On 27 February 2010, 19 year old footballer Aaron Ramsey had his leg broken in two places.
Over the last couple of years, Ramsey has worked his way up from being a Welsh youth player with great potential to signing for Arsenal, one of the top four teams of the Premier League, to playing with the first team. He’s very young still, but he was building momentum and there was much talk about the career ahead of him. On the day in question, he was tackled by the Ryan Shawcross, the 22 year old captain of the Stoke team, causing his tibia and fibula to be broken. The injury was so horrific that the game came to a halt, players were sick and visibly shaken, and the incident was not replayed. Ramsey was stretchered off the pitch, and Shawcross was given a red card – which took him out of the game, with a three match ban.
The backlash began almost as soon as the game ended.
Players, fans and pundits excused Shawcross’s behaviour, insisting that he didn’t mean it, he wasn’t that kind of player, it was a fair tackle, he was crying when he saw what had happened, he felt really bad… The story even circulated that the ref himself didn’t think it was intentional, and had only felt he “had to” send Shawcross off because of the extent of the injury.
A media storm unfolded, with one side pointing out that, you know, they had a player in hospital who might take 8-18 months to recover, and this was in fact the third similar injury inflicted on Arsenal players in under four years. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said that the injury was “horrendous” and “unacceptable.” Shawcross’s supporters responded with “he didn’t mean to do it.”
Indeed, the sympathy for Shawcross began to snowball, taking on epic proportions. It was suggested that Wenger should apologise for suggesting that breaking his player’s leg was unacceptable, well before Shawcross himself had apologised for breaking said leg (there has still been no public apology though apparently a private one has been accepted).
One of the best posts on the subject I have read is this amazing, powerful piece on the Arseblog, which points out that in fact no one is saying that Shawcross meant to break Ramsey’s leg, but that the kind of behaviour he exhibited on the pitch (“he isn’t that kind of player” was also trotted out in 2007 whenShawcross broke Francis Jeffers’ ankle) makes the injury his responsibility. Arseblogger also points out the collective responsibility of the media and culture that enable and encourage dangerous play.
When Arsenal fan, actor Alan Davies, suggested on Twitter (immediately the incident) that Shawcross should be kept out of the game as long as it would take Ramsey to recover, he was met with a hail of hysteria and abuse. As Arseblogger put it: “the Shawcross ‘is not that kind of player’ brigade have been out in force.” Complaints were made that the whole incident was spoiling Shawcross’s delight in being called up to play for England, the day after the leg-breaking incident. (one blog compared Google hits for ‘feel sorry for Ryan Shawcross’ vs ‘feel sorry for Aaron Ramsey’ and even including websites which are saying things like ‘how the hell can people feel sorry for Ryan Shawcross’ the results are a little startling).
“There’s no way in a million years that he would ever, ever go out to hurt a person. He’s a lovely kid and he’s been exemplary since he’s been at this football club. It was breaking his heart coming off the pitch.”
(Stoke manager Tony Pulis)
“It’s a disappointing challenge and as I say it’s so ironic that Ryan’s involved in it because of all the players that we’ve got here he’s such a gentle kid, such a gentle lad.”
“There was no malicious intent from Ryan, he’s not that kind of player.”
(Stoke midfielder Danny Pugh)
“He’s a committed player, but he’s never going to go into a challenge looking to hurt someone.”
(Stoke player Rory Delap)
“I was with him at United for a couple of years and he’s not that type of player.”
(Wayne Rooney, striker for Manchester United and England)
“Shawcross has been called into the England squad and he doesn’t deserve the grief he’s getting.”
(Paul Parker, former England player)
“I’ve got to say I felt sorry for Shawcross. Not just because of all the hoo-ha over the challenge, but the fact it overshadowed one of the greatest moments in his life after being called up by England for the first time… I suppose the furore over the Ramsey injury is a bit of a spanner in the works, but the call-up is still a feather in his cap and he should go there and enjoy the experience as much as possible.”
(Lou Macari, sports journalist and former Scotland player)
It’s worth noting that no one has actually accused Ryan Shawcross of being malicious in his tackle. No one, not even Ramsey and Wenger and Arsenal’s most froth-mouthed supporters, has said that he deliberately set out to break the Welsh teenager’s leg in two places. Saying that a violent result of a tackle is unacceptable and was caused by reckless behaviour is not the same as saying that the result was intentional. And yet the backlash continually fights this straw argument, insisting that Shawcross is so nice, sweet, honest, gentle and kind to his mother, and more importantly, he didn’t mean to do it.
