Steve Deane: Reaction to Haden's 'darkies' remarks is enlightening


Steve Deans writes that top teams would never overlook good players because of race.

Andy Haden. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Andy Haden. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The sentence "Now that's what's known in some schools as a f**king lazy, thick nigger", ruined the reputation of soccer pundit Ron Atkinson.

The former Manchester United manager thought he was off air at half-time in a Champions League match in 2004, but his description of France and Chelsea star Marcel Desailly was broadcast throughout the Middle East.

Sure puts Andy Haden's "three darkies" comment in perspective.

Atkinson lost his lucrative jobs with ITV and the Guardian newspaper, but the biggest damage was to his reputation.

He maintained he wasn't a racist, pointing out that he had championed black players during an era when fans still threw bananas at John Barnes. He had plenty of black friends, many of whom supported him when the brown stuff hit the fan.

But, unlike Haden's "darkies" comment, Atkinson's statement was unquestionably racist.

There was a word (actually two) that made it so - and neither of them began with N.

Racism is a widely misunderstood concept. It isn't nasty words. It's a belief in the genetic superiority - or more often inferiority - of a particular race.

"Lazy" and "thick" were the truly racist words in Atkinson's sentence. They suggested that Desailly belonged to a racial group that was genetically predisposed to idleness and stupidity.

Despite the furore over Hayden's comments, they certainly weren't racist.

His use of the term "darkie" was a distasteful, unnecessary and clunky way of defining a collective, but that didn't make it racist.

Racism isn't defined by the entirely objective and constantly changing scale of what people find offensive. Used as Atkinson did, for instance, nigger is a highly racist term. But it's hardly racist when used by black American gangsta rappers who've co-opted the word and sling it at each as a badge of pride.

It's not the word, it's the context and intent behind it.

Haden was just being provocative.

But that's not to defend him. His accusations about the Crusaders appear baseless. It may be true that the Crusaders have a limited number of Pacific Island players in the franchise, but to suggest they do so as a matter of policy is preposterous.

The Crusaders' recruitment policy is dictated by the type of athlete they require. Canterbury is the white heartland of New Zealand. The region produces plenty of good forwards, halfbacks and five-eighths - many of whom are white or whiteish - but not so many outside backs. When they go to the market to plug the gaps, many of the best available players in the positions they require are either Polynesian or Melanesian. End of story.

Made in what was supposed to be a debate about the browning of New Zealand rugby, Haden's statements didn't really reveal anything about the topic. It was the reaction to them that was truly enlightening. In the blink of an eye Hayden was frontpage news, leading news bulletins and the subject of current affairs shows.

Clearly New Zealand (or the nation's media at least) love a decent race row. So much the better if it involves the All Blacks. Tasty.

But Haden didn't say anything that anyone remotely involved in rugby or league wouldn't have heard 1000 times before. In fact, he said a good deal less. Anyone who follows the Blues or Warriors who hasn't heard the phrase "too many coconuts" is either deaf or a particularly large Polynesian.

For some reason race remains an area of fascination for many of the games' followers. There seems to be a fairly widespread belief that achieving some kind of mythical racial balance is vital to success. Sounds like cobblers to me, but it's hardly the sort of thing that needs discussing in the shadows.

If all it takes is a flippant darkie reference and a bit of a dig at a franchise - named, amusingly enough, after largely white armies bent on religious persecution - to derail the whole discussion, then sadly this country lacks the maturity to have a proper public debate about race and sport.

It's fine to say what you really think in a private conversation, but say it in a public forum and Campbell Live will be on your doorstep in a flash.

Oddly enough, genuine racism is fairly rare in New Zealand sport. Does anyone seriously believe top teams overlook talented players because of their race?

Other parts of the globe aren't so fortunate. At the Spanish Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton is greeted by people in gorilla suits; in Italy soccer fans chant "a black Italian does not exist" at Inter striker Mario Balotelli, who is Italian-born but of Ghanaian ancestry; and whenever the England soccer team visits the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, monkey chants ring out when a black player touches the ball.

Not that England is a bastion of racial enlightenment, as Atkinson's outburst demonstrated.

If Haden's unfortunate statements are all it takes for us to get this worked up then, as Fred Dagg would say, we don't know how lucky we are, mate.

- NZ Herald

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