Racism in the name of Science? A-Okay!

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

Recently Francesco Totti was under the threat of a doping investigation until his MD gave him an alibi, explaining away his tardiness to a mandatory urine test. Back in 2003, Rio Ferdinand missed a drug test resulting in a hefty fine and an 8-month ban by the FA.

Football’s governing bodies clearly take doping seriously, and FIFA has decided to investigate some alternative measures in regulating illegal drugs in football. This all comes to an unfortunate collision for FIFA, as it runs smack against their anti-racism campaigns and concerns.

True, there is a difference between what FIFA is undertaking – a systemic study on the natural testosterone levels in various ethnic groups — and actually promoting racism.

But can people, nay, those insolent and disgusting fans who insist on taunting black players, tossing banana peels, and making monkey sounds while waving a home made swastika, tell the difference between “good” classifications and “bad” classifications? Moreover, the greater question is then posed: what is FIFA thinking? Are they putting themselves too dangerously close to promoting inequalities between players?

FIFA is using ethnicity as a factor to determine how to properly test for doping. It’s putting an official stamp, so to speak, in hunting for inequalities between players, based solely on their genetic, ethnic background. Is anyone else hearing the sound of approaching sirens, ringing, signaling danger?

Lets be clear: there are many classifications based on race that have done loads of good, primarily because they are meant to be reparations of past harms, or meant to help balance an uneven playing field. But it doesn’t appear that this study would even fall close to fitting into one of these areas. This is a study where FIFA is delving into the heart of the beast: the fundamental, genetic differences, that will inevitably provide results easily construed into two categories: stronger/better and weaker/undesirable.

Football is known as the world’s game but there is still a nasty scent of white supremacy reeking through the sport. Many of the more dangerous racist occurrences seem to take place in areas of Europe that have not been substantially integrated with cultures other than their own. Yet even in countries like Spain, considered to be a more culturally, socially, and (self-proclaimed) racially tolerant nation is known notoriously for their fans’ invidious tormenting of black players (Samuel Eto’o has suffered monkey taunts and peanuts being chucked at him and has even tried to walk off the pitch in protest).

Will there be more of this when FIFA uncovers scientific evidence indicating which player’s bodies has the most tolerant levels for performance enhancing drugs, based solely on being male and of a certain ethnic identity? And depending on what the study uncovers, will the results in and of itself provide more fuel to this steady fire?

The balance seems to tip to yes.

It doesn’t take much to predict the probable, albeit worst case, scenario: it is uncovered that African players have a genetic make up that allows doping to go unnoticed — will these fans assume that the players are more likely than not using illegal drugs to get ahead? And what would those racist taunts and banners look like then? Maybe if the ends of this study could even come close to justifying the means it would make more sense for FIFA to walk down this path. But what FIFA hopes to gain from this study doesn’t justify the dangerous interpretations this study will lend itself to, never mind that it cuts against the heart of FIFA’s anti-racism mission.

Doping certainly is a problem in professional sports (read: Barry Bonds*) but it doesn’t seem to be the real inequality that threatens the integrity of this sport. No one doubts that if you’re pacy or quicker or faster, or if you can accumulate more muscle or flat out practice more, you may be a better player.

Football, though, thrives off of players that have gifts and talent that no amount of performance enhancing drugs can promote. This is one of the reasons it is considered the beautiful game. Beckham’s signature kick, Cristiano Ronaldo’s signature step over, and Kaka’s eye for the barely there defensive gap — and then the goals scored thereafter – probably couldn’t be replicated with any amount of doping.

Is FIFA simply aiming towards revolutionizing an area of the sport that doesn’t need to be? When there is so much chatter about goal official assisted technology, it would seem apparent that the more pressing arena for revolutionizing the sport is in how the game is refereed. How to best check to make sure a player isn’t doping — especially since there seem to be measures in place that do an adequate job already, doesn’t seem to be worth the time, at least at this moment.

“What we want to find out is whether there are any differences in testosterone levels in different populations, and the way their bodies work and what kind of testosterone levels they have naturally.” – That’s what FIFA says, but when the different populations seem to be divided on strictly racial lines (Asian. African. Hispanic. Caucasian), the use of the word “ethnic” seems to be misplaced. Where, then, is the study between Ukrainian and French players? Clearly they are two different ethnicities but just like those fans, because you can’t see the ethnic difference, FIFA evidently has determined that there isn’t one. This cannot be the answer FIFA intends to give when they come out, full force, with their anti — racism campaigns.

Harping on FIFA, who seem to be acting with only the best of intents, can sound like unnecessary whining. Yet when football’s governing body decides to investigate possible inherent, genetic differences between races, and then likely instill different procedures for each race based on those results, its only natural to assume that opening this Pandora’s box will end badly.

Determining precisely how we are unequal will only bring more problems than profit. How FIFA reconciles this with their splashy “end racism” campaigns leaves much to be desired. FIFA is saying, on the one hand, we are the world’s game and all players should be treated equally and not judged because of race, and on the other, equal except when we examine the players’ genetic make up, in the name of science and fair play. The two cannot be reconciled and FIFA is embarking on a journey that not only weakens their anti-racism resolve, it offers itself to strengthening the fire they have been attempting to put out.

This article is a submission for the Soccerlens Football Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here.

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  1. adam 15 October, 2007
  2. Marco Pantanella 18 October, 2007