As has been pointed out calmly and clearly by many people so far, intent is important, up to a point. It’s the difference between manslaughter and murder, for example (both of which are in fact crimes). But crude, clumsy and careless can still have some pretty horrific results without there being malicious intent. Think of the damage someone can do at the wheel of the car if they are crude, clumsy or careless, not to mention drunk, tired, distracted. If you hurt someone out of reckless behaviour you get punished for it by law even if you didn’t set out to cause injury. Everywhere except the football pitch, where intent can apparently erase even the most aggressively stupid mistakes. Where spitting at someone, swearing at them or breaking their leg in two places attracts exactly the same punishment.
But I can think of another example where, socially and through the media, intent can become the difference between an incident being considered ‘a crime’ and ‘something best put behind you, eh.’ It struck me right between the eyes when I saw the language being used. About how Shawcross wasn’t that kind of player, wasn’t that kind of bloke, that he meant well, he was a good egg, that we wouldn’t want to ruin his life over something that wasn’t his fault because, after all, he didn’t mean to do it.
It’s the language of the patriarchy protecting itself. It’s the language of the privileged, scrambling to excuse the inexcusable, on the grounds that he’s a young lad, a good lad, has his whole life and career ahead of him, you wouldn’t want to spoil it for him would you? After all, he didn’t mean to do it, therefore it doesn’t count.
(psst, can’t you see just by looking at him that he deserves special treatment?)
It’s the same language that is used to excuse rapists because the rape was “only technical” and his behaviour was “out of character” and he had “a good employment record.” The same language used when a judge is concerned that a man (who pleaded guilty) might be “marked with the grave offence of rape for the rest of his days” for having sex with an unconscious woman. Chris Brown’s sister told the media that he was “a good boy, never violent” shortly after he was arrested for beating and nearly strangling his girlfriend Rhianna, and it wasn’t long before she was being blamed for her own abuse. And let’s not forget how sorry we were asked to feel for child-rapist Roman Polanski when he wasn’t allowed to pick up his Oscar in person, let alone when he was finally arrested for his crime.
This is not in any way to equate recklessly violent football players with rapists. There is no comparison to be made in that regard. But it is absolutely worth looking at the way that certain people in society – those who are privileged for their gender or race or country of origin, and particularly those who are privileged because they belong to a particular class of celebrity (artistic geniuses and sports stars are pretty high on that list) – are treated differently when they do something wrong. It’s worth looking at the way that so many people flock to excuse them on the grounds of intent, past character, and in many cases, on the grounds that being called on their inappropriate or criminal actions might disrupt their incredibly privileged lives.
Apparently 300 Arsenal fans sent letters of sympathy to Ryan Shawcross. I can’t quite get over that.
Aaron Ramsey is young and white and good-looking and healthy (apart from the broken tibia and fibula, obviously) and a British footballer, so under most circumstances he would be the most sympathetic party in a media skirmish. But Shawcross is all those things and he plays for England. Which, apparently, beats Wales. So it’s not his fault, and he’s a good bloke, and the most tragic outcome of that particular game is that the experience of being called up for the England team might be spoilt. The patriarchy has chosen a side, and closed ranks.
The patriarchy is not just a cultural phenomenon that raises men and their values above women and theirs. The patriarchy harms men, too. Particularly men who step outside the culturally approved masculine behaviours. More importantly, it protects men against what others might see as appropriate consequences for inappropriate behaviours.
Intent matters. It’s important to have good intentions, and particularly important not to have malicious, violent or abusive intentions. But intent is not everything. And it really is time that people stood up and said – no, actually. You don’t get to feel sorry for yourself right now. You might have had a hard week, but your victim has had a worse one. The fact that you cried when you saw what you had done is in fact less important than the fact that his leg will take seven months minimum to heal and that his first season playing as a starter for a Premier League football club is over four months early. Assuming, of course, that he does come back as anything like the same player he was before. Injuries like this can ruin careers, and lives, before they’ve even got started.
You don’t get cookies for not meaning to hurt someone when you have, in fact, hurt someone. Whatever the circumstances.
And maybe, if you’re not willing to change after three incidents of seriously hurting people on the pitch, maybe you actually ARE that kind of player.
“I had a tough weekend, but to come and join such a great team was absolutely fantastic. Just to have been involved with the squad has been great. All the England players have been fantastic about what happened with Aaron Ramsey. They’ve got my mind on football really, nothing else. I’ve enjoyed their company and it’s been a good experience… What happened will not be a factor when I next play again for Stoke. Whenever I pull on the Stoke shirt I have to be 100% committed and the same as ever. Hopefully, when I am back from the suspension, I can do well again.”