The Context of Offensive Comments

In May 2016, the Football Association asked striker Eni Aluko to take part in a cultural review as an “iconic England player”.

During that review, and subsequently, two instances have emerged of alleged racism and bullying within the England camp and specifically from the women’s team manager Mark Sampson.

There is more to the story than this.  Sampson has been cleared by two reviews in to the allegations.  Aluko was paid £80,000 by the FA and signed a confidentiality agreement in relation to the allegations.  She was also top scorer in the women’s Super League and featured in the Professional Footballers’ Association women’s Team of the Year, but was not part of the England squad that reached the semi-finals of the European Championship after that.

It would certainly appear that there is something wrong there.

Matthew Syed wrote an article for The Times (behind a paywall, so no direct link is possible) today discussing the case, running broadly along the lines that in the modern age of Twitter, everyone can be outraged and that seemingly innocuous comments can be taken out of context to allege something that was not intended.

Needless to say, Twitter was outraged.

The two instances that Aluko has spoken about are these, according to an interview with The Guardian:

It was a midfielders’ meeting. I was not in that meeting but the player in question has confirmed it and I have records of our conversation on the day the comment was made. We have spoken about it many times – that they were talking about the game, about pressing, when Mark Sampson made an analogy about getting a caution, like a police caution. Mark then addressed her individually and said: ‘You’ve been arrested before, haven’t you? Four times, isn’t it?’ He didn’t say it to anybody else. It was said to her alone, the only mixed-race player in the room. Every other player was white. She confirmed she felt extremely uncomfortable. I believe that question was directed towards her because she’s mixed race. And I also believe he has made comments to me that, again, have been because of race.

We were in the hotel before the Germany game [in November 2014]. Everybody was excited. It was a big game. On the wall there was a list of the family and friends who were coming to watch us and I just happened to be next to Mark. He asked me if I had anyone who would be there and I said I had family coming over from Nigeria. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Nigeria? Make sure they don’t bring Ebola with them.’

The crux of Syed’s article was that he knew Mark Sampson and believes him to be a decent guy and not to be rascist.  Therefore, the two instances outlined by Aluko were taken in a way that they were not intended or that they should be forgivable as one off transgressions.  Twitter’s outrage was at Syed’s perceived naivety; that single comments in isolation, and two comments over that period of time, mean that he is rascist and that it is bullying.

Other users pointed to Sampson being in a position of authority by virtue of him being the team manager.  They also pointed to him being male and the players involved being female.  With this in mind but also far more generally, the first instance when talking about a player’s arrest would appear to be poor management at best and bullying at worst whatever the rest of the circumstances are.

But where does this leave “context”?  For a second, strip out everything except for the two comments that caused offence.

You’ve been arrested before, haven’t you? Four times, isn’t it?

Nigeria? Make sure they don’t bring Ebola with them.

Just read those comments again with as little prejudice as you can muster.  They aren’t rascist.  I could argue that they aren’t even bullying when standing on their own, although that is moot around the first comment, I agree.  It’s unclear from everything I’ve read whether the player had been arrested and, perhaps more importantly, whether all the others in the room hadn’t.  Nigeria was suffering an Ebola outbreak at the time of the other comment.  I think I’d even said something to similar to someone going on holiday to Brazil when Zika was prevalent, but they were white and male and it was a throw away comment taken that way.

Now let’s role the context back in.  Even Aluko confirms that context is important:

I believe that question was directed towards her because she’s mixed race. And I also believe he has made comments to me that, again, have been because of race.

How much context is important though? There’s a legal principle called the Eggshell Skull Rule.  I remember it as the phrase, “take your victim as you find them”.  In other words, it is not a defence to the damage caused that the victim was particularly and overly susceptible to that damage.  It provides, in essence, that circumstances don’t matter.

By extension, then, could we not say that the context of an comment is immaterial if someone found it offensive or racist?

It’s a logic that works on paper but not so much, I fear, in real life.  Try as hard as we may not to do it, we’ve all offended someone at some point.  It may not have been on our intention, we may not know that we’ve done it and it may only happen infrequently and so it would be unfair to take those points and give someone a negative reputation because of it.  Going back to examples roughly related to football, the best players in the world have missed penalties, misplaced passes and miskicked the ball.

It doesn’t make them bad players.  We know in the context of their overall careers that they’re amongst the best there is.

Personally, I believe that context is everything, and if we cause offence then it’s in the interest of both parties to understand that context and work through it.  But then I live in an ideal world.

At night when the voices that come
And flame flows through the woods along the wall
We have nothing left to say

Because we use some terrible words
To get such subtle rewards
That never seem worth it too me
They say the older we are, we can’t change
And I say, that all that we are
Is just dark matter anyway, so just pray…
With me.

You and I keep falling further away
It’s become our ritual
We stare like strangers through each other in to the wall…

And you say, when your knives and your nails come unfurled
From the caged theoretical storms that mean nothing
But they go straight through me
’cause we use some terrible words
Which always sends me crippled in to flying

You say it’s not too late, we can change.
And I say, hurry up, help me touch the ground tonight.
Say the words.

You and I keep falling further away
It’s become our ritual
We stare like strangers straight through each other in to the wall…
You and I keep falling further away
It’s become our ritual
We stare like strangers straight through each other in to the wall…

Do you ever think you could erase the things I’ve said?
The bitter words that drip from wounds, inside your head.
I wanna see the blood rush back in to your face.
The last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt you this way

Ritual by Ashes Divide

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