Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Politics Of Sport - The English Football Hero

By Shane Thomas

"I do love his [Jamie Vardy's] story – in 2012 he was playing for Fleetwood Town in the Conference, so far he’s the leading scorer in the Premier League this season... As football itself becomes more and more predictable; as the unraveling of the powers-that-be who have profited from the game at the expense of the game; a story like Vardy’s is great."

"Wait, sorry. I forgot. It doesn’t matter what any footballer does off the pitch as long as he performs on it. How silly of me."
Two separate quotes that should be about the same player, but aren't. They come courtesy of Andrew Mangan, better known to the denizens of #footballtwitter as @arseblog.

For clarity's sake, I haven't referenced these quotes so that people can summarily give him grief on Twitter. Being a fellow Gooner, I'm a regular reader of his work, which I largely enjoy. I mention them because they encapsulate the consensus opinion around Leicester City's Jamie Vardy, a consensus that is a little disconcerting. This problem here isn't @arseblog, but English football.

As Jamie Vardy ended yet another Premier League weekend with a goal, and a likely starting place in England's next two friendlies against Spain and France, he's become the most heartening story of the season to many.

And it's easy to see why. Currently the Premier League's top goalscorer, he's netted in nine consecutive matches - in sight of Ruud Van Nistelrooy's record of scoring in 10 sequential games - as Leicester have had an astonishing start to the season, and is now a regular member of the England squad (albeit one beset by injuries) with a realistic chance of going to Euro 2016 next summer.

This rapid rise has been given special attention due to Vardy's unorthodox path to success. Being released from Sheffield Wednesday at 16, he bounced around non-league clubs: Stockbridge Park Steels; Halifax Town; and finally Fleetwood Town, before getting a move to Leicester when they were in the Championship.

And while history may remember this differently, Vardy was not a player who simply needed a break to show his talent. His first three seasons were pretty inauspicious, so much so that he even considered quitting the game. It wasn't until he produced some useful displays in the early period of last season that he looked like a player able to perform in the Premier League.

However, not even clairvoyance of the highest order could have prognosticated his stunning form this season. So, why do I sound so mean-spirited? What's the downside in a guy, who once had to work a physically demanding job as a carbon-fibre technician, thriving on such a gilded stage?

To understand why, you have to understand the chief appeal of Vardy. It's "his story". The tale of a guy who, to paraphrase Drake, "started from the bottom, now he's"... well, you know how the song goes. But while this story is uplifting, it's not the whole story.

In the embryonic stages of the new season, it emerged that earlier this summer Vardy racially abused an East Asian man in a casino. Vardy subsequently apologised, was fined by Leicester, and put on a diversity awareness programme. He was also reprimanded by the FA, as this incident became public knowledge during the selection of an England squad.

But while Vardy was rebuked, he was still selected for the squad (with Neil Custis seemingly a lone voice in the English press to decry this), and his ensuing goalscoring exploits have rendered this racist incident largely forgotten in conversations around the game[1].

I initially saw this as a clear case of white privilege. And while I still think this, I'm also pondering additional factors, such as the lopsided scales of sporting justice when one is particularly productive on the field of play. This isn't a new observation; one only needs to see how Greg Hardy remains an employable NFL player to observe such thinking in action.

But I suspect the reason that Vardy is liked by so many - even those who aren't Leicester supporters - is because of the type of player he is. His most discernible strengths are his pace and indefatigable work rate. It would be simplistic to say that's all he can do, but those qualities are ones that not only stand out, but appeal to the psyche of British football, its fans, and its commentariat.

He embodies a yeoman mindset that is omnipresent in British football culture. Despite the increasing influence of other nations in the Premier League, our football - indeed, much of our sport - is most comfortable with lionising the physical over the aesthetic, the robust over the elegant. A space where "men" act like "men".

In addition, his pathway touches on a bootstrap mentality inherent in the neoliberalism that pervades the Premier League. The seductive idea that anyone can make it to the game's summit with hard work and more hard work, yet fails to comprehend that Vardy is an exception, not the rule.

It's in this specific type of working-class tale, where Vardy's race becomes germane. While our national sport is a rare avenue for black men to attain a level of affluence, it would be erroneous to think it's a racially equitable place. Not just in the individual instances of racism, but in our football media, our coaches, and how crowds largely consist of white faces (which intersects with class as well as race) that pass by without comment.

This desire to find salt-of-the-earth icons is understandable, but such a description is rarely ascribed to black footballers. Industry, resilience, and determination can only ostensibly be found in white, English players.

In addition, while Vardy's actions in the footage of his racist abuse will draw your focus, watch the people around him. Nobody does a thing to try and prevent Vardy's invective[2]. The woman sitting next to him is smiling throughout it all. It's an object lesson in how racism functions as a societal norm.

None of this means that Vardy isn't capable of bettering himself as a person, the way he's done as a footballer. One hopes his apology was genuine, although it should be noted that his contrition only came after the casino incident made the news - about a month after the event. Was he only sorry because he got caught?

I've no quarrel with Vardy being given the latitude to make amends for these actions, but we should be cognisant that such licence has only been granted because of what he represents. The singular narrative of him as this working-class hero made good reinforces the problems within the game when his on-pitch achievements are allowed to supersede his ugly behaviour.

There's few things better than a good sports story. But we should never let our desire for that get in the way of the truth.

[1] - I should also mention that Vardy has a previous conviction for assault. However, I would caution against using this to upbraid him. Vardy states that the assault was as a consequence of two men being ableist towards a friend of his who wears a hearing aid. While I don't endorse Vardy's violent reaction towards these men, it's a reaction I can empathise with, and given that his earlier job as a technician was making aids for disabled people, I find it easy to give credence to his recanting of the incident.

[2] – The "bystander effect". It's everywhere.

This piece was first published on Think Football.

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