As a football supporter, I find myself torn at times. I watch certain players on the football pitch, especially those plying their trade in England, I watch them on TV, gliding past defenders, scoring wonderful goals, and some are so good it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a moron, a fairly loathsome individual with no redeeming qualities as a person.
Yet these men are heroes. We adopt heroes so easily as football fans, and in doing so we tend to overlook certain things, certain behavioural norms we would not associate with those we admire. There’s nothing admirable about wife-beating, about casual racism, about drink driving, about sexual predation. The people who do this are the people you’d shun in your day-to-day life if you had any sense at all.
Yet as football fans we put these people on a pedestal. We sing about them. We slap their names on our backs. As fans, we allow our kids to put their pictures on their walls … how surreal is that?
If these people were parents who lived locally you wouldn’t let your children hang out with theirs, in case they were corrupted by close proximity. But Hell, as football supporters we teach them songs about these characters, almost holding them up as role models. This is not normal behaviour.
As you can probably imagine, it’s the signing of Leigh Griffiths for Celtic that has moved me to write this, but I was going to write it anyway, because of other incidents in football over the last couple of years, about the stunning number of high profile players who are under police investigation, or have found themselves under police investigation, for the most appalling acts. I am taking great care with my use of words here … and I want to emphasise that most of these people haven’t been found guilty of anything, even those who’s cases have wound up going to court. Yet still, it’s disquieting.
What really moved me was that I was watching TV recently, The Comedy Channel to be specific, and I caught a bizarre show, the Comedy Central Roast for 2011, where a group of his fellow “comics” and actors turned up to “honour” Charlie Sheen.
I found the notion of paying tribute to a nearly psychotic halfwit a little bizarre, but Hollywood is full of people like that, and it wasn’t a great surprise to learn that there were some of his “peers” who actually found his actions funny, and worthy of some kind of backhanded respect.
What was more worrying, troubling to me, was to see Mike Tyson as one of the celebrity guests, and I was, of course, dimly aware that he’d made some movies. What that particular show made clear, in a way his movie roles hadn’t, was how integral a part of a certain corner of the Hollywood scene he’d become.
Tyson, it seemed, had become some kind of cult figure, some kind of underground hero.
And that got me thinking, and wondering. How the Hell did that happen? How did this man go from being a convicted rapist, a washed up fighter who’d disgraced himself in the ring with a shocking assault on Evander Holyfield, to becoming a Hollywood poster boy, fawned over and lauded by “his peers”? Who would want to be sitting next to this man?
Who would want to hold him up as some kind of example?
Well Hollywood is a screwed up place. It’s not hard to see what the appeal of hanging out with such a brute would be in a town like that. It’s not my scene, not the kind of scene I imagine any of you are moving in, or would like to, but you can see the deadly glamour in it for a certain type of person. Certainly, Sheen and Tyson, although not quite cut from the same cloth – the notion is quite preposterous when you look at their backgrounds – clearly do have issues in common … so maybe it’s as simple as that.
Then I remembered his career timeline, that he’d regained his world titles after his prison release, that boxing had put money before principles, had allowed him to become a major figure all over again, that the guardians of the sport had elected to wipe the slate clean by allowing him to get back in the ring, to exploit his notoriety like never before, to enrich himself all over again on the back of a vile reputation.
Believe it or not, his case is rare in professional sports in that he made a comeback after a prison term. Yet it does happen, and it happens in football to a degree you wouldn’t automatically think about.
In Scotland, as we well know, there was the Duncan Ferguson case, where the former Dundee Utd and Rangers players was actually sent to prison for assault.
The actual incident, where he head-butted Jock McStay, resulted in a jail term because it was the fourth time he’d been charged and convicted for common assault.
Am I suggesting that Ferguson should not have been allowed to continue his football career? Of course not. His case is strange because the crime that sent him to jail actually took place on the pitch (and he wasn’t sent off for it either, the referee that day thought it only merited a booking … ponder that one if you will … )
Other players have done worse, and returned to their careers.
Lee Hughes went to prison for causing death by dangerous driving, was released and went straight back to his football career.
In 2011, four years after being released, he was charged with sexual assault, and finally convicted in that case of common assault, which resulted in a £500 fine. His football career continued, unimpeded.
The most egregious, and sickening, case involves the striker Marlon King, who’s conviction (which resulted in a prison term) for rape was one of fourteen criminal convictions he has, going back to the early years of his career.
His rape conviction was actually the second time he’d served a prison term during his professional career, and he is currently awaiting trial for a third time in relation to a car crash which left a man injured.
Football continues to indulge King long after he should have been written off.
He is currently a free agent, following Sheffield United’s overdue decision to release him from his contract in December of last year, and should he not end up back in prison again (his trial date is pencilled in for March) it’s possible that he’ll find himself playing for some lower league team somewhere, drawing a wage from a game he has disgraced on multiple occasions.
The truth is though that the game has disgraced itself by continuing to treat such people as if they are not simple common thugs. Which brings me to the point. It’s us, the fans, more than anyone else, who allows that to happen. We forget the bad deeds that take place on and off the pitch, and we focus, instead, on the memories we have of players on it, and in this we are, ourselves, guilty of looking the other way, of tolerating the intolerable.
Leigh Griffiths’ signing has caused some consternation amongst a lot of the Celtic support. Many believe a player with his unsavoury off-field reputation should be nowhere near our club.
Yet there are others who just don’t think he’s good enough to pull on the famous green and white hooped jersey.
The journalist Tom English has called those who do not want him because of his character “hypocrites”, because he points out that if Griffiths scores goals most people will forgive him anything. This is an uncomfortable truth that we’d do well not to deny.
Griffiths is a young man, who’s behaved like an idiot at times, but this kid hasn’t murdered anyone, or committed the kind of offence Tyson and King were sent to prison for. He’s behaved like a daft boy, as English and others have pointed out. This is not a wannabee hard man, not a young thug with a list of criminal convictions.
He’s in his early 20’s, has been enclosed in the bubble of professional football since he was a teenager, a lifestyle and a career which has been driving young guys off the rails for as long as the game has existed.
He says he has matured in recent years, and those who know him speak with surety about that, and we should take them at their word.
Griffiths was the starting point for this piece, not the actual point. English is right. Goals will change everyone’s perceptions, and this boy will score goals for Celtic, and lots of them.
I fully admit to being one of the supporters who’s absolutely, and unequivocally, delighted with this move, and to seeing him in the Hoops.
Yet it begs the question, the one that will trouble me long after this article has been read, dissected and is forgotten by all of you.
What are those goals worth to us, as fans? What would we tolerate for them? What would we consider acceptable? What would we put up with, and for the success that came with them?
How do we define our heroes? It’s something to ponder on.
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