Defending Malky: Can racism, sexism and homophobia ever be banter?

A few months ago, I wrote a piece focusing on comments made in private space by a number of high-profile white men, from the worlds of sport and entertainment.  The commentary sought to explain what discussions in private space reveal about the pervasiveness of racism and sexism in sport and beyond.  Just a short time later, yet more wealthy, influential white men, each of whom are prominent figures in the world of elite football, have had offensive private text messages made public. During a number of exchanges, which have now been made public, Malky MacKay and Iain Moody made a swath of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks about colleagues in the football industry, while MacKay was the manager of Cardiff City FC.

Once more, as was the case with Sterling, Clarkson and Scudamore, MacKay has been forthcoming with an official apologetic non-apology. Within the statement he proclaims that the text messages in question, in which he referred to an official at another club “as a gay snake” and to South Koreans as “Fkn chinkys”, was intended as “friendly banter”. This is hardly surprising. Attempts to trivialise such bigoted and obvious expressions of prejudice are commonplace after a wealthy white man’s PR team advise him how best he might manage the situation.

What is slightly more surprising, although certainly not extraordinary given the track record of English football’s elite institutions in matters such as this, is the defence of MacKay which came in the form of a League Managers’ Association (LMA) statement:

“These were two text messages sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter … The LMA does not condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws but would also point out that out of over 10,000 text messages and 70,000 documents … it may not be a complete surprise that some inappropriate comments can sometimes be made by employees”.

Clearly, the LMA, too, saw MacKay’s actions as mere “friendly text message banter”. But even more peculiarly, the statement, which on the one hand, proclaims “not [to] condone in any way any potential breach of equal opportunities laws”, on the other, absolutely condones MacKay’s most putrid of exchanges on the premise he was “working under great pressure”. By the logic of this argument repugnant racist, sexist and homophobic views are “sometimes” absolutely acceptable when “letting off steam to a friend”. Like most of you reading this, I go to the gym to let off steam when stressed at work; my first thought isn’t to pick up my phone and go on a chauvinistic rant to my closest friends. They’d very quickly stop being my friends if I did! The LMA’s defence of MacKay is nothing more than a glorified “I’m not racist but …” self-indulgent rant and should be treated with the contempt it deserves.  

Any serious person would be outraged by the closing of ranks demonstrated by MacKay and the LMA, when such blatant and pugnacious views are made public. However, what both of these statements call for is a better appreciation of the nature and role ‘banter’ plays in sporting environments. In other terms, given it is offered often by those caught behaving inappropriately in sport and media contexts as a serious defence of their behaviour, à la Richard Keys and Andy Gray, the notion of banter deserves critical commentary.

But what is banter?  Well, one conception, the one which MacKay and the LMA are keen we accept, is that it is a playful, light-hearted and non-serious social interaction, which is framed by a genial and comedic tone. From this perspective, opinions expressed as banter thus supposedly reveal nothing about a person’s ‘true’ moral code. Indeed, banter is a handy social strategy, with positive connotations. In more elaborate terms, it is a concept which allows the likes of MacKay, and others who’ve had their morality shaped by (white, heterosexual, working-class) football cultures, to show affection  to fellow heterosexual men (often by embarrassing them through word or action) whilst appearing to deny it. Banter then is certainly an emancipatory social mechanism that permits men to circumvent traditional codes of masculine behaviour, which forbid sportsmen from expressing openly the enjoyment they find in other men’s company.  Far from being oppressive, banter can indeed be “friendly” and homosocial.

While this is true in part, it is dangerous to understand banter in such narrow terms. That is, we must also understand it, at times, as an insidious social mechanism, a (non)linguistic strategy which establishes, preserves and, in some instances, challenges relations of power in a team, organisation, industry or institution. For instance, players rarely ‘banter’ the manager and some players are ‘bantered’ by their peers more often and more aggressively than others. In this sense, banter is also a technology of domination used by particular individuals to express and exert power and establish superiority. Some incarnations of banter then are perfect archetypes of the Trojan horse: hate and prejudice parading as comedy. Again, this is not to deny that banter cannot be “friendly”. On the contrary, that is precisely why crying ‘banter’ is at times a reasonable defence in cases possessing more verbal ambiguity than that of MacKay and Moody. Nonetheless, what is for sure, racism, sexism and homophobia can never be “friendly” and, thus, if MacKay does wish to claim that his comments are “banter” they must be understood and condemned, at best, as Trojan horse-like or, at worst, labelled as clear, unequivocal bigotry. 

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