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Motson in a hole
By Apollo Latham
The fact that John Motson has difficulty telling black players apart won't come as much of a shock to anyone who's watched Match of the Day in the last twenty years. Nor will his insistence that there's nothing offensive in his comments surprise him or anyone that's observed match commentators' attitudes. Yet this shouldn't just be passed off as a politically correct silly story, a tale of how even fair-minded people are being prevented these days from speaking their minds, but, with a bit of luck, it should finally cause some in the BBC to try to re-examine their attitudes.

For starters, although it's unlikely that black players are going to march on Broadcasting House, the implication of his comments, i.e. that black players look the same or at least are harder to tell apart than white players, is offensive. If a black commentator (not that there are any) said a similar thing about white players, they would be seen as deliberately provocative and they'd probably have to resign. What's more serious than his words though is the evident scale of his problem - he genuinely can't tell the difference between black players who don't even look similar, such as Ian Wright and Kevin Campbell. This has been obvious for a while, and you have to wonder how he's got to be Britain's leading commentator with this handicap. Although he says "it's the same as when there are a lot of brown-haired players", I've never known him mix up brown-haired players the way he consistently does black players. It does seem that his problem is that he sees black before he sees the person.

"Race only becomes an issue when people make it an issue", said John Motson on the radio this morning, in his own defence. This is an interesting statement, as it was he that raised the issue of race in response to an innocent enough question about recognising players. That aside though, this again reflects the establishment view that complaining about racism is somehow "bad form", that we're none of us racists, some of our best friends are black, so there's no need for people to start agitating. This is partly why so few players complain about racism, as they know it will entail more grief for them than for the perpetrator, as we saw with the Ian Wright-Schmeichel incident.

The best illustration of attitudes to racism is the issue of racist chanting. Until three or four years ago, this was dealt with by commentators shamefully ignoring it and players saying "I don't let it bother me" if asked, which they rarely were. Condemnation, if any, was of the form, "Isn't it silly to boo them when they've players like X,Y and Z in their own team." This was well-intentioned enough, but made the mistake of dividing the entire population into fanatical white supremacists and an enlightened remainder who treated everyone equally. This suited most people who could usually demonstrate they weren't in the former group, and so thought they'd proved they were in the latter. Since they themselves demonstrably weren't racists, moreover, nothing they said could be racist. Hence John Motson's confusion. But the racist chanters weren't all card-carrying Nazis, just people who thought racial abuse was comparable to the various other forms of abuse hurled at players and therefore acceptable.

Racist chanting of course, despite some excellent work by supporters' organisations, only really attracted media disapproval when it affected a white man, Cantona. One can only imagine the reaction if Ian Wright had behaved that way, but Cantona managed to tap into a well of sympathy after his incident (though whether a French person being called "French" really compares to the ritualised monkey chanting and bananas of the '80s, I leave for the reader to judge). Now of course, rather than being ignored, the problem is sufficiently sporadic that commentators, journalists, players and the FA are all boldly prepared to stand up and say it should be removed. Gee, thanks.

But at least the media were never openly racist, and some time ago the old stereotypes about not being able to tackle etc disappeared. Of course, when it comes to questioning a player's temperament, or work-rate, or finding a scapegoat, the black players are still usually the first in line, but apart from that and the odd jibe about hairstyles, and Motty's eyesight problems, there's not too much to complain about at the domestic level. (We're not dealing with Asian football, then? - Ed)

However, there's a World Cup coming up. Let's hope that for once we're spared the usual mixture of outdated stereotypes that is passed off as football commentary. Is there anywhere else on terrestrial TV that the routine denigration of almost every other nationality according to cartoon stereotypes would be allowed? The usual lazy talk of latin temperaments, Teutonic efficiency and the way that they speak about sub-Saharan African teams as if a team of 10 year-olds had been allowed to compete in the tournament (naive, enthusiastic, easily over-excited, didn't they do well) is bad enough - I'm already cringing in anticipation of the coverage of Jamaica's matches.

However the worst aspect of World Cup coverage is undoubtedly the way they talk about referees. At least with players, they don't make bland assumptions about all things British being superior, but overseas referees get a pasting they'd never give an English ref, with almost every comment a reference to their nationality ("they've got some funny rules in Bongabongaland if that's a corner, Brian"). This is most noticeable in the way they moan about too many bookings in every single game until David Elleray comes on and books all 22 players, the subs, the managers and half the crowd in the first ten minutes, to general approval.

While, I'm on the subject of commentators, am I the only one getting sick of the phrase "the likes of", usually used in completely inappropriate places. This phrase is applied particularly to Chelsea's substitutes, by which "the likes of Zola and Vialli" means Zola, Vialli, and three uncapped youth team players. Mark Lawrenson (who else?) took this idiocy to new heights when he referred to a team not having anyone "like the likes of Paul Ince". Dear, oh dear. And don't get me started on the endemic mis-use of the word fortuitous.

Sorry, I lost it there for a minute. To sum up, the BBC have got to realise that it's not enough to make the right noises on an issue, usually years too late and in a manner that suggests they still think they're going out on a limb. It's time that people whose comments go out to millions started to think about the implications of what they say.