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July 10, 2006

Pourquoi, Zizou?

No doubt hundreds of millions of people are asking the same question: Why did the French team captain Zinedine Zidane viciously headbutt Marco Materazzi? We still don't know what Materazzi said to Zidane. One rumor is that Materazzi insulted Zidane's dying mother. Others suggest that the Italian made a racist comment about Zidane's Algerian heritage. Materazzi may have called Zizou "a terrorist".

Abbas Raza argues that only a particularly vile racial slur could explain Zidane's behavior. Abbas thinks it's unlikely that a seasoned player like Zizou would have lost his cool over something as trite as yo' mamma trashtalk.

Abbas explains very eloquently why a racist taunt would be so uniquely hurtful and infuriating:

But second, and more important, for an insult to really injure its victim there must be an asymmetry preventing the person from just yelling the insult back. It is then, when the person insulted feels he cannot reply, that he replies physically. And this is exactly what racist insults do. If a white man yells the N-word at a black man, there is no equivalent word that the black man can yell back. By using this word, the white man is essentially taunting the black man by reminding him of the abuse that he, his ancestors, his whole race have have to endure at the white man's hand, and how he is impotent to stop it. It is like someone taunting you that he raped your mother, and you knowing that it's true! History denies the black man the opportunity of responding in kind, and the only choice left may seem to be to demonstrate that one is not so impotent after all, that one can hit back. This, that it relies on a history of oppression and injury, and on asymmetrical relations of power, is what is so insidious about racial insult, and why we are so careful to avoid its double-injustice in decent society.

Abbas supplies a coherent rationale for especially tough action by FIFA against race-baiters on the field and in the stands. Within the context of international soccer, racial taunts are much more serious than the usual sports-related verbal abuse that people use to psych out their opponents.

I'm not sure what FIFA can do about Materazzi at this point, or about inaudible racial slurs in general. As far as the game is concerned, if the ref doesn't hear it, it didn't happen. Zero tolerance for racial taunts that the refs do hear would be a good start.

Fans need to put pressure on corporate sponsors who give lucrative endorsements to known race-baiters.

I am convinced by Abbas's argument that a racist taunt from Materazzi would have been an incredibly low blow and an especially serious provocation for Zidane. However, I don't see how a verbal assault of any kind, no matter how reprehensible, can excuse a high-level professional athlete who assaults a fellow player during a critical match.

Am I excusing Zidane? If he was racially insulted, yes I am. Zidane could not help himself under the circumstances. I would excuse Zidane for the same reason that a prosecutor will, under certain circumstances, decline to bring charges against a man who comes home to find his wife in bed with her lover and, in a moment of temporary insanity, kills him. In this, there is an acknowledgment that there is not always a right and wrong in everything. Sometimes, a man loses rationality. That is just human nature. Deal with it. (Or hate all men.)

Provocation is at best a mitigating factor. If an individual becomes so enraged as to lose control of their rationality, then they are less culpable than a cold-blooded assailant, but they are nevertheless culpable. If you catch your spouse cheating on you, you have a right to be furious, but you don't have a right to physically assault anyone. If you do lose control and hurt someone, it's your fault for not having better self-control. The same goes for Zidane.

I don't hate Zidane, let alone all men. However, mitigation is not exculpation. Being the wronged party doesn't give you unlimited latitude to take whatever revenge you want. We've all got darker impulses and we've all got to work to control them. It's the work of a lifetime, but as Dan Dennett has argued repeatedly, the important thing is to cultivate your self-control "offline" so that you have the right instinctive reactions at the critical moment. To the extent that you know your temper is an issue but fail to achieve mastery over it, you are morally culpable for your split-second fits of pique.

If you are a professional athlete in a racially-charged sport, part of your training is to learn to anticipate and ignore racial taunts. If you're less than perfectly thick-skinned, you're failing as an athlete because you're creating a gaping psychological vulnerability that is easy for your opponents to exploit.

Abbas seems to be arguing that some insults are so shocking that nobody could be expected to keep their cool. I disagree. Zidane has endured taunts in the past. Plenty of spouses have found their partners in compromising situations and not killed anyone. Sure, a vicious shock to the system brings out the worst in some people, but not everyone, not even in the same person at different times.

Zidane's fans have every right to criticize him for losing his cool on the field. The headbutt was truly a sad end to an illustrious career.


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In the wake of Zinedine Zidane's sent-off during extra time of the World Cup final between France and Italy, should his "victim" Marco Materazzi be punished as well? [Read More]


I posted a similar comment at 3QD, but:

I would excuse Zidane for the same reason that a prosecutor will, under certain circumstances, decline to bring charges against a man who comes home to find his wife in bed with her lover and, in a moment of temporary insanity, kills him.

Has this actually happened anywhere in the United States during the past, oh, 30 years or so? I'm not exactly an expert, but I don't believe prosecutors are in the habit of simply letting murderers walk for so-called "crimes of passion."

