Footage released after Tuesday’s Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea showed a group of Chelsea fans pushing a black man off a Paris Métro car while singing “We’re racist! We’re racist! And that’s the way we like it, we like it!” Since then, it seems everyone — fans, Arsene Wenger, every human in the media, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, probably Obama — has come out to condemn those Chelsea fans.
Chelsea, despite distancing itself from the fans, is now inviting the Métro victim to hang out in a swanky box at Stamford Bridge, because nothing says “We didn’t do it; we’re appalled” like come hang out in my sexy booth and snack on hors d’oeuvres while watching this team of exceptional talents play defensively and practically for 90 minutes.
On its face, in response to the pretty disgusting episode in Paris, Chelsea is checking all of the right public relations boxes.
✓ The club’s response has been rapid. Obviously.
✓ The club has distanced itself from the problematic fans. Of course it has.
✓ The club registered its disgust. Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho said he’s disgusted. And now the club has made grand overtures to the man. We should all be able to agree that this outcome is weird on several levels.
Why is Chelsea apologizing?
A Chelsea statement, in part, read:
“The people involved in that incident in Paris do not represent Chelsea Football Club. They do not stand for the values of this club, and they have no place at this club.” Mourinho echoed similar thoughts when he said, “These people don’t belong to us. I feel ashamed being connected with this sad episode that happened.”
The notion of belonging to a club can quickly become convoluted. It’s confusing because most clubs around the world, at all times, include extremely off-putting elements. But few clubs have really been that proactive about eradicating those elements, especially prior to incidents that get amplified in the media. This same idea also applies to fans. The idea that clubs aren’t aware of its sinister elements is pretty close to ridiculous, on the scale of reasonable-sounding to ridiculous.
On one hand, these people aren’t us (the club); on the other, let us apologize to you. That’s confusing, unless those fans do in fact represent you; or, at least a part of you.
Chelsea’s invitation is selfish
“I took the next metro and went back home without telling anyone, not even my wife or kids. What would I have told my kids? That daddy was pushed in the metro because he’s black?”
— Souleymane S.
The Métro victim, a 33-year-old man, identified as Souleymane S., a Chief Operating Officer at a business near the Métro where the incident occurred, has since said that he will file an official complaint with the police against both Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain. What that complaint actually entails and who would ultimately be held responsible remains to be seen, but the response is strange.
If you read what Souleymane said about his experience, it’s clear that Chelsea’s gesture is in no way related to his healing. What does Chelsea inviting him over to play have to do with his commute being interrupted by racist ballads? How does “come to my box” make it any easier for Souleymane to process what happened or talk about it? What does the gesture do to ensure that it’s less likely to happen again? And if his family doesn’t know what happened, they’ll have questions when they randomly show up at that plush box in London.
Kid: “Daddy, you’re a Chelsea fan?”
Souleymane: “No, kids. Some fans wearing Chelsea gear pushed me out of a train back home while singing about how racist they are. That’s when Chelsea invited us all out to celebrate.”
There’s this thing that happens after someone is victimized where apologies quickly morph into a self-serving set of gestures that start to look like payoffs. The cost of someone’s pain could be commodified by a high-profile “sorry,” or a field trip to see how much your dignity and silence costs. At some point meaningful communication becomes bartering. Work with us and we’ll work with you. Rarely does anyone ever stop and say, let’s examine how we could contribute to making the situation better.
Yet despite the bizarreness of the invitation, some will inevitably point to punishments handed out to culprits as evidence of action. But punishing those caught isn’t a solution, either; it’s a reaction. Solutions are generally more proactive and more robust than enforcement. They involve real examinations into how and why things happen, and a path to make things better. Yet here we are, left staring at a strange invite to Stamford Bridge.
The gesture may be sincere, but often even sincere gestures can be incredibly awkward at best, offensive and short-sighted at worst.
Inviting Souleymane to Stamford Bridge does nothing to address the problem
This is it. This is perhaps the most important awkward thing about Chelsea’s invitation.
Inviting Souleymane and his family to the PSG return leg at Stamford Bridge is a perfectly decent gesture. But it does little, if anything, to address the root problem. Here’s a quick ranking of what Chelsea (and other clubs) could do to address groups of racist fans, from least effective (1) to most effective (5):
- Have the club/manager distance themselves from “fans like this” by suggesting they’re not a welcome part of the fan base
- Invite Souleymane and his family to a game
- Have a meeting with Kick It Out and release a statement listing things the club does in the community
- Publicly admit there are fans like these among Chelsea’s support. Work on proactive solutions to ensure that the club improves at self-policing, increasing the likelihood that random cameras in a Parisian Metro aren’t more efficient than actual Chelsea fans at catching people who are, in theory, universally abhorrent, yet seem to operate very comfortably in public in Chelsea gear without fear.
When you think about what could actually be done, it’s hard not to laugh at the randomness of Chelsea’s invitation to Souleymane. It feels genuine, but maybe the question we should be asking is about its efficacy. It’s a nice gesture, but does it do anything to acknowledge, let alone address, the actual problem?