I’m going to do the opposite of ‘virtue signaling’ (the cover-all insult du jour) here. I’m going to signal my own complicity, duplicity, hypocrisy and all-round cowardice.
Our story begins on Saturday, when I caught a train to a stadium in my own city to cover a rugby league game for the first time in two years.
With the regular reporter off sick, I was to write a match report for London Broncos versus Salford Red Devils at Ealing Trailfinders – and pick up any news that was kicking around – for the Monday magazine, League Weekly.
Normally, I am to be found in the bar at Trailfinders, not the press box.
But they say reporting is like riding a bike. Anyone who has ever covered a game with me will be able to tell you I’m the ultimate Mr Bean-style bumbler. It kind of goes with the anticipation of working at a rugby league game for me, to be running late, flustered, missing something or other.
Covering rugby league games was more like falling off a bike, repeatedly, than riding one for me.
Sure enough, I left an essential item at home – a phone-charge cable – and had to go back for it. Then I got on the wrong train – twice. I missed my stop, went back, then got back on the same train and overshot it again. Finally, rifling through my bag when I sat down in the modest press box at Trailfinders, I realised I didn’t have my computer cable.
“Ah,” I thought to myself as I pulled up my hood against the bitter London wind, “just like the old days.”
The media box at Trailfinders was sparsely populated – at first. It was also set aside for visiting directors but none were present. A couple of Salford fans – they seem Salford fans, they cheered for them – sat down in front of us. Knowledgable northerners, you know the type – know their second-man plays from their dual reg’.
Now I’m going to pause here. I am only recounting what I heard because of what one of them said, to nobody in particular. Where do we draw then line between ear-wigging and righteous policing of community standards? That’s one of the questions I want to address here.
Perhaps some of you think I have no right to be recounting this at all, even though the people around us must have known we were media representatives. In this way, I am reminded of the State of Origin where one of the overflow media boxes was next to a coach’s box and one reporter duly wrote, word for word, what a coach said throughout the game.
Anyway, these fellas were happy to engage us in conversation, asking those sort of open questions which you invite strangers in close proximity to answer.
“Why is Walker out?”
Then, about ten or 15 minutes in, the guy in front says – to no-one in particular and not loudly – “g’warn ya monkey.”
I scan the field for the guy who has the ball, kind of thinking it is probably just gangly white guy and that my initial reaction is baseless. Sure enough though, Salford winger Derrell Olpherts has the ball. He is black.
The guy in front of me, his friend’s head jolts up, looks at him and waves a finger at him. The body language is unmistakable: “You can’t say that.”
But he has a gentle smile on his face, like a disapproving parent.
I want to make this clear: although I believe the club received multiple complaints about racist chanting, this was not a chant. It was one comment, said loud enough for people in perhaps a four-metre radius to hear. The player was 100 metres away, it was not directed at him. There was no repeat of racism from this individual.
If someone at the ground was challenged for a racist chant and indicated he did not care one iota and refused to apologise, it was not this guy.
It was someone else.
Anyway, I’ve only read about this stuff. I’ve never heard it with my own ears, not as an adult anyway. When I was a kid I heard, and probably used myself, casually racist terms that are now anathema. But as an adult, I’d never heard someone say something that was so much an indication of their own belief that a bloke they were watching was further down the evolutionary ladder than them.
I spend the rest of the first half in a state of mild panic. Should I have said something – his friend had already admonished him, albeit gently. Should I write about this?
At the break, the offender tried to engage me in conversation. I just looked away.
I left the ground with no intention to write about it. But when I made some calls the next day, it was raised without prompting in a conversation about something else. It was ‘out there’, as we say in the trade, and therefore the decision had been made for me.
I say I’m complicit because I said nothing at the time. I say I’m duplicitous because I wrote about it only when I thought others were. I say I’m hypocritical because I would now help the club identify the man but at the time I intended to say and do nothing.
I say I’m a coward because of all of the above.
And finally, I ask you what you would have done in this situation? In an age where there just seems to be one right and one wrong way to deal with racism, I expect to read a wide range of responses.