Do Actions Speak Louder Than The 'N' Word?
A big, big controversy erupted in England this week involving the man they call Big Ron Atkinson. Atkinson had been co-commentating on ITVs coverage of the high-profile Monaco versus Chelsea Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night. So far, so good. The usual procedure at ITV is to switch back to mustachioed anchorman Des Lynam in the studio. So with the game finished, Atkinson took off his headset to indulge in banter with co-commentator Clive Tyldsley, thinking they were now off the air. Unfortunately for Ron, ITV shared their coverage with many Middle Eastern countries. He was still very much on-air in Saudi Arabia. Chelseas World Cup winning defender Marcel Desailly had performed poorly, and he was due some football related criticism. But Saudi Arabians heard Ron say, "(Desailly) is what is known in some schools as a f***ing lazy, thick, ni**er." Except he didnt use asterisks.
News reached England within minutes. The next morning, Atkinson resigned from his 200,000 a year job at ITV. His contract with The Guardian newspaper was terminated. He was apologetic, but it was definitely too little too late. Those unfamiliar with Atkinson will no doubt be damning him all the way to hell, or the exceptionally generous will be pitying an old man out of touch with the world. But if this is your introduction to the man they call Big Ron, youll be surprised to hear about his past.
Back in the 1970s, English football was a different game. Supporters regularly threw bananas at black players on the pitch, and the players were expected to suffer in silence. One player received a bullet in the post. Running parallel to this openly hostile racism was a pseudo-scientific mythology prevalent among professional coaches; in part, the idea that black players didnt have the necessary temperament, or even the intelligence to play in the English leagues. Ron Atkinson played a key role in the erosion of these attitudes.
When he took over managerial duties at West Bromwich Albion in 1977, he immediately signed Brendan Batson, forming a trio of black players which included the now legendary Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis.
Batson said, Back then, black players coming through had to contend with a whispering campaign by managers who would not sign them because of a stereotype. We were supposed to lack discipline, to not like the cold, to lack bottle. Ron ignored that and just looked for good players, and selected them on merit.
Atkinson broke the mold as his team played an entertaining and winning brand of football, gaining plaudits from all corners. Batson, Cunningham, and Regis became icons of black football, and many of todays black professionals cite them as inspirational figures. Recently, Atkinson was invited to attend the 10th anniversary dinner of Kick It Out, a campaign against racism in football. There, he received warm words from many of the speakers. He was one of the last men anyone expected to say the N word, but the context of it is even more amazing. He used three derogatory prefixes; the first one was aggressive, while the second two both recalled the negative stereotypes he had done so much to counterbalance.
There have been retrospective suggestions that perhaps his cultivation of black talent was nothing more than opportunism, born of the desire to win football matches. His comments at the time, about his groundbreaking trio of black stars, have been used to support this theory. In the seventies, he said, They could be yellow, or purple, and have two heads, as long as they can play."
However, many of the black players he coached now regard him as a friend.
Ive known Ron since I was 16, said Carlton Palmer. Ive been on holiday with his family, my children have been sick on him, I know him. I cant defend what he said, but there is no way he is a racist.
Only time will tell how Big Ron is remembered, but the severity of his outburst means it will outweigh his positive contributions as a sumo outweighs a supermodel. Perhaps the final irony is that in his disgrace, Ron Atkinson has given the campaign to remove racism from football a well-timed wake-up call. The cause has made great progress in the last thirty years or so, but there has been a sense of complacency within English football recently.
This season, a complaint by the Fulham player Luis Boa Morte, that he was subjected to racial abuse, yielded no result due to lack of evidence. The story barely caused a ripple on the football pond, receiving relatively little press attention. It should also be pointed out that while the question marks surrounding black players' abilities are gone, they now face similar resistance to becoming successful coaches. Atkinsons slip has brought the issue to the forefront once more, and it may provide an unintentional but much needed catalyst for further debate.