Ron Atkinson may be apologetic his infamous faux pas, but as David Stubbs writes, he isn't exactly convincing

“Whatever happened to forgiveness?” asked Ron Atkinson in plaintive response to a verbal pounding from Darcus Howe on Adrian Chiles’s documentary What Ron Said (BBC1, December 13). Howe was lambasting Atkinson for his infamous off-microphone outburst regarding Marcel Desailly, whom he dubbed “a fucking thick lazy nigger.” Howe suggested that Atkinson should be made to clean Rio Ferdinand’s boots for ten weeks, which Atkinson protested was “out of order”.

That Atkinson was instantly dismissed for his remarks was gratifying. The message was unequivocal: This is 2004. You spout virulent garbage like that and you go, now. Even so, many felt unease at Ron’s summary dismissal. US TV legend Howard Cosell’s career as a sportscaster was effectively ended after he referred to a black Washington footballer as a “monkey”. Yet Cosell had outspokenly defended both Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith, the American sprinter who gave the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Ron Atkinson had brought on West Brom’s “Three degrees”, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson. Carlton Palmer and John Barnes are among those prepared to testify Ron is no racist. Was it possible that this could be taken into consideration, that having apologised, he could be allowed back onto our screens to mangle the language entertainingly once more?

Although WBA fan Chiles denies his programme was intended to give Atkinson a leg-up back to respectability, it was certainly an opportunity for him to rehabilitate himself, apply that bronzed charm, make a public show of contrition. Atkinson was flown to Alabama to talk to young African-American students and given a tour around a Museum of Racist Artifacts, including appalling cartoon images of black kiddies trying to scrub themselves “clean” and stomach-turning, bigoted redneck country & western recordings.

And guess what – Big, obdurate, obtuse Ron was having none of it. An early clue to his failure to take his offence seriously was when he recalled learning of the furore he’d caused and quipping: “This is a black day... Oops, shouldn’t have said that.” As the programme progressed, he became irritable and defensive, his apologetic veneer washing away. He couldn’t understand why black people were allowed to call each other “nigger” but he wasn’t. The students explained to him that they were  reclaiming a word traditionally used against them. Ron was stonily impervious to this logic. What would be the difference if I’d call Desailly a frog, he asked, rhetorically. The museum, too, left him unmoved, as he made a fatuous comparison between the “coon” caricatures and cartoons of Mrs Thatcher.

Atkinson now claimed that if he’d been guilty of anything it was “over-apologising”. He didn’t understand that the quantity of apologies was not the issue – rather, it was comprehension of what he had done. And he warmed to a roomful of elderly Brummies reminiscing about the days when you could bandy the word “nigger” without, so far as they were concerned, causing offence. They blamed racial disharmony on “politically correct” agitators who had ruined what to their mind had been a cheerful, untroubled relationship between white and “coloured” people. Ron was impressed by their common sense and “flexibility”.

The final nail was a reminder that Ron has previous. During the England-Cameroon match in 1990, he had joked to Brian Moore about one of the Cameroon player’s mothers watching the game “from up a tree”. In that dark age, he got away with it.

One could argue that Big Ron is of a certain generation, that in the demi-monde of the after-dinner speaker circuit or among old lags between themselves after a few drinks you’d hear just as bad, if not worse than what he said. You could even argue Ron’s choice of wife, who appeared in the programme, shows he has nothing against people of colour – she’s a very strange colour indeed. Ultimately, however, Ron pulled a serious reducer on his chances of resuming a broadcasting career, which now lie somewhere below zero. What happened to forgiveness? Repentance has to come first, fool.

From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month

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