Monthly Archives: August 2013

In defence of Gordon Taylor

I’m not an admirer of Gordon Taylor, but I’ll defend his right to spend his £1 million yearly salary however he chooses. The papers are roundly condemning him for his gambling habit. The chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – the players’ union – has warned his members about the dangers of gambling and has even used the term “zero tolerance” to deter his members from betting on matches. Certainly, there are strict rules about players betting on games in which they are involved. This is no more than common sense.

Taylor has also stated: “Gambling is possibly the biggest danger facing our members.” Even allowing for a measure of exaggeration, there is nothing inconsistent about this statement. Taylor may truly believe gambling does pose dangers for young men who find themselves in positions where they command the adulation of fans and the kind of money they could barely have dreamt of.

Taylor is acting responsibly if he advises his members to guard against gambling irresponsibly. But, if he enjoys a bet himself, so what? He earns the kind of money that allows him to place bets of £25,000 a pop without any undue discomfort. And if he ran up debts of £100,000, as one newspaper reports, so what? This is like someone who earns £50,000 a year owing £5,000 – a considerable chunk of change, but not ruinous.

Taylor’s advice to players on gambling has credibility: he is someone who obviously likes a bet and presumably enjoys the thrill or frisson that’s peculiar to gambling. So when he counsels players about the subject, his advice has substance because he knows about the attractions of gambling. Were the advice to come from a goody-goody who was sternly opposed to gambling, players would pay it no heed.

Who has the right to tell Taylor how to spend his money? He is not a gambling addict – in fact, there is no such thing: the medical profession abetted by uncritical social scientists has perpetrated this myth. Same goes for “problem gambler”: this is another fiction. There may be gamblers who have problems, but that is another phenomenon. And in any case, Taylor’s only problem at the moment is a pious media seemingly hell-bent on destroying him.

Were it discovered he drove an Aston Martin One-77 at just under a million quid, would he be disqualified from issuing guidance on expensive cars? Players favour Bentleys and Lamborghinis, as we know.

I have not agreed with many of Taylor’s decisions in the past and have criticised him for his stance on other issues, but, on this occasion, I am with him: he is perfectly entitled to spend his money however he chooses. Gambling is legal in the UK. It is not hypocritical for him to talk on the subject and offer advice to his members.

Football fans are not homophobic

The Crown Prosecution Service’s new initiative aimed to tackle, among other things, homophobia in football is badly conceived, poorly planned and misdirected. “As well as tackling violence, disorder and criminal damage, we will deal robustly with offences of racist and homophobic and discriminatory chanting and abuse and other types of hate crime,” says the CPS

Most of these are already punishable offences, though the issue of “homophobic” chanting and abuse is new. With my colleague Jamie Cleland, I’ve conducted research on the supposed homophobia among football fans: contrary to popular wisdom, a huge majority of fans oppose homophobia and think it has no place in football. In fact, most fans welcome the day a professional footballer will have the confidence to come out in Britain. There is only one pro player who is openly gay and he plays in America’s Major League Soccer.

Just under 10 per cent of fans questioned in the survey of 3500 fans expressed hostility to homosexuality and resented any liberalisation in attitudes towards gay players witnessed in other sports.

Nearly a quarter of all people playing, coaching or refereeing professional football personally know a gay player. This suggests that gay players are known inside the football industry, but are afraid to come out. Why? If it’s because of the possible reaction of crowds, they have nothing to fear. Gareth Thomas, a former Wales rugby union captain who later switched to rugby league, declared he was gay while still at the peak of his professional career. In only one instance did fans react with hostility; for the most part he was not subject to homophobic abuse.

Football fans barrack all players and, it’s true, they often use language that qualifies as homophobic. But in the occasionally baffling logic of football fans, this does not mean they hate, dislike or disapprove of gay players. It is, in the fan’s jargon, “stick” —  sharp but playful remarks designed to put opposing players off their game. There is, for sure, homophobia in football, but it lies in boardrooms and in the offices of football agents. Gay players are being persuaded that it’s in their best interests not to reveal their sexual preferences while they are still playing football professionally. Football clubs may fear the brand implications of being known as the first club in the English or Scottish leagues to have an openly gay player. Agents are no doubt wary of the effects on sponsorship deals – remember agents earn their commission on players’ earnings. The publicist Max Clifford, who is rumoured to have been consulted by at least three gay professional footballers, has revealed that he has advised footballers not to come out because the sport is “steeped in homophobia”.

