Graeme Souness Reminds Media of the Need to Think Before Speaking on Race
Many years ago I was a told a joke that, looking back, could well have been my first experience of racial stereotyping. I can’t remember who said it, or exactly how old I was, but it has lived with me ever since.
“What do you call a black man in a suit? Guilty.”
Some will dismiss this as a bit of fun or, dare I say it, banter, but they tend to be the people who aren’t being targeted by the setup and punchline, nor have to deal with the way similarly flippant wisecracks, comments and judgments have an insidious effect on those who are. In other words they tend to be white people, and when they stray into this territory it’s only right to lead them back on to safer, fairer ground.
Which is why I’m writing about Graeme Souness. I’ve never met the former Scotland midfielder and am willing to accept from those who have that he’s a thoroughly nice guy; his bark is worse than his bite, and all that. But the problem is that on Sunday he said something that – and there really is no easy way to put this – sounded like racial stereotyping.
A couple of days on, the memory still lingers, the sense of jaw‑dropping shock as Souness spoke about Moise Kean during Sky Sports’ coverage of Everton’s 3-2 victory over Wolves and why Juventus allowed the 19-year-old striker, who scored six goals in 13 Serie A appearances last season, to join Everton for an initial €32m (£29m) last month. “At 19, why have they sold him?” the 66-year-old said. “Personally, slight alarm bells are going off in my head.” Those alarm bells were clearly very loud because in the space of just over a minute, Souness went on to suggest Juventus may have sold Kean because his “off‑the-field activities are not the best”.
This was the precise moment Souness needed to stop, take a breath and head in another direction. Instead he plowed on and went on to make a comparison between Kean’s move from Juventus to Everton and that of Emmanuel Adebayor from Arsenal to Manchester City that was, as David Squires references in his latest cartoon, outright weird. The two deals occurred more than a decade apart, involve four clubs and two players at different stages of their career.
Souness’s claim that Arsène Wenger sold Adebayor to City because “there’s something not quite right with him” was also incorrect given the then Arsenal manager wanted the Togo striker to stay, while there have been no suggestions that Juventus sold Kean because of what he was getting up to in his spare time. The striker has been left out of Italy’s latest squad, alongside Nicolo Zaniolo, for turning up late to a team meeting ahead of Italy’s encounter with Belgium at the recent European Under-21 Championship but, according to informed voices, the reason for him leaving Juve are football-related. As the Italian football journalist Gabriele Marcotti tweeted in response to Souness’s comments, the Serie A champions allowed Kean to swap Turin for Merseyside because he had one year left on his contract and, having declined to sign an extension, they did not want to lose him for free next summer.
It was an error-strewn, conclusion-jumping bit of punditry from Souness and once the comparison with Adebayor had been made it was hard to escape a rather depressing conclusion. You know, that thing about certain people looking and acting the same.
Souness would no doubt dispute this and more than likely be horrified by the suggestion that he cast aspersions on Kean’s character purely because of his race. In doing so he may also point to his record as a manager when it came to signing and fielding black players, most notably Mark Walters during his time at Rangers.
For its part, Sky Sports has declined to comment but, in defending Souness, the broadcaster did point out that his comments on Kean were part of a wider discussion that saw José Mourinho, in his role as a fellow Sky pundit, speak entirely positively of the player and therefore all Souness may have been doing is offering a counter-argument. Perhaps, but that does not take away from the skin-crawling nature of what he said or the simple fact he should not have gone there.
More than likely this was a case of subconscious racism, something many of us have been guilty of from time to time. But the difference is that Souness is a prominent figure saying what he said on a prominent platform – millions will have heard his remarks and, unchecked, they can spread like wildfire in a global culture already burning with resentment and division.
So it’s right that the error of Souness’s way is pointed out. Some may even call for his head, arguing he has previous given his somewhat sustained attacks on Paul Pogba, but that feels over the top and unnecessarily reactionary. Rather, this is a moment for a sense of perspective and to make another call for everyone in the media to show an extra level of thought, kindness, and fairness when discussing black footballers. As Raheem Sterling pointed out with his Instagram post last December, there is, and has been, too much damage done.
So if you’re reading this Graeme – seriously, have a think the next time you decide to speculate on the character of a footballer, and especially those for whom accusations of a lack of professionalism and being a wrong’un are too deep-rooted and lasting to be lazily aired on an otherwise lazy Sunday afternoon.