While the temptation to speculate about what provoked Zidane is irresistible, the incident reveals something about the spectators. The liberal response is clearly the human response: rather than simply condemning Zidane for his loss of control, there is a heartfelt and agonizing question - WHY? To lack that curiosity, to not feel that the real answer is of compelling importance, is to have a perversely closed mind. Why should we be interested in judging what happened when, thus far, we simply do not know.

Zidane does have a history of losing his composure now and then -- like his stomp on a Saudi player in the 1998 WC.

Materazzi is a punk and has a long history of the cheap shot followed by the innocent walk away. There are a couple of youtube videos with his biggest "highlights" in this area.

I am actually assuming that what Materazzi said was probably as highly offensive as it could be. It's just that physical violence on his part was bound to have a predictable effect, of him losing the game for the team (and for the country). One can debate about whether there are any circumstances, other than self-defense against a physical attack, that warrant violence. I'm not sure that there are. But in this particular sporting arena, on the basis of the referee's predictable action, it was certainly badly advised.

Provocation can be a huge mitigating factor depending on the circumstances.

Armchair speculation on ethics in the comfort of one's home is easy, dealing with adrenaline in an emotionally induced fight or flight situation where literally millions, if not more, are depending on you... is a different matter entirely. This is the sport the world watches. The reason nationalism/race can be so destructive is that its central to our identity as people.

We can certainly deplore bad behaviour, but I think if there is any situation where 'you had to be there' to understand 'why', this would be it. Emotionally speaking everyone is prone to falling victim to that one last straw on occasion.

Eh. I can't get excited about this. People pay to watch this guy because he's really good at sports. And people from France, and elsewhere, get really excited because they come to believe that he represents them. But he doesn't. He's just a guy who's really good at sports. Part of what makes some people good at sports is being aggressive and not taking sh*t. He labeled a guy who's just as big as he is, and who's in equally good shape, not a child or an unsuspecting old person. And I would bet a million dollars that the guy he knocked down is a complete d*ck. It really is just a game, and sometimes people playing games get into fights. Now, if we're talking about holding politicians, or business leaders, or military officers (i.e. people whose lives really are about representing and defending other people's interests) to a high moral standard, now that I can get behind.

If Materazzi used a racial slur, he is a bastard of the highest order and even if he can't get in trouble for this one, should be put on notice that he's going to be watched very closely.

But, physical assault is still unacceptable. Get in his face and scream at him, then tell the ref and the media what happened after you've cooled down.

And to Guest -- if you believe that you are representing your country, and a huge number of your countrymen agree, then maybe you are doing so just a little bit. Especially with the World Cup, where old political rivalries come out to play. (And if you don't believe that, just think of how much extra media attention the World Cup would get in the States if, in the current political environment, the US got drawn in the same group as Mexico, Iran, and North Korea [not that NK will ever have a good enough team for that to happen])

My stance is that Zidane was unprofessional and let down his team. However, I respect his willingness to get angry about racism in soccer.

I have a hard time getting worked up about this because it's just a game. Period. It's outcome signifies nothing. I'm not defending race-baiting tactics or any other unsportsmanlike conduct, but the World Cup is just like any other sporting event: Someone wins, someone loses, you go to bed, you get up in the morning, and you go to work. Wow! The World Cup totally transformed my life! NOT.

If you enjoy sports, fine, but invest emotions in things that matter. Like pornography.

Yeh, keep a cool head after you played so many teams and so many minutes? If you were in his shoes, you probably did worse...

Good porn allows for the possibility of ties.

Zidane realized that the game is not important anymore, it will be over in 10 minutes, but what he could do to distill the sport is do something that will make people think: why the game has gotten to such levels that human beings start cheating, faking and bad-mouthing at each other? Soccer is not measured by the skills, but by the whole repertoise of tricks you could use to level the playing field. Not the favorite win all the time makes soccer such a draw, but in the meantime, makes it a sport where trickery could prevail. Zidane was gifted enough that he is on the receiving end of such acts, so his headbutt is a revealation of his thinking not his rage.

Good porn allows for the possibility of ties.

Exactly. You've got a way with words. That's probably why you have a website. And I have Lindsay, Jr.

The discussion here and at is quite interesting, given the rather sad subject matter. It was a very bad moment for all involved.

That said, I do not think that the absolute condemnation of a player losing his cool, even in the World Cup Finals, is the right answer. We don't know what the slur (assuming there was one) was. Ezra Klein, via TNR says it might have been "harki," "the Arabic term for Algerians who fought for France against Algeria during the occupation. It's beyond all insults, the ultimate traitor."

ZZ is of course an Algerian whose parents moved to France, and he is beloved in both countries.

The Saudi player he stomped years ago apparently used the same epithet.

One way I have been looking at this (not to say this is the most intelligent way) is that what ZZ did was an act of civil disobedience, insofar as he broke the rules and paid the consequences, and brought much shame, sorrow, and confusion to his supporters (family, country, etc.). He still did it, and, given the choice, might do it again. It might actually be a defensible, even laudable reaction.

