Sunday, February 19, 2012


As CWS foreign correspondent (that is, me wearing a beret) reports, last weekend was the first meeting for Manchester United and Liverpool since their match on October 15, 2011- which, as EPL watchers know, was punctuated when ManU left back Patrice Evra accused Liverpool forward Luis Suarez of racially abusing him throughout the match. Suarez denied it, but was suspended for 8 games anyway.

Last week, when the clubs met again. Ever ManU/Liverpool game is closely watched as this is a big rivalry, but the racial incident was certainly on everyone's mind. Evra and Suarez lined up for the traditional pre-game handshake...and Suarez refused to shake Evra's hand. Very publicly, very dramatically. You can see it here. See? KABOOM.

It's very odd to me to see an athlete intentionally and publicly extend a controversy like that. I know that this is a complicated situation- race is at the heart of it, and Suarez is Uruguayan, Evra is a black frenchman, they both play for an English soccer league- there's a lot of moving parts. But still, most athletes just want to put stuff like this behind them, and I don't understand why Suarez would be any different.

I wonder if sports aren't making an already frought situation more complicated. The hands-down worst aspect of sports is how tribal it can get. Ty Cobb can spike another player, Michael Jordan can invent entire fictional backstories to make guys out to be jerks, a bunch of pricks can attack Bryan Stowe, and Canucks fans can start a riot, and on some level, it's all explained by the fact that sports created this heightened emotional state and the obvious conflict. It's way too easy for the other team and the other fans to just become The Other- and from there, you can justify almost anything.

To bring this back to Suarez, ManU and Liverpool are major rivals, and the EPL isn't entirely known for having a laid back attitude about rivalry games. The players had spent most of the previous days studying how to beat each other, and right at the moment Suarez and Evra were to shake hands, the teams were on the verge of a grueling, 90 minute physical conflict with each other. Emotionally speaking, that's a very hard time to show even a minor act of contrition.

None of which is to excuse Suarez; we're all expected to control our emotions, and if an athlete really has a problem with another, he's wiser to channel that into his action on the pitch. My point is only that this might explain Suarez' behavior; even if he was able to put aside the tribal instincts of racial abuse, well, he was in the thrawl of another tribe, too; his team.

Soccer heavily promotes itself as a tolerant, diverse game. It has some right to do so (stories like this rather convince me, at least). To a large extent, the pitch can be a refuge to ethnic, racial, and nationalistic strife. But we need to recognize- and let's let the Suarez/Evra conflict remind us of this- that sports only have a limited utility in solving such conflicts. Indeed, there's a real danger that sports just exchange one conflict for another, and the other may be little better.

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