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June 30, 2014

Football: It’s Time to Check the Privilege!

Part 1 by Alexandra Schwell

Football’s Dark Side: Corruption, Homophobia, Violence and Racism in the Beautiful Game” – this is the title of a new book written by Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland. The authors contend that “Football may yet be the last major sport to boast that it harbours no prejudices”. However, they say, it “stands to reason that in a sport played by about 200,000 professionals, only a few have declared themselves to be gay”. Hence they conclude: “It can be reasonably assumed that football is a prohibitive environment for gay people”.

To be clear, Cashmore and Cleland are not accusing football of being an extraordinary homophobic, racist, or violent sport when compared to other sports, such as boxing. If we share the view that the social forces and power that create the distribution of economic, cultural, and social capital, and thus opportunities within society, come to the fore and are negotiated in football, then we should take a look at how this wider society links to the activity around and on the football pitch.

Let us take a random, but rather recent, example: In November 2013 a teacher in Baden-Württemberg, Germany launched an online petition and attempted to obtain enough signatures to oppose the ministry of education’s 2015 state curriculum. The new and highly contested curriculum includes a controversial section, which requires that the schools are expected to advance their pupils’ understanding of “gender diversity” across all disciplines.

At first sight the new curriculum appears to be natural for an open and pluralistic democratic society and not worth mentioning any further, but in reality it was met with overwhelming opposition and sparked unexpected hatred. The online petition: “Future – Responsibility – Learning: No Curriculum 2015 under the Ideology of the Rainbow” opposed the curriculum for a number of reasons. For example, the petition claimed that the curriculum downplays negative by-products of, what they call, an LGBT lifestyle. The alleged by-products include: risk of suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse and HIV, a lower life expectancy and a higher risk of mental illness. The petition claimed that the propagation of sexual deviance put heterosexual genders and relationships in danger.

These claims are not the opinion of a negligibly small number of conservative church-regulars. The petition received 192,448 signatories. Sometimes such attitudes result in severe consequences for the persons concerned: a survey conducted last year among LGBT persons by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that nearly half of all respondents feel discriminated against (Germany: 48%). 26% of which had experienced bodily or verbal violence within the last five years.

Why does a heteronormative majority feel under siege? Why is it that struggle for recognition, equal opportunities, and equal rights almost automatically triggers a defence reaction on the part of the privileged ones? Ones who strangely argue that tolerance only seems to apply to minorities and that the disadvantaged majority end up paying a higher price.

Sometimes, to see something clearer, it helps to change the perspective. This past spring a young Princeton student, Tal Fortgang, wrote an article for the Princeton Tory, which was taken up by Time Magazine: “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege”:

“’Check your privilege,’ they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.”

Fortgang is fed up with having to constantly apologize for being a white male (and heterosexual, one is tempted to add) to people who, in his mind, rely on their being “different” to gain advantages and special treatment while constantly accusing him of his position in the social strata – not unlike many signatories of the petition.

Fortgang does as he is told and checks his privilege. He tells us the story of his grandfather in occupied Poland, of forced labour in Siberia, of many members of his family being shot or killed in Nazi concentration camps. He tells a story of poor Jewish migrants coming to the US lacking language skills, but saving every penny to send their kids to good schools. He then asks us:

“Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?”

Tal Fortgang is not responsible for white male superiority in the US (and elsewhere), and likewise white heterosexual men and women in Austria and Germany cannot be held accountable for dominant heteronormativity. Yet, both groups typically fail to recognize structural inequalities that cannot be covered by (often, like in Fortgang’s case, admittedly tragic) individual histories.

So the next time when you are checking your privilege, also check how many times you were not stopped-and-searched by the police because of your skin colour. Check many times you entered a shop or fancy club without others suspiciously watching you. Check how many times your application was not moved to the “reject” pile because of your name or your photo. Check how many times you were not rejected from donating blood. Check how many times you did not have to lie to friends, families, employers and landlords when asked about your boyfriend/girlfriend. Check how many times you did not have to accept losses due to unfavourable tax regulations that deny you fiscal benefits, besides your civil union. Check your privilege when you have no problems planning to adopt a child, or you are not an asylum seeker facing deportation.

A commentator to Fortgang’s essay wrote: “Young man, if you honestly think this country doesn’t care about religion or race, then you are privileged”. It is obvious that we can easily insert any European country here and add homosexuality to the list. Coming back to the beginning of the post: what does all of this have to do with football? Nina Szogs will give the answer and more in part two of this post.

Alexandra Schwell

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