Which is how, to get straight to the point, football commentator Ron Atkinson described the Chelsea captain, Marcel Desailly.

And just who are these people?1

Well, Ron Atkinson is a former football player and manager. Whilst he achieved only modest success as a player, Ron was more successful as a manager working his way through Kettering Town and Cambridge United to West Bromwich Albion and thence to Manchester United, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest. He retired from management in 1999 and became a full time television football pundit, a move that was a surprise to many, as whilst Ron undoubtedly speaks English, it is often an English that seems to come from another very distant planet, in a galaxy far, far away.

Marcel Desailly is a French player, who has played for the French national side 113 times, played in the French team that won both the World Cup and the European Championship, and is very likely one of the greatest French footballers who has ever lived. He now plays his football in England for Chelsea FC and is indeed the Chelsea captain. Of course there is also the fact that his French nationality is a product of historical French colonialism as he was born at Accra in Ghana, and is therefore to be frank, black.

And why did Mr Atkinson see fit to describe Mr Desailly in such a manner?

These two names were to become inextricably linked on Tuesday the 20th April 2004 when Chelsea were playing AS Monaco in the first leg of the semi-final of the European Champions League at the Stade Louis II in Monte Carlo. Chelsea had just been stuffed 3-12, Ron had just completed his post match analysis, the British TV coverage had ended and Ron was sitting there with his fellow commentator Clive Tyldesley, chatting away about the match, watching a replay of Marcel Desailly in action when he uttered the immortal words;

He is what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy, thick nigger.

One may presume that Marcel Desailly did not have a good game, but unbeknownst to Mr Atkinson at the time, whilst British TV coverage had ended, the programme, together with Ron's words, was still being transmitted live to millions of avid football fans in the Middle east.

People complained.

For one thing British television does not like people using sexually derived expletives such as 'fuck' on live broadcasts. (It's OK on pre-recorded shows, they just bleep them out, and considered acceptable in the context of serious drama or comedy when transmitted after the watershed.) This in itself would have been enough to have got old Ron into trouble, but coupled with the use of *that* word, it was sufficient for the ultimate sanction.

He immediately offered his resignation which was accepted.

As it happens Ron also had a job writing football opinion pieces for the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian is a nice cosy liberal sort of paper and they would not in all probability have had a problem with a bit of profanity. (It seems quite happy to print 'fuck' as 'fuck' when most the rest of the British press insist it should be 'f**k' or even 'f***' in order to spare their readers blushes.) Obviously nice liberal papers do not like to be associated with people who use the word nigger.

His contract was terminated by mutual agreement.

So another closet racist bites the dust?

Strangely enough, when Ron Atkinson started his career in football management, professional football in Britain was very much a white sport, and Ron Atkinson was one of the first managers who actually employed black footballers. Whilst he was at West Bromwich Albion in the late 1970s his team contained three notable black players in Brendan Batson, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. So unusual was it at the time for a professional football team to have any black players let only three, that they earned themselves their own collective nickname as the Three Degrees.

Ron therefore seems to lack the credentials to be a full blown card carrying member of the British National Party and we may therefore have to look elsewhere for an explanation for his unfortunate choice of words.

And what did Ron have to say about the affair?

Well, Ron claimed that he did not know he had even said what he said and that it was "just a moment of stupidity".

For those of us that have followed Ron's career since he first started appearing on British television screens, this is all too believable. His capacity to misuse the English language has become legendary, and the wit and wisdom (or absence thereof) of old Ron have become known as 'Ronisms', and are collected in the same way as some people collect stamps.

Many of us have already formed the opinion that Ron has never known what he is saying and the whole affair therefore has the horrible smell of inevitability. Given his proven ability to make completely meaningless statements that make absolutely no sense whatsoever it is rather obvious that sooner or later he would say something that was both incredibly meaningless and incredibly offensive to somebody or other.

Very wisely, Marcel Desailly appears to have made no comment whatsoever.


No attempt is being made here to debate the pros and cons of the use of the word nigger in the media. Irrespective of whatever arguments may be advanced, it is a simple fact of life that a significant number of people regard its use as both offensive and unacceptable. As has been said before,

To be ignorant of its meanings and its effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one's life.

Randall Kennedy, Nigger-The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Pantheon Books, 2002)


The Customary Notes

1 It would seem prudent to explain to those who are not British just exactly who this Ron Atkinson person is, and also to explain to North American readers who are unfamiliar with the form of football prevalent in the rest of the world that Marcel Desailly is a sportsman of some talent and accomplishment.

2 Chelsea later failed to overcome the two goal deficit in the second leg played at Stamford Bridge and were eliminated from the competition. Much to the discomfort of their manager Claudio Ranieri who is expected to be replaced at the end of the season.

Sourced from online news sites such as The Guardian, BBCNews, MediaUK and Reuters

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