Banter, Banana Peel, and Snowflakes

The Shifting Sands of Employee Expectation

If you saw the news this weekend you will know about the incident involving football player, Raheem Sterling, at Saturday’s Chelsea v Manchester City game.   The monstrous footage shows a group of middle aged men, faces contorted in anger and hate, screaming alleged racial abuse at the young player.  Sterling, 24 (Saturday was his birthday), has been widely praised for his calm and professional conduct during it all.  He has said, “I just had to laugh at the abuse – I didn’t expect any better.” 

Why is verbal abuse less acceptable here than on the football pitch?

Those last five words are telling, aren’t they?  The fact that the incident has a racial slant has prompted natural outrage, but it’s not the only issue.  Why on earth should someone turn up to do their job and expect to be subject to that sort of abuse.   It would be completely unacceptable in any other setting … now  I was actually about to write here, ‘it would be unacceptable if Sterling worked in McDonalds’ – but I then I remembered an old incident involving football player, Lee Bowyer who was, in fact, fined and convicted of affray after racially abusing a McDonald’s worker.  

I saw Lee Bowyer play for West Ham United in the early-2000s.  I remember the game because for most the second half I had a man in his mid-30s sitting behind me yelling abuse at Bowyer.  The abuse was very similar in nature to that which Raheem Sterling was forced to listen to on Saturday, just without the racial element (Lee Bowyer is white).  Bowyer is now a 41 year old club manager and I wonder where he stands on this sort of behaviour with his own players?  If he felt it was acceptable to perpetrate, on the basis that he himself listened to it while he was working, does he think it is just part and parcel of football banter?   

I don’t think it is.

I don’t think you have to be a HR professional to know that while context and culture are important, there is usually a clear line in the sand. Screaming pure hate, racial or otherwise, at someone while they are working, is never acceptable.

Over the last couple of days there have been the usual articles about football’s rotten culture.   This being England, we must – of course! – mention social class, as well as yobs and hooligans, and that no other sport has this problem.  I would argue that to blame this on the perpetrators being working class is a massive insult to those of us who were raised in working class homes and know perfectly well how to behave.  

There was an incident a couple of weeks ago at a Spurs game in which a spectator threw a banana peel onto the pitch at a black player.  The man (in his 50s) said he did not realise that that it could be seen as offensive.  Frankly, if you are an adult who doesn’t realise that throwing that item towards a black player might cause upset, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed out by yourself.  This is nothing to do with being working-class or otherwise.

In relation to the ‘gentlemanly’ conduct of other non-football fans, I would suggest that anyone who thinks rugby fans are all choirboys should spend a Saturday evening in Twickenham or Headingley.  The yobbish behaviour is just as bad. Some of the text message evidence produced in a recent high profile rape case involving Irish rugby player, Paddy Jackson suggests the game has its fair share of misogyny too.

So what can we do?  It’s tempting for me to now reference training and education as a solution.  But that would be lazy and, I feel, missing the – as I see it – standout point.  

A few years ago I wrote a lengthy academic report about Football Managers’ training.  As part of the research I spent a lot of time on football forums like Football365 and club specific ones.  It was very noticeable that contrary to football’s image, posters who made racist, sexist, or homophobic comments were quickly shouted down by other posters.  Clearly something is changing.

The FA has made a direct attempt with its Kick it Out campaign to promote inclusiveness and respect.  As more and more ladies join the sport (I am a licensed coach, and my daughter plays), the sexist element is just naturally eroding.   Liam Davis has chosen to come out as openly gay.

Throughout this piece, if you were paying attention, you will note that I have mentioned the ages of people who have been verbally abusing players.  They are older people, generation Xers (as am I) who should know better but are still stuck in an aggressive and restrictive culture that disappeared years ago.  They are a dying breed. Along with forcing us to rethink our approach to how we work, I believe that Generation Y and the uber-inclusive Gen Z’s are just naturally clearing out football’s rotten core. Far from being ‘snowflakes’, they are radically shifting the sands of employee expectation in more ways than just one.









Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

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