Sepp Blatter's Relegation Idea Is Another Tone-Deaf Attempt at Fighting Racism

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterJanuary 21, 2013

Sepp Blatter still hasn't figured out this whole racism issue.

For the second time this month, Blatter has taken a public stand against racism in world football, with a tweet on Sunday

Deduction of points/team relegation. Financial sanctions: not efficient. Matches behind closed-doors: not good solution

— Joseph S Blatter (@SeppBlatter) January 20, 2013

While it's a nice change of pace for Blatter to actually acknowledge that racism in his sport exists, it's another tone-deaf attempt at fixing the issue.

Before we get into these comments, it's important to remember the context of Blatter's previous issues with racism.

In 2011, Blatter told CNN World Sport there was no on-field racism in world football, admitting that players sometimes say things during the heat of a game that are "not very correct," but any unseemly behavior during the match can be forgiven with a simple handshake after the final whistle. 

Blatter was universally admonished for his idiotic comments at the time. As recently as this month, Blatter called out Kevin-Prince Boateng for walking off the field during AC Milan's friendly with Pro Patria, saying, "I don't think you can run away, because eventually you can run away if you lose a match." 

Yes, Blatter took an important moment in his sport's impossible battle with racism and turned it into an issue of fair play, suggesting that players could pretend they are being racially abused to avoid a bad result.

According to that logic, Sepp probably thinks Boateng deserved it because he was showing a little too much skin. 

Blatter has consistently ignored the problem (or blamed the victim) during his tenure as FIFA president. When asked how Qatar could be awarded the World Cup in 2022 when the country has deemed homosexuality illegal, Blatter joked, "I'd say they should refrain from any sexual activities," before dismissively suggesting there wouldn't be any problems. 

Blatter doesn't think there will be any problems in Russia in 2018 either, despite rampant racism associated with some of the elite Russian clubs.   

Now Blatter thinks the problem of racism can be solved by docking points or calling for flat-out relegation. He suggested that financial sanctions would not be efficient (perhaps he meant sufficient) and said that matches behind closed doors—an often-used punishment for bad fan behavior­—is not a solution.

From a handshake to relegation in less than two years—that is one impressive turnaround.

Too bad for Blatter; neither of those suggestions are the answer.


Relegation Not the Answer

The fact Blatter would even mention relegation shows how out of touch he is on the sensitive nature of the issue. While racism is a serious charge, suggesting a club should be sent down a level of competition for the behavior of a player or the actions of a group of fans isn't just like bringing a gun to a knife fight; it's like bringing an atom bomb.

As for the idea of point deduction, it's fine for the president of FIFA to suggest that from his perch high atop the sport, but the enforcement of that penalty would fall on those who run the leagues. (Note: It could work in the World Cup, but even that would create an international crisis the governing body is ill-equipped to control.)

If Blatter is concerned teams may walk off the field with a claim of racism to avoid losses, wouldn't this rule essentially be the same thing? Instead of walking off the pitch, the abused players would just have to convince the referee during a match or wait out the abuse and complain to those who police these offenses after the fact. I don't think walking off the pitch is the best answer, but it's certainly better than some of the alternatives.

Besides, who would determine the threshold for an offense? Would certain epithets be worth one point in the standings and others worth three? Would teams be docked more if the racism came from the pitch and not the stands?

This is how far away from the real issue Blatter has taken the conversation. 

Let's not forget the most obvious problem with either of Blatter's suggestions. The far greater issue with racism in world football comes from the maniacs in the stands, not the players on the pitch. Blatter fails to realize—or admit—that instituting a system where teams lose points in the league table would only serve to empower fans to perform acts of race-baiting sabotage.

What would stop the racist lot in the stands of a Zenit St. Petersburg match from wearing Spartak Moscow kits and still yelling the same hate-filled chants, just at their own minority players? The suggestion of docking teams points could curtail the racist comments from fans otherwise stupid enough to chant them in favor of their favorite team, but what happens when fans get savvy enough to do it to their favorite team in an effort to cause a deduction in points, or relegation, for a bitter rival?

Blatter's suggestion would actually reward fans for being smart racists, if there is such a thing. Opportunistic racists, at the very least.

Whether Blatter thinks hefty fines are inefficient or insufficient, the truth is, hitting teams in the wallet is actually more efficient, and probably more sufficient, than docking them points. 


The Fan-Ban Option

Playing matches behind closed doors is a prudent punishment as well, because that not only impacts a team financially—nobody in the stands means no money from ticket sales and concessions—it takes away a much-valued home-field advantage for the offending club. Most importantly, however, it sends a message to the fans that racism (sexism, whatever -ism) will not be tolerated in the sport, and those fans will not be welcome in the stadium. 

Simply put, if a team can't police its own fans in the stadium, they won't have any fans in the stadium.

Hefty fines could be levied whenever racial incidents tarnish a match, up to and including the entire financial intake for hosting a match. How much did the team take in from ticket sales, parking, concessions, merchandising and TV rights? Leagues should take that and donate it to international charities that promote cultural equality.

How is this different from docking them points, when the same sabotage can still take place? Simple: it's unfair to dock a team points when the rival fans could be playing a trick to benefit their team. It is fair to dock a team income when they weren't able to police a situation in their own stands, rival fans or not. The financial burden doesn't take away from the integrity of the sport, but it does punish the owners for fostering a hate-filled environment.

It's obvious that Blatter's greatest fear is a player walking off the field during a World Cup match because fans (or a player) from another country have racially abused him. Worse yet, Blatter is surely afraid of another Zinedine Zidane situation, where a player takes retribution for something said on the field into his own hands. Again, this is already happening, just not on the world's stage. Yet. 

While Blatter is (finally) trying to take the right approach, he's just overcompensating for his past ignorance. He isn't trying to fix racism in football; he's trying to police it.

If a banner and a speech before the game doesn't stop racism, maybe sending a club down a level will make them less racist. That seems to be Blatter's hope.

John Smallwood wrote a wonderful piece in the Philadelphia Daily News this month looking at all the issues with racism in FIFA before coming to an interesting conclusion: The world is full of racism, and FIFA is the governing body of the world's biggest and most diverse sport, so why are we surprised when there's rampant racism within parts of the sport? 

Given the hundreds of soccer matches that are played on any given day across the world, I'm sure statistics would show dramatic declines in acts of discrimination.

But if the world as a whole still has difficult times dealing with discrimination, why would we expect the world's game not to?

In some ways, we should applaud Blatter for finally trying. Of course, actions speak louder than words, so it's one thing to suggest a team lose points or drop down a level in 2013 when because of Blatter we will still be rewarding nations that foster hate and discrimination for at least the next decade.

The real lesson from Blatter: Be nice to each other in the stadiums or your team might be punished, but legislate bigotry and your country may host the biggest sporting event in the world.

If Blatter was going to suggest the atom bomb, he did so in the wrong way.


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