When Henry Winter won an award at the £50-a-ticket black tie Football Supporters' Federation, he said it was the fans' and readers' responsibility to hold him to account. Henry is big on morals, after all. He was quick to condemn Luis Suarez when it became apparent that he had racially abused Patrice Evra. On 4 January 2012 he wrote, 'He needs to apologise to Evra.' That's admirably straightforward from Winter. Reflecting the obvious conclusion of the investigation into Suarez, he rightly identified that, 'The word "negro" is utterly unacceptable. Even one mention is one too many.'
Winter asks us to keep him honest. Last summer, Luis Suarez said that he wanted to leave Liverpool because of the English media. Now, we could take him at his word, or we could wonder how Arsenal were notified about a potential release clause - which resulted in Arsenal traducing their superficial commitment to community, one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in London - and conclude he really just wanted Champions League football.
In response to that, and rumours linking Suarez to a move to Real Madrid, Winter was viscerally moved by Suarez's regular transgressions. This was at a time when Suarez was still serving a ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic, so it wasn't hard to reach for distaste. On 8 August 2013, Winter called Suarez, 'toxic,' and referred to his incomplete charge sheet, including, 'racist abuse.'
This doesn't entirely match up with the tone of a Winter column on 15 December 2011, where he gave a sympathetic one-sided account of the affair, presumably because of the access Liverpool had granted. Winter obviously asks to be kept on the straight and narrow by other people as he is clearly unable to do it himself.
From the moment Luis Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra until at the very earliest, 8 August 2013, Winter had not forgotten Suarez was a racist. He had not forgotten that he needed to apologise to the man he had racially abused in order to begin genuine rehabilitation. Suarez should have been, 'called into account for shaming [Liverpool]', an unapologetic racist.
Here is a photo of Henry Winter standing happily next to Luis Suarez at the FSF award, where he made that request.
Standing next to the man that he called toxic, that he carefully noted had not apologised for racially abusing another man, who was, 'loathed,' in English football. You would expect, if he were keeping himself honest, that he would have the integrity to mark this event with some kind of challenge of the man. Instead, Winter chose another angle:
'Fair play to Luis Suarez,' he began. Continuing his article, he wrote, 'Suárez must have felt after all the criticism he has received that this was a night of acceptance, of redemption.' Referring to the atmosphere when he wanted to leave Anfield, Winter changed his sense of the event, calling it a, 'brief outrage.' He concluded his report on the night with a damning conclusion of Suarez, noting, 'Just after 9pm, Suárez caught the last train back to Liverpool from Euston. He made many friends. At 8pm, Suarez had the organisers at the Emirates announce that he was staying to the last moment and anyone wanting a photograph or chat "should come to table 11". Fair play to Suárez.'
From sympathetic, to toxic to fair play, all in a bit more than a year. There was no mention of the lack of apology for racist abuse by Suarez in the final column.
At The Daily Mirror, John Cross was wondering at the same time, 'Can we learn to love Luis Suarez as well as appreciate his talent? If so, give him the Player of the Year gongs now.' and also waxed plaintively, 'Luis Suarez went back to Liverpool Sunday night, returned to London just for a few hours on Monday night to get his FSF award. Great gesture.' It was a great gesture, but still no sign of remorse for that less-than-great gesture towards Evra.
It's not just Winter at the Telegraph. Freelance writer Kristian Walsh's response when the Evra controversy broke, was to inform his Twitter followers, 'Patrice Evra has accused racism of three players before today. All three have been cleared.' Which is in fact totally untrue. Evra had until that point accused no players of racism, ever. When he did, Suarez, he was found to have transgressed.
Jonathan Northcroft, of The Sunday Times began his interview with Suarez by telling him he might be voting for him as player of the year, and praised him thus: 'The past and the persona Suarez occasionally adopts when his blood's up and he's trying almost anything to win a game would not stop me voting him player of the year.' That persona, of course, is the one that racially abused a man. Given the start of the article said that Northcroft wasn't 'in his camp' over the Evra debacle, he can't claim to be unaware of it. But he didn't ask him a single question about the lack of apology.
Another Times writer, Rory Smith, wrote for a Liverpool online fanzine, The Anfield Wrap, 'On the surface, for all the investigation that had gone into it, it was simply one man's word against another,' from which many would infer that he had his suspicions about the findings, especially given that enquiry found it quite clearly was not one man's word against another.
Smith also wondered without coming to an explicit conclusion, whether Luis Suarez would ever be forgiven in an ESPN blog. He asked, ' how long is he to be punished for? Is using racist abuse now met with a life sentence? Does using a racist term once mean you are a racist forever? Is it fair to assume he is incapable of change?' To which the answers are a) until he says sorry b) a life sentence of being thought of as a racist until you demonstrate you think racism is bad, yes c) Yes, if you don't make amends and d) No, just unwilling.