The idea that physical force is an absoloute no-no is a bit to extreme in my opinon. He headbutted him. He did not kick him when he was down, punch him, or otherwise really try to hurt the guy (admittedly, the headbutt could have resulted in grevious injury if he had broken the sternum or ribs, but I don't think that was the intent, as he could have really hurt the guy after the initial impact).

It was a bad reaction, and certainly not well thought-out, and it was a tragic ending personally to a career, and a very bad way to have the Final end. may have been justified. If the slur story is true, and this was the seems like things are OK. Sad, stupid, tragic, and awful...but at least as good a result as letting the slur go and then losing (or, yeah, maybe winning) the game.

One short example...I saw an Indian man get assaulted by (an appently mentally ill) man on the street in Seattle. The man walked up behind the Indian man with a belt, and hit him with the buckle end, over the Indian's back, wrapping the buckle around and hitting the victim in the face. He then shouted racial epithets at the stunned and bleeding man, who had a gash under his eye. After recoving from his shock, the much larger victim walked slowly towards the man, who continued to yell at him and brandish the belt. The attacker swung again. The victim grabbed the belt, threw it away, and then punched the guy (hard, very hard) knocking him to the ground. He then walked away and only stayed after bystanders told him the police were on the way. It seemed like a very sad situation, but the right result. Sometimes you have to respond.

In any event, I am not trying to compare reaction to violence to reaction to insults (the law does not equate the two, either). I am saying that measured retaliation, or even un-measured, but perhaps reasonable retaliation cannot be universally rebuked. Physical violence (retaliation) is awful, rarely the right answer, and always unproductive. That doesn't mean it is always wrong.

Was it ill-advised? Yes. Was it thuggish? I doubt it, I think it was a reaction. Was it sad and tragic? Undoubtedly. That said, responding to the "assymetrical" taunt of a racist slur does not strike me as over-the-top. It is precisely because the tormentor does not think the victim will react that the slur is hurled in the first place. Once the reaction becomes probable or possible...the slurs stop.

Again, very bad, very sad, but I don't think ZZ was a thug. He was rash and stupid, but that is different, and merits a certain amount of forgiveness. How much I am not sure.

So many commenters assume "it must have been a racial slur" that ticked Zidane off. They cannot imagine anything else. Well, life is more complicated than that and there are lots of other possibilities. To accuse someone of racism without evidence is just as bad as accusing someone of being bad because of their race -- in fact they are both examples of the same thing: prejudice.

>but at least as good a result as letting the slur go and then losing (or, yeah, maybe winning) the game.

I still disagree with this. But I don't call Zizou a thug at all. Also, Helmut mentioned on the other thread that Materazzi may have yanked on Zizou's arm, which had been injured, which changes the whole complexion of this thing, in my opinion, from a stupid reaction to goading, into an act of self-defense against a previous physical attack that might recur, though the attack didn't seem imminent at the time.

Luke, while it is not evidence (admitted speculation), it is "out there" that a specific racial insult was involved. The same insult that was known to be involved in the stomping incident of the Saudi player.

I agree with your's irresponsible to inject race into a situation where it might not be involved without evidence or solid background. That said, I don't think that the speculation is unwarranted, and that in general people have been providing the proper disclaimers.

To think that racial taunts are not a part of international soccer would be the height of willful ignorance. Whether that was the case here is unclear, but it is not an unreasonable line of inquiry or speculation, and the POSSIBLE racial undertones/overtones are a bit too obvious to be ignored.

Actually, Lindsay, your argument has now also at least partially convinced me, so maybe there is a real point to discussions like this, beyond just wanting to sound off. Thanks for your detailed response and for calling attention to my somewhat emotional post. In the end, I feel a bit ambivalent, just like Amanda above.

Contrast this with the NBA playoffs, and the reception of Stackhouse blindsiding Shaq, or Jason Terry punching somebody in the groin, or somebody else grabbing Chris Kaman's groin--those are just three incidents right off the top of my head. Flagrant fouls (if the ref saw them); one-game suspensions; radio talk-show conversations for a week (if that long); and a general "shit happens; pay the fine and play the next game" tolerance for such things. What makes Zidane's headbutt different? Soccer is supposed to be a graceful game? The sanctimony of Zidane's "que horror" castigators makes me want to seek justification for his actions.

For what it's worth >> According to a newspaper with Italian translator glued to the replays, Italy’s Materazzi called Zidane “the son of a terrorist whore”, before adding, “So just f—- off”. URLs for lip-reading clip, article & more :

>Actually, Lindsay, your argument has now also at least partially convinced me

Hey what the FUCK??? Did someone just actually admit that they had reconsidered something, based on someone else's argument, instead of pretending that they know absolutely everything and are and have always been perfect in both the breadth of their knowledge and their analysis? Someone who's self-assured enough not to view any challenge to their view as a vicious attack, to be bellowed against like a pro wrestler, but as worthy of respect?

Seriously, though, I know I've seen myself do that, and on the right-wing side, I've seen Phantom do it at least once. Probably Lindsay herself a couple of times, as the moderator. Not