Saturday, 24 December 2011

Does the public know enough to condemn or acquit Luis Suarez?

To many, Liverpool’s continued defence of Luis Suarez despite his eight match ban for racial abuse is transparent and shameful. For them, the club is clearly putting petty footballing concerns above the serious matter of fighting racism, indulging their star striker’s bigotry as though it were just another idiosyncrasy. It might just be my pro-Liverpool bias, but I think there’s more to the story than that.

Something that most people seem to have ignored is that Liverpool F.C., its manager and players almost certainly know more about the case than anybody else. There are all sorts of ambiguities and uncertainties about both the incident and the judgement, which only Liverpool, Manchester United and the commission really understand. Since both the commission and Man Utd. have kept silent so far, Liverpool’s statement in response to the verdict is the most direct account of the facts that the public have to go on. Of course, it is hardly likely to be neutral, but it raises a few questions that need to be answered by the official report.

Are the facts in dispute?

The first confusion is thrown up by Liverpool’s defence of Suarez. Much of the coverage of the tribunal suggested that the words uttered were accepted by both sides, and that the case depended on their interpretation, Suarez’s defence hanging on cultural differences. Yet in their statement, Liverpool placed a great deal of significance on the fact that there were no witnesses. Now if Suarez and Evra agree on what was said, it’s not clear why the fact that nobody else heard their conversation should matter. Surely it’s only if there is some doubt about the facts of the event that anybody should find it “extraordinary that Luis can be found guilty on the word of Patrice Evra alone”.

Words or intent?

There is an ambiguity in the F.A.’s statement which might have some bearing on the offensiveness of Suarez’ crime. The F.A. claims that Suarez is being punished for using “insulting words” against Evra. But of course, how insulting certain words are often depends as much on how they are said as on the words used themselves. It is unclear at this moment in time whether Suarez is being punished because the words that he used are never acceptable, or because he said them in a way that were clearly intended to be insulting. The former is clearly much more understandable and defensible as it would suggest that Suarez merely erred in his understanding of what sort of language is acceptable, rather than acting in a fundamentally inexcusable way. Liverpool’s claim that “Patrice Evra himself in his written statement in this case said: ‘I don't think that Luis Suarez is racist.’ and that “The FA in their opening remarks accepted that Luis Suarez was not racist”, if true, seem to favour the idea that all sides accept that Suarez meant no wrong.

How significant was cultural context?

It may well be that all the talk of cultural differences is a smokescreen, and that Suarez used insulting language in a plainly insulting way. But many of the reports seem to suggest that cultural questions are relevant, and that certain mitigating factors should be considered. For a start, the conversation in question appears to have taken place in Spanish. Secondly, the offensive word used has been reported to be either ‘negro’ or ‘negrito’. The latter isn’t even a word in English.

A number of people have suggested, along with Henry Winter, that “for somebody who has lived in northern Europe for four years, including three years in Holland with Ajax, the Liverpool striker should have understood the sensitivity towards the word “negro”. But Suarez used a Spanish word in the context of a Spanish conversation, that argument hardly seems to apply. Especially if the word used doesn’t even exist in English.

It is possible that the cultural question never really arose in the course of the tribunal. But if it did, there certainly seems to be a plausible defence open to Suarez.

Liverpool need to ‘calm down’

Perhaps I’m being too credulous, but I think that the ferocity with which Liverpool have reacted to the ban is evidence that they genuinely believe that Suarez has not done wrong. However, if that is the case, it would be a good idea for them to pick a line of defence and stick to it. Wide eyed conspiracy theories about how the F.A. wanted to make scapegoat of Suarez make them look paranoid and desperate, even if there is a hint of plausibility to them. Unless they are sure that Patrice Evra is lying, questioning his credibility and calling for him to be banned looks desperate.

In fact, the club’s treatment of Patrice Evra, regardless of Suarez’ guilt and innocence seems shoddy. It is clear that Evra was hurt and upset by what was said, and it would have been good to see some sort of apology for the distress caused, even if it was unintended. Moreover, it is possible that Liverpool’s vilification of Evra is sending the wrong message to fans. It would be good to see the club condemning the sickening abuse Evra has received on twitter from Liverpool supporters.

How guilty is Suarez, and what is he guilty of?

Ultimately, even if we accept the F.A.’s decision, there is a lot more we need to know before we judge Suarez and those who support him. The first key question is whether the facts of the case are in dispute. The second is whether Suarez is being punished merely for the words he used or for the suspected intent behind them. Finally, does the F.A. buy the portrait of Suarez as a confused foreigner mistaking the mores of his new country, or was his crime more serious?

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