Football, comedy and the N-word

The Professional Footballers’ Association dinner to celebrate the achievements of players has come under fire after the comedian Reginald D Hunter used the word ‘nigger’ several times in his routine.

The outrage mirrored what so often happens on the pitch and left the result of the awards buried deep beneath the controversy. Where the score line is forgotten because of the decisions of the referee, the winners here will be forgotten because of a different kind of man in black.

The scandal has led PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle to make some unusually ill-informed comments neglecting the debate on the word and who, if anybody, has the right to use it. A man as intelligent as Clarke is very unlikely to be a stranger to the theory of reclamation so his perceived zero-tolerance policy on the word must be a reflection of the FA’s aims on the pitch. To accept that there is a grey area on the word, he may feel he was opening up the debate and casting doubt on the Kick it Out campaign. While I would not wish to question Clarke’s offense, he must surely be aware of the multitude of approaches to the word.

Carlisle also appeared to believe that offensiveness and humour were different levels on a sliding scale, saying: "Don't get it twisted, comedy is subjective. Some found him funny, some weren't offended, some weren't comfortable and some found it highly offensive.” Would it not be possible for the routine to be funny AND offensive?

Perhaps more offensive than anything in Hunter’s routine was Gordon Taylor’s patronising defence of it. The PFA chief executive said it might have been a ‘difficulty’ for him ‘not being aware of how emotive [the subject] has been in football’. Where Gordon Taylor thinks he has the right to tell a black man from the Deep South how emotive the word can be, I don’t know.

Fellow comedian Ian Stone likened the decision to book a comedian who has used the word in the title of no less than four of his solo shows to hiring Frankie Boyle for his child’s eighth birthday party. If you want saccharine, inoffensive material the PFA should have hired such a comedian.

Perhaps we’re blinkering ourselves from the wider issue here and neglecting how positive it is that people feel free express their offense at the use of the word rather than suffering in silence. It wasn’t that long ago that Bernard Manning was able to personally victimise one black policeman in a room of 300 white ones, saying: “They actually think they’re English because they are born here. That means if a dog’s born in a stable, it is a horse.”

Comedy is designed to push boundaries. Some schools of thought will argue that’s its sole purpose. The question is not why Hunter was ever booked for the job, but why any act at all was booked. Racism has no place in football and, clearly, neither does comedy.