Gary Lineker's take on Jamie Vardy's racism is bad - and it matters
Gary Lineker's apologism for Jamie Vardy's racism was problematic, writes Tom Adams, and not what football needs from a man of such influence.
Perhaps Leicester City’s position at the top of the Premier League has given Gary Lineker an acute case of vertigo. His boyhood club, indeed his first professional club, are seven points clear of second-placed Tottenham in a season when they were supposed to be relegated. It’s enough to make any supporter light-headed.
And Lineker is exactly that: a supporter. He exudes authentic passion for Leicester - one look at his Twitter feed as they chalk off another amazing win would leave you in no doubt. It is even endearing, to an extent. But Lineker is more than simply a supporter. He is one of the most prominent sporting figures in this country and, as the country's highest profile TV football presenter, the conduit through which millions of fans watch the game.
Writing off the vicious racist abuse of a fellow casino-goer who was just trying to get on with his life as a mere “mistake” is generous. It is also a weak defence which was expertly deconstructed in a Facebook post by Telegraph journalist Jonathan Liew when Vardy broke a Premier League record by scoring in his 11th consecutive game earlier in the season.
Leicester City striker Jamie VardyReuters
Lineker did not rely purely on the “mistake” element to downplay Vardy’s abhorrent behaviour. He also brought context into play in a problematic way.
“I think it depends on how you say it, and where you say it,” he added. “But I know footballers, and they are generally really not racist at all. I’ve heard things said on football pitches that players clearly don’t mean, whether it’s racism or just an abusive comment in the heat of the moment.”
This has troubling implications. Does it really matter how you racially abuse someone, or where? Is it really any less offensive if it is said in the heat of the moment? And let’s not forget that Vardy wasn’t on a football pitch, playing in an intense and furious Premier League match - he was in a casino. This was not a case of banter gone wrong either, it was a nasty insult hurled at a bystander in aggressive and intimidating fashion.
Racist abuse of the kind uttered by Vardy, or indeed any other kind, is language which is simply off limits and there is no excuse for it. But the verbal gymnastics employed by Lineker are hardly unusual when it comes to football supporters in this country.
It could be a Liverpool fan passionately drawing on their surprisingly extensive knowledge of the nuances of the Spanish language to inform anyone who is listening that, in fact, “negrito” is often employed as an affectionate term in Uruguay.
Given Lineker has been commendably vocal about other instances of racism, his attitude towards Vardy might give the impression that the fact the striker's goals are propelling his team to the league title are impinging on his perspective in all of this.
“Sickening, embarrassing, moronic, disgraceful”. All words that Lineker could have deployed again to describe Vardy’s actions, but chose not to. Vardy just made a “mistake”. And was his behaviour really so different to that of the Chelsea fans abusing a black man on the Paris Metro? No. It was almost identical in nature.
Either Lineker is joining the ranks of supporters who act as the unofficial propaganda wing of their club, always seeing the good and refusing to acknowledge the bad, or he genuinely believes Vardy’s behaviour wasn't as awful as the incidents catalogued above. Neither is a satisfactory position for the man of his stature and standing.
Given his huge Twitter presence, with 4.72 million followers, and his unique prominence in bringing televised football, both domestic and European, to British viewers, Lineker is not just another supporter, even if he often acts like one.
With the influence he wields, there is a danger in Lineker playing down racist abuse as something that can simply happen “because it's an emotive, passionate sport”. Football deserves a more considered and mature attitude towards racism from the face of the game in this country.