Smith hasn't written anything hugely appalling on Suarez or Evra, merely skirted around the issue. But if someone has the opportunity to skirt around the issue, or to outrightly condemn for plainly being a racist, it's fairly obvious which is the course to take. That his two major contributions to the conversation don't convince in condemnation is the wider attitude football journalism has started to take.
Veering rightwards again, at the Daily Mail, Neil Ashton. He gushed over Suarez's ability, praising his 'attitude' and stating that this season his crime sheet was minimal this season. That's fine, if you regard the lack of apology for racism as something to skirt over, but we can't tell what Ashton thinks of racism.
Let's look at his opinion on John Terry. Terry, the man who called Anton Ferdinand a, 'f*****g black c**t,' in what Terry says was a sarcastic retort. Which beggars belief, but was enough to get him out of court and into an FA ban for the same action. Terry has not apologised to Anton Ferdinand.
If you were accused of calling a black man a, 'f*****g black c**t,' in the scenario Terry described, the correct response is, 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry. I really did not mean that. I am terribly sorry for making you think that and I will ensure that I never do it again or leave myself open to such an obvious interpretation in future.' Terry didn't do that, but he did quit the England team in a fit of pique over his treatment.
It's jarring to see Ashton - who praises Luis Suarez to the hilt despite his lack of apology for racially abusing Patrice Evra - ask that Terry - who hasn't apologised for saying, 'f*****g black c**t,' at Anton Ferdinand - be asked back into the England team.
It's not just Ashton who's gone weird on Terry. Even the usually excellent Daniel Taylor wondered if Terry might make a return to national service, and said, 'John Terry will always divide opinion. It has not always been easy to embrace him and it will never be straightforward campaigning on his behalf, so perhaps it is best to take personality out of it and just consider Terry the centre-half.' Is it best to ignore the personality of John Terry, when to paraphrase Chelsea fans, we know what he is? That doesn't seem to be sensitive to modern mores, and it is irresponsible not to judge him on his personality as well as his ability, at least until he makes amends for his errors. If Terry will not take responsibility for his actions, then it's up to the rest of us to do so.
Martin Samuel, another big beast of football, also has form. While you may remember him from such hits as making gay jokes about Joey Barton, you can also find him downplaying the Terry and Suarez abuses because they 'weren't for public consumption.' It might be worth pointing out that they were public enough for Evra and Ferdinand, and when Evra and Ferdinand stood up to their abusers, it was public enough for everyone else.
It's not just Nicolas Anelka, Suarez, and Terry. It's wider than that, as Gabriele Marcotti wrote in The Bliizard:
"And in our self-righteous glee at pillorying the racist chanters we often forget that. Those who engage in racist acts may be inveterate racists who are prejudiced and actively discriminate against those of a different skin colour. Or they may simply be people who do it to wind up opposing players or fans or to seek attention or to show how bad-ass they are, but, in real-life they are in no way prejudiced."
Deciding that racism in football grounds is not real life is not for Marcotti to decide. He might ask football fans of colour how real it needs to be before it's prejudiced. He might like to ask Patrice Evra, booed at every match he plays against Liverpool, whether this is real life discrimination, and if it feels in no way prejudiced.
None of these journalists are terrible people, but none of them have contributed to ending racism or unflinchingly challenged racism in their articles. They are not the only ones who made mistakes, or even necessarily made huge mistakes, and certainly not ones that many people will make themselves in the future, perhaps even today. But with great wordcounts comes great responsibility, and it's up to them to make sure they know exactly what they say will do to wider society. They've only been highlighted because they're so prominent, not because they are awful people. Far from it.
But these journalists have encouraged mealy-mouthed semantic debates to create an atmosphere where football fans - notably Liverpool fans - can create a sense of victimhood about Luis Suarez and his supporters. They've allowed John Terry to get away with it and they've denigrated the abuse suffered by Evra and Ferdinand by comparing it with Nicolas Anelka's equally awful gesture.
Today, when Luis Suarez says he's apologised for everything he needs to apologise for, now we know for a fact - as anyone with sense could tell all along - that he doesn't believe he's done anything wrong to Patrice Evra. He admitted the racial abuse in the hearing, so presumably he stands by his words and feels like he had done nothing wrong in doing so.
So, Luis Suarez does not, no, need to be forgiven. Football has not, no, rehabilitated Luis Suarez. Luis Suarez is not, no, either way, on a course of redemption or something other than toxic. Luis Suarez does not, no, deserve to be voted player of the year by anyone for what he does on the pitch. No, we cannot learn to love Luis Suarez. Racist abuse on the pitch is racist abuse in real life. Racist abuse to one man is racist abuse for public consumption. If you make it easy for someone who shows no regret, don't be surprised when he does it again, and don't be surprised if people hold you partly responsible for enabling it. Suarez is a proud man, and it's worth remembering in everything that is written about him what exactly he is proud of.