Of course, it’s much easier to blame fans and introduce tough measures to silence them. Football will soon follow other professional sports and see some of its top players come out: in recent years, rugby union, hurling and tennis have seen star players reveal that they are gay while at the height of their careers.  It is not fans who are stifling them. The taboo surrounding gay players in football is a myth.

What connects 1D fans with the girls in Peru?

One Direction

Chaos theory concerns connections between seemingly unconnected events: like a temperature rise in the Atlantic initiating a hurricane across the Indian Ocean and a tsunami in the Pacific. 70,000 young people flocked to London’s Leicester Square to catch glimpse members of One Direction as they attended the premiere of the band’s film.  6,000 miles away in Lima, Peru, two 20-year old women attended their first formal hearing after being caught with £1.5million worth of cocaine hidden in their suitcases at the airport. They face up to 25 years in prison, if found guilty. The two events have a common source.

Young people today are fascinated by glamour: the attractive and exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing has never gripped them so tightly. They are enchanted, captivated, thrilled by the glitz and pizzazz they find not just surrounding them but invading their imaginations.

<p class="MsoNormal" Directioners are not dimwits: they love the band, but they know that, in a sense Liam, Harry, Zayn, Niall and Louis are their proxy: after all, the band is a product of The X Factor and its success on the show (3rd place, 2010) was made possible by viewers’  — in other words, their — votes. 1D fans are rightly proprietorial – they behave as if they own the band. So when they see the band enjoying the highlife, appearing in every conceivable media, leaping from one triumph to another, they too experience a strong vicarious gratification.

Michaella Connolly and Melissa Reid may be fans of the band.  Even if they’re not, I’m sure they share with Directioners the craving for what the writer Christopher Lasch called “the good life,” in which there is  “endless novelty, change and excitement [and] the titillation of the senses by available stimulant.” (Check Melissa’s Facebook photos.) Exotic images of luxury, romance and affluence dominate the media that engulfs, not just them but all of us. This is modern consumerism and, whether we like it or not, we are part of it.

Michaella and Melissa are indistinguishable from the thousands who congregated at Leicester Square. They’re products of the same culture, one that emphasizes impulse rather than calculation as the determinant of human conduct. They’ve all learned to spurn traditional values of thrift and self-denial and respond to every new demand our media issues. But young people are not hapless fools. Anything but: they know there is a manipulation going on. When they see the latest smartphone dangled in front of them, they tumble to what’s going on. Use values have been replaced by exchange values, events by images and quality by newness.

Obviously, I can’t know the exact motivation of the young women now awaiting their fate in South America. But I’m pretty sure their ill-starred adventure had its source in the desire to find an alternative to the unendurable settled life they saw lying ahead of them at home. They were prepared to travel thousands of miles to escape their humdrum existences. Their restless ambition and nagging dissatisfaction with things as they were encouraged by an appetite for excitement, glamour and celebrity. In this sense they are connected as if by an invisible chain to the thousands of worshipful young fans of 1D.

Diana’s death fascinates us as much as her life

Princess Diana

Sixteen years after her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to enchant us. A new claim that the Special Air Service (SAS) was involved in her death is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. In the immediate aftermath of the fateful night of August 31, 1997, everyone struggled to make sense of arguably the most devastating death of the century. The shock and prolonged sense of grief occasioned by Diana’s utterly unexpected death has scarcely a parallel in world events. The deaths of social and political giants such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and cultural icons like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, stunned people the world over. But none of these evoked an emotional response so long and deep as that following Diana’s death.

The response to Diana’s death defined an emblematic moment, one of transferred emotion. In the days leading to her funeral on September 6, over a million people flocked to pay their last respects, many leaving bouquets at her London home at Kensington Palace. Her funeral attracted three million mourners who cast flowers along the entire length of the journey. A global television audience of twenty six million watched the day’s events.

The near-inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding the death were like those about the moon landing, the JFK assassination or 9/11. More rational attributions of blame centered on paparazzi, who pursued her into the tunnel in Paris on that fateful night. “I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” said Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer. “Every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands.”

