Sunday, 29 December 2013

Athlete speech and hate speech

Mike passed along this story about French soccer player Nicolas Anelka, who made a possibly anti-Semitic neo-Nazi salute after scoring a goal in an EPL game yesterday. Anelka (who converted to Islam and whose parents emigrated to France from Marinique) made the "quenelle" signal, in which the right hand is pointed downward and the left hand grasps the right shoulder. The signal, which was created by a controversial French comedian, is becoming popular among neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in France, where the Nazi salute is banned under strict hate-speech laws. The signal sort of looks like an inverted Nazi salute, but is unknown outside of France and thus allows people to express themselves without anyone out-of-the-known understanding what was being said; there have been stories and photos of people making the gesture outside Auschwitz and at the Western Wall. Anelka denies that he was doing the gesture as a racist or anti-Semitic statement and claims to be "gobsmacked" by the international uproar he has caused; he insists the gesture is "anti-system" (which I assume means anti-establishment). The English Football Association has opened an investigation.

The reaction is doubly intense here, as compared to if a U.S. athlete had done this after scoring a touchdown or hitting a home run. Europe's approach to hate speech is much different than ours (although the First Amendment would not be in play in any event). More importantly, Europe is especially sensitive to anti-Semitic and Nazi speech, given its history.

On a different part of this, on-field athlete speech is a different and interesting issue, one I hope to  examine if/when I get back to writing about the sport/speech connection. Expression--verbal and physical--is endemic to what athletes do on the field. Content aside, it is a nice question how much room sports teams and leagues should leave the players to express themselves, especially on what must be understood as political matters (even if hateful ones).

Update 12/30: The plot thickens and comes across the pond. French NBA players Tony Parker and Boris Diaw posed with the comedian who started all this while making this gesture; the photos, which are a few years old, hit the interwebs on Sunday. Parker apologized, saying he saw the gesture as part of a comedy act and only recently learned about its anti-Semitic connotations. The Simon Wiesenthal Center asked that he make a further statement, in French, directed to French Jews.

Anelka has promised not to make the gesture again.

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