England’s Football Association is no moral authority, but their desire to be one has put them in a terrible situation, as illustrated by today’s charge against Rio Ferdinand.
The Manchester United defender is facing FA sanction for a Twitter comment that labels Chelsea defender Ashley Cole as “Choc Ice”. Ferdinand didn’t say it (another user did), but he signed off on it when asked to confirm the label (if you want a U.S.-equivalent of the term, think “oreo”).
Let’s for a moment put aside the allegation, charge, and facts of the incident. Let’s instead look at what the FA had created. England’s governing body is trying to control how English soccer is presented, admonishing players when their public statements place the game in a bad light. The intent is good, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making themselves into arbiters of what constitutes bad language.
John Terry’s alleged words were pretty clear cut. They were horrible. Luis Suarez’s, far less so, but the intent (and number of times he said it) was still there. Rio Ferdinand’s mistake has The FA interpreting pop culture slang. It’s far less cut and dry.
It’s also unclear Ferdinand is saying anything racist as much as it is uncomfortable. If “Choc Ice” is meant to be used like “oreo,” it’s not saying one race is this and another is that. It’s implying people of the same race should share allegiances. Cole siding with Terry over Anton Ferdinand in a racially-charged dispute means, on the inside, he’s more like Terry. It’s more tribal than racial. Tribalism’s nothing to be proud of, either, but it’s also not what The FA’s trying to police.
The most disturbing part of this is the FA unintentionally appropriating language from a minority group. The Football Association, in charging Ferdinand, are setting their own definition of “Choc Ice” and using its power to enforce it. They, as the enfranchised group, are taking the language of a minority – of somebody or a group that has less power in society – and saying how it can and can’t be used.
This is the dangerous situation. By trying to clean up speech, the FA have created a textbook scenario illustration of why we need a very liberal interpretation of free speech. Is all speech good? Of course not. But who can enforce the standards? Those in power can’t be allowed to move the goalposts on free speech as it serves their momentary wants, no matter the altruism behind those wants.
And the FA does seem to be trying to do the right thing here. They charged Suarez. They charged Terry. They have to charge Ferdinand, right? It’s only fair, and least in terms of perception.
I don’t think so. There is something very unsettling about the FA jumping into this one. The confluence of power, interpretation and the tweeter’s vague intent make this very murky water. And you won’t want murky water when an empowered group is trying to enforce new standards, especially where race is in play.