Few wanted to extend that same argument further. If they had, they would have concluded that the paparazzi were motivated by money offered by media corporations that could sell publications in their millions to consumers whose thirst for pictures and stories of Diana seemed unquenchable. In the event, the photographers were cleared of any wrongdoing by a French court in 1999. The fact remains: all parties, from the paparazzi to the fans were connected as if by invisible thread.

Anyone who was aware of Diana — and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t — was forced to think about the way in which news values had been subverted by entertainment values. After all, Diana’s greatest triumph was not so much in ushering in world peace, or saving the planet, but in offering so pleasure to so many people. Yet the inspection was momentary. It didn’t bring to an end the gathering interest in figures, who, like Diana, offered pleasure while presenting absolutely nothing that would materially alter their lives or the lives of any other living thing. Then, after a spell of critical evaluation of the media, the interest resumed and theories of skullduggery, connivance and subterfuge began to circulate. It took ten years before an official investigation lasting nearly two years concluded the death had been an accident and there was “no conspiracy to murder the occupants of that car.

Now police are investigating a fresh claim that the SAS was involved in Diana’s death. Like the other theories, this one appears to lack that all-important constituent of a credible theory – evidence. So you might wonder why the latest one has prompted action from Scotland Yard. “The Metropolitan Police Service is scoping information that has recently received,” is the official response. “Scoping” is an unusual choice of verbs: it’s typically used informally for looking at, or scanning something or someone. But the meaning is clear enough: the Yard is taking this seriously enough to look into it.

A few people will suggest a different kind of conspiracy: a new film Diana is shortly to be released to coincide with the anniversary of the Princess’s death. A new theory is bound to be good boxoffice. But it could be just an astonishing coincidence. I suspect this will not be the last theory of this kind we will hear. Diana’s death, like her life, is a subject of endless intrigue. Her singular capacity to lure, charm and draw people of diverse backgrounds has survived her and will probably outlive anyone reading this.


Should we boycott next year’s Winter Olympics?

Stephen Fry up

Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected actor Stephen Fry’s request to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in protest at Russia’s homophobic laws.

Vladimir Putin’s new legislation allows for the imposition of heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of eighteen. The Russian city Sochi hosts the games.  Athletes have been warned they’ll be penalized if they “propagandise” on the issue.  The probability is that there will be no boycott and that the controversy will resurface again as we approach the 2018 football World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  By then it’s probable there will be several openly gay footballers.

As with any boycott, there is a balance of interests.  Athletes aiming to compete at next year’s Games will be training hard and dedicating themselves to winning a medal.  Clearly, none of them – straight or gay – would want to sacrifice their chances.  Any protest over political, social or moral issues risks casualties of this kind. Individuals have their own interests at heart and there is nothing wrong with this.

On the other side of the balance sheet are collective issues, in this case one concerning fundamental human rights.  Gay people are currently stigmatized in Russia.  Like all international sports tournaments, the Winter Olympics presents an almost natural forum for events far removed from sport.

Some people, like Cameron, prioritize individuals’ interests over all others.  He believes it would be wrong to prevent athletes competing in what will probably be their career-high tournament. Fry’s call for a boycott suggests he thinks, if Russia is allowed to proceed in an uninhibited way, the effect will be to condone its attitude towards gay people.

So who is right? The first lesson history teaches us is that sporting protests do work: they force issues often involving prejudice and inequality to the attention of the world and concentrate pressure on offending nations to reconsider their policies, laws and sometimes ideology.

The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 was instrumental in the eventual fall of South African apartheid in 1990: it effectively ostracized South Africa by prohibiting sporting contacts.

Boycotts usually make headlines and attract the rhetoric of interested parties who talk regretfully about how unfortunate is it that sport and politics have become mixed-up.  In fact, sports and politics are not just mixed-up, but entwined so closely that they will never be separated: sport is an effective vehicle for promoting or publicizing causes, principles and aims, aswell as full-blown ideologies. Presumably, this was on the minds of Black September when it planned what turned into a bloodbath. The group’s demands for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners were not met, precipitating a sequence of killing at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The massacre was horrific and condemned almost universally, but it made the condition of Palestinians known to the world.

Earlier at the 1968 Olympics, there had been an iconic moment when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black berets and gloves and bowed their heads on the victory rostrum while the US national anthem played. At the time they were decried as unpatriotic and hounded out of sport.  Now they are revered as the men who made America’s prejudice against black people known to the world and in their own way made their imprint on history.

