One of the reasons I read The Times newspaper (although it frequently infuriates me and I constantly think about having an affair with some other paper) is the writing of the journalist, Simon Barnes. He is the Chief Sports writer for the newspaper, but also writes on his love of bird watching and a variety of other subjects, including his son who has Downs Syndrome.
Simon Barnes is what people now refer snootily to as a “prose stylist”. His words have a cleansing, Alpine purity and yet he is not afraid to exercise language and metaphor in order to create vivid sporting images. He has the ability to take foreign subjects and through the written word, make the reader believe that the alien sport he is surveying is also within their mental apprehension. Not only that, through his incisive analysis, the reader believes that sport has a meaning and value beyond mere distraction. This, in the sociologist, Peter Berger's famous phrase, is sport as "a signal of transcendence"
It is because Simon Barnes considers sport to be a human virtue, that he also recognises its vices. His latest article, No masking football’s ability to up the anti (29 October 2010), considers the relationship between racist, neo-Nazi organisations (in this case, the English Defence League, EDL) and football. He writes:
It’s always football. Whenever you follow the more grotesque forms of politics, you end up on the road that leads back to football. As I read the disquieting interview with Stephen Lennon, founder of the English Defence League in The Times this week, so I waited for the moment when we came up against football.
It happened in the sixth paragraph, with the information that Lennon is banned from going to matches at Luton Town as part of his bail conditions, after being charged with affray and assault after two separate incidents. The EDL, I learnt, began with Luton supporters handing out leaflets that read “Ban the Luton Taleban”.
Barnes thinks there are a number of reasons why football attracts such degenerate, disordered social views. “The politics of violent intolerance traditionally does best among working-class youth,” he observes, “particularly when they can be separated from older people and from women”.
The first part of this statement seems uncontroversial to me. The pale faced youths on the crumbling terraces of the 1970’s and '80's were the obvious recruits for the National Front. They were susceptible to the rhetoric of the far right. “Some people say we’re racists. We’re not racists. We’re realists,” says the character Lenny in Shane Meadows 2006 film, This is England, “Some people call us Nazis. We're not Nazis. No, what we are, we are nationalists and there's a reason people try to pigeonhole us like this. And that is because of one word, gentlemen - Fear.”
It is Barnes’s contention that when men (especially, young, impressionable men) are separated from the elderly and from women, their ideas become more easily manipulated. When ageing (with all its frailties, experiences and sense of approaching death) and the feminine are marginalised, men become more vulnerable to a distorting machismo that often finds expression in a brutal herd mentality.
“In a footballing context, jocose bigotry is socially and morally acceptable”, writes Barnes, “In football, it is perfectly acceptable to be illogical and absurd in the name of loyalty...When you turn to football, you are entitled to let your sense of fairness and common sense – almost your humanity – take a holiday. Tottenham Hotspur can hate arsenal and Arsenal can hate Tottenham and Everton can hate Liverpool and everybody can hate United....When the precariously maintained joke of rivalry and hatred becomes something people actually believe in, the madness begins.”
If this is true of football, then, perhaps, it is true of other collectives where men and testosterone predominate? I don’t know what the social theorists would say about this and I'm not entirely convinced by this suspicion. Nevertheless, as I looked out at my congregation this Sunday morning, the sight of young men alongside women and the elderly felt kind of healthy and reassuring.