Portsmouth defender / former England international Sol Campbell went public this week with his own anti-heckling campaign, leading the Guardian’s Barney Ronay to muse “Campbell may actually have a point. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell.”
Campbell is a fairly unique human being. His career spans the entire 15 years of the thoroughly loopy Premier League. Nobody really knows what this is likely to do to you. It’s like an unregulated public experiment – we might as well have bombarded him with radiation or transformed him into a gas and attempted to light him with a wooden splint. Campbell’s personal fortune stands at £20m, amassed solely through hoofing a ball around and being good at headers. His is a life divided between being informed that he’s a) a truly wonderful guy and one of our most valued citizens; and b) a git. No wonder he’s got some funny ideas about himself.
He does, however, raise an interesting question about where to draw the line on all this. Abuse is always a relative thing. For example, it’s possible to offend the Queen simply by turning one’s back on her, or asking her, unbidden, if she enjoyed her terrine campagnarde au jus de truffes. If we really are going to start ejecting 10,000 people at a time from our football stadia – Campbell’s suggestion – for the wrong kind of offensive shouting, somebody needs to lay down some ground rules.
Sarcasm, for example. Is it acceptable? Nothing cuts quite so deep as an acutely delivered sarcastic barb. It’s not immediately clear where Campbell stands on this issue. For example, placing the word “not” at the end of a sentence – as in “Sol Campbell’s really bossing the defensive set pieces . . . not!” – might be classed as acceptable banter. Sarcastic applause, on the other hand, particularly when accompanied by clapping really slowly and adopting an offensive “duh!” expression, may stray beyond the pale.
The more you look at it, the more complex the various means of causing offence to professional footballers become. Stamp down on shouting and swearing and you’re likely to see a rise in more subtle, if equally wounding, practices. Damning with faint praise, for example. “Campbell has his merits,” the home support might chorus, callously, the next time Portsmouth travel to Spurs. “He’s rather good at headers. And he really can kick the ball miles.”
Then, of course, there’s the mercilessly accurate academic dissection, not to be underestimated. Virginia Woolf had to go to bed for a week after reading a particularly unsympathetic review of one of her novels. With abuse no longer in vogue, one can foresee a time when police have to interrupt a mass recitation of perfectly paced 2,000-word analysis of why Jermaine Jenas represents a redundant semiotic in the hypertext of the modern midfield.