There are those who will argue that we could find fault with the host of practically any major sports competition.  Remember, Britain, which held last year’s Olympics, is not without critics. So when we consider protests, we have to think in terms of a political or moral triage, assigning degrees of urgency to issues, some of which demand more immediate attention than others.  The gay issue in Russia does, in my opinion, require attention.  Gay people are, we understand, habitually persecuted in a nation with a population of 143 million, and where the attitude towards homosexuality is basically the result of a hangover from the Soviet Union combined with Putin’s crass and populist ideology.  I respect the rights of the athletes who will defend their freedom to choose whether or not to attend and compete in the games.  But they should ask themselves whether they would be complicit in perpetuating a social and political arrangement that is morally repugnant.

Reluctant parents: why Cowell’s honesty is welcome

Simon Cowell in December 2011

First, an admission: I have no children. I have never experienced the joys, the torment, the rapture, the trauma or any of the other multiple emotions associated with fatherhood. My chest has never swollen with pride; my heart has never sunk in sadness. I’ve never known the vicarious thrill or despair associated with a child’s success or failure. So I may be the least qualified person to write on fatherhood – which is what I am going to do. Or I may be eminently well qualified. Make up your mind in a few moments.

Simon Cowell is, like me a mature man who has made up his mind not to have children. At 53, he has expressly told reporters that he values his independence and the freedom of movement it affords him. So the prospect of becoming a father must give him pause for reflection. In the unlikely event that you’re not aware of recent developments, Lauren Silverman, a married woman with whom he had a relationship, claims she is expecting his child. Her husband has filed for divorce, though, it seems, the Silvermans’ marriage was effectively over by the time the affair began.

Cowell has been dismissive: he brushes off the scandal by denying he reads the newspapers or takes notice of gossip. He won’t comment on Mrs. Silverman’s contention that he is the father of her baby. We imagine he isn’t especially delighted. After all, he once responded to the question about whether he ever intended to start a family. “God, no, I couldn’t have children,” he is reported to have said, “If I had them they’d be drawing on the walls, and I’d go nuts. With kids you’ve got a routine you can’t escape from.”

I suspect Cowell is not a well-loved figure. But he is popular all the same. This is not a contradiction: people follow Cowell and are as fascinated by his idiosyncrasies, like his weekly Botox jabs, his colonic irrigations, and his intravenous vitamin transfusions, as they are by his caustic evaluations on The X Factor. I suspect people will turn against him for refusing immediately to acknowledge that the child might be his. I’m not among them.

OK, the child could be his, in which case he will take responsibility. At least, I think he will. But will he change his mind and say that he wants to embrace fatherhood? I doubt it. For all his faults, he is, in this respect, honest. He will maintain that he does not crave a child and, indeed, lives the kind of life that does not permit him the kind of active role a father should take. I prefer people to risk public condemnation by saying they don’t want children than to pretend. Magdalena Luczak and Mariusz Krezolek pretended they were loving parents, but they were anything but. They starved, tortured and eventually killed Magdalena’s son Daniel. The couple, who travelled to Coventry from their native Poland in 2006, were convicted of murder and imprisoned for thirty years last week.

Prior to his death Daniel endured six months of abuse, having been starved, force-fed salt, held under water in a bath until unconscious, beaten regularly and confined to a box bedroom with no door handle. He was often so hungry that he would steal food from schoolmates and was seen by teachers scavenging around in bins for scraps or leftovers. When the boy died, the pair failed to call for an ambulance for thirty-three hours, during which time they looked on the Internet for medical advice, as he lay unconscious in his room. A post-mortem found twenty-three injuries on Daniel’s emaciated body.

The case highlighted the failure to act by Daniel’s school and social services in Coventry. A Serious Case Review has been launched to try to discover how the visibly malnourished boy was allowed to remain in the care of his mother. Police, school staff and health workers made dozens of visits to the family home. Daniel’s is the latest of a number of serious cases of extreme child abuse. The best known are those of Victoria Climbié, who died in 2000, Khyra Ishaq, in 2010, and Baby Peter, in 2007; but there are several others. We seem unwilling to countenance that some parents just don’t want children, or, if they do, want them only as objects to mistreat.

Common to all four cases is the arrival of a new male partner into the household. The influence of a man with, it appears, no interest in fatherhood was a factor. Critics of single motherhood should consider how preferable a one-parent family is to a reconstituted version in which one partner has no love at all for children.

