long history of condoning all sorts of nonsense while simultaneously seeming to champion equality. Sure, English soccer isn’t alone. The NFL has a sordid record, as do many other sports, and life in general, sadly. English soccer is but another example, although it loves to hold itself up as the world’s superior sporting product.
The Premier League and the English FA rarely waste a chance to tout their zero tolerance mythology. Back in 2012, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, speaking on English soccer’s racism record, said, “When it comes to racism we have zero tolerance. There is no room for it.” In the league’s own inclusion and anti-discrimination action plan, both the Professional Footballers Association, the union representing the players, and the League Managers Association, the group representing managers in England’s top four tiers, say that they have “ a zero tolerance policy in all areas of discrimination.” They all vociferously support Kick It Out, a Premier League-backed organization that fights discrimination and promotes equality. And they say the words “zero tolerance” with great frequency, despite betraying their own words with regularity.
Managers and clubs regularly back players accused of racism before even gathering facts. And remember Malky Makay? Yes, the one who was caught exchanging racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic messages with some mate. He came back into the league because an owner who couldn’t stop saying racist and anti-Semitic things believed he was reformed or misunderstood.
But these words have real world impacts. This can’t be said enough.
What Vardy said in that casino isn’t just a word, nor is it just language we should easily dismiss. The words he said are words that support a culture of fear, at best, and a culture of violence, at worst. Roll your eyes if you must, but there’s a real connection between hateful language and violence. Vardy, a member of the esteemed English national team, demeaned another human in public by using an ethnic slur. Those words just don’t evaporate, especially when you’re a public figure; they stir emotions, they egg on, they ostracize, they incite. Although we always want to find excuses for these words, racial slurs are the language of racial violence. They belong to the same family.
The power of these kinds of words is widely recognized in England. The Premier League’s own rules consider insulting someone based on ethnic origin an aggravated breach (FA Rule E(3)(2)), as does UK law. That’s because there’s a track record of the damage these slurs can do, and the legacy they carry. More fundamentally, rules and legislation aren’t passed by accident. Rule-making bodies make penalties for some crimes stiffer than others as a statement that certain crimes in a society—like those predicated on discrimination—are more deplorable than others. Verbal racial abuse can fly under free speech protections in the United States, but in England, it’s a criminal offense. Similarly, violence is wrong, but violence based on racial animus is worse.
But even before violence lands on someone’s doorstep, words, like Vardy’s, have a lasting impact. This language which, make no mistake, is intended to shame “others,” makes targeted communities rightfully fearful. Here’s this 28-year-old white man screaming racial slurs at someone of Asian descent one day, and being treated like a national hero a few months later because he scored a lot of goals. What’s a community to think? A child of Asian descent could reasonably be scarred, wondering why a nation is worshipping a man who was barking antiquated racial slurs on camera only months ago. But the scarring doesn’t have to end there; it can also mark any impressionable mind, because if it’s fine for Vardy to act this recklessly without any meaningful sanction, then it can’t be that awful, right?
But Vardy isn’t even the real problem. He’s a symptom, the offspring of an impotent policing system that’s more for show than action. The blame for inaction and impotence should fall on the club that wants to keep discipline in-house, even as its players are captured on camera belting out racial slurs like a national anthem. Blame should fall on the league that had nothing of note to say about one of its players racially abusing a man, but can’t wait to fire off congratulatory Vardy tweets. It’s Roy Hodgson, Vardy’s national team coach, who can’t help but keep talking about his guy’s quality on the field, but had little to say about his no. 9’s antics off of it. “I’ll save the dramas for the real dramas. As long as other people are dealing with these matters, I’m perfectly happy,” Hodgson said, before handing Vardy a starting spot for England a month after the incident. The entire system treats racism like a temporary nuisance that gets in the way of “real work,” instead of the chronic sickness that all the rules, regulations, and platitudes from men in suits suggest.
Continuing to disproportionately laud racists for sporting achievements while remaining silent in public and handing out limp penalties to offenders says a lot about English soccer’s so-called zero tolerance toward discriminatory behavior. At some point, an impressive scoring record, combined with apologies, some diversity training, a fine, and silence—the regimen prescribed by all the supposed responsible adults in the room during #VardyGate—shouldn’t be all it takes for us to move on. But that’s what’s happened with the Vardy situation, which shows that there actually is a price for racial abuse, but if you have the right pedigree, you can get a steep discount.