We’ve spent the last month enjoying the World Cup football championship in Russia, with billions of people across the planet watching each match on TV. A total of 3,496,000 watched the Croatia vs. England semi-final on Wednesday 11 July. There will be close to 5 million viewers for Sunday’s France vs. Croatia final.
As we watch, either from our living rooms or from our city’s main square, we rarely pay attention to the comments made by journalists during the match. For most viewers, the main thing is what happens in the arena. Before the football gladiators enter that arena, we see commercials from FIFA (the highest football body) promoting respect amongst players (and by extension amongst fans), offering a ‘Say no to racism’ slogan. Some matches even started with a photo of both teams aligned behind a large ‘Say no to racism’ banner.
I am myself a football fan and have systematically watched all World Cup championships since 1998. As a journalist and journalism lecturer, I also pay attention to the comments journalists make during the match. What struck me this time were the comments made by journalists and commentators that have a strong smell of racism.
Let’s consider the following case. When Colombia was playing Senegal, a commentator of the Dutch public broadcaster NPO1 pointed out the abundance of yellow in the stadium — by which he meant that there was an overwhelming number of Colombians who had travelled to Russia. Another commentator explained the reason for this: ‘You know…Pablo Escobar buried hundreds of millions of dollars everywhere in Colombia. He also buried a lot of coke. They have certainly exhumed that hidden treasury’. Is this an acceptable comment for a world event where ‘Say no to racism’ is being promoted? The slogan speaks to only literal ‘racism’, while the spirit should include all other harmful cousins, such as stereotyping. But millions of Dutch people – many of whom watched Narcos on Netflix – were implicitly being told that the French, the Japanese, and everybody else travelled to Russia using clean money, whereas the Colombians needed dirty money to do the same.
Another case concerns Malang Diedhiou, the Senegalese who refereed a few matches during the group phase. We all know that some referees ignore small fouls, whereas others whistle for relatively small pushing or pulling fouls. Malang Diedhiou seemed to belong to that category of referees who only blow the whistle for major fouls that obviously disrupt the game. The commentator on the same NPO1 channel kept reminding viewers that ‘the referee is from Africa, and in Africa they don’t consider pushing to be a foul’. Or, ‘Player X falls down thinking the referee is from Europe! He’s wrong, the Africans don’t whistle for that’. These remarks are disturbing. First, a Senegalese is being made to represent an entire continent — with his actions not considered personal, but instead an indicator of collective behavior. Secondly, the commentator mockingly sets the standard to be European, and the deviation to be African. I watched as referees from Asia, Latin America and elsewhere were heavily criticized for missing the most obvious fouls, none of whom were ever spoken of as representative of an entire group of people or a continent.
These are just two cases, although I expect there are many that escaped my attention. They all may seem innocent, as the tone is light and no one can prove that a commentator came with the intention to stereotype a Colombian or an African. However, the harm they cause is enormous, particularly because they emerge in a soft and implicit way. They are not part of an argument. They are insidious, presented to you when you are less critical and less vigilant (because the attention is entirely on football). They creep in where they are least expected, and the listener most vulnerable.
This is soft racism, but it is still racism. Perhaps it’s time for journalism associations and media organizations to start their own ‘Say no to soft racism’ campaign.