It’s only a couple of weeks ago that the world was celebrating the arrival of the child of Kate and William. But we have to contend with the grim truth that the royal couple offered just one image of parenthood. Luczak offers a horrifying contrast. Should it be proven that Cowell is indeed the father of Lauren Silverman’s child, he won’t conform to either image. He will, we presume, be an absentee dad, who supports his child with several million dollars per year and, we expect, take no active involvement in the nurture of his offspring.

Cowell will be attacked for this, of course. But it strikes me as an honest approach. If the man seriously feels no paternal tendencies or inclinations and thinks a child will interfere with the lifestyle he currently enjoys, why even contemplate trying to involve him in the life of his child? It sounds a perverse question; but surely the child will be better off with one loving parent than a mother who cares and a father who is, at best, indifferent.

Will Russia welcome gay footballers?

How many openly gay footballers will play in the 2018 World Cup? Some of you won’t hesitate: “None.” Considering Justin Fashanu was for long the only gay player to come out (under pressure from the media), it’s a fair prediction. But Robbie Rogers’ decision to continue his playing career with Los Angeles Galaxy and thus become the only out gay professional play to come out during, as opposed to after, his active playing career might start a trend.

At the age of 26, the American Rogers announced his retirement from football when he left Leeds United in February and returned home. Then he had a change of heart and began playing in for the Galaxy. Now, he has resumed training in LA and has started playing again in the new Major League Soccer season.  “For whatever reason, I don’t think fans in England or fans in the UK are homophobic at all. They are just so passionate they will do anything to help their team get a little bit of an edge,” said Rogers shortly before he left Leeds. “The things they will say in a stadium does not reflect their character. But they take it just a little bit overboard sometimes. I learned that while I was in England.”

He is right: research I’ve done with Jamie Cleland reveals that football fans are not homophobic; in fact, they’d support openly gay players – as long as they performed well on the field. As one fan told us: “I’d rather have a gay player who can play than a straight player who can’t.” It sums up perfectly fans’ attitudes towards players’ sexual preferences: they don’t care. The main and only consideration is whether the player can play football.

Presuming Rogers doesn’t encounter the kind of hostility predicted by many, including publicist Max Clifford who in 2009 advised gay players to stay in the closet because football “remains in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia,” how will it affect football’s cultural landscape? Some might argue Rogers is irrelevant now he’s playing in a football backwater rather than the European leagues. After all Anton Hysen’s decision to come out while playing for Utsiktens BK in the minor semi-pro leagues of Sweden in front of a two or three hundred people, didn’t spur other gay players to come out. Rogers is a fulltime professional and will be playing in front of MLS’s biggest crowds: Galaxy averaged just under 22,000 last season.

Hundreds of gay football players around the world are watching the reaction to Rogers with interest. If he doesn’t have to walk the gauntlet, as some expect, he will probably inspire others to follow his example – which is why I ask my original question: how many players will be at the 2018 World Cup? The tournament is to be hosted by Russia, a country that has over the past few weeks introduced a gay “propaganda” law that effectively bans discussion and displays of “non-traditional” relationships around minors. Under the law, it is illegal even to talk about homosexuality around minors or display gay pride symbols like a rainbow flag. Violators face steep fines and jail time. Visitors face similar penalties plus deportation. Next year’s Winter Olympics are due to be held in Sochi, a port in southwestern Russia.

Homosexuality was illegal in Russia during the Soviet Union era and only decriminalized in 1993.  Last week when faced with the possibility of a boycott, Russia hurriedly modified the new law. “The Olympic Games is a major international event. We need to be as polite and tolerant as possible. That is why a decision has been made not to raise this issue during the Olympics,” said Igor Ananskikh, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Physical Culture, Sport and Youth Policy Committee. In other words, it seems the law will be suspended for the duration of the Winter Olympics.

But what will happen in five years? Another temporary suspension may not satisfy a sport, which has championed inclusiveness and tolerance. By then, the World Cup will have already been held in Brazil, and be looking forward to the 2022 tournament in Qatar, a country with stringent prohibitions on homosexuality. By then Rogers will be a historical figure, but perhaps an influential one: who knows how many gay players he will have inspired to declare themselves to be gay? My guess is that will be enough to force Russia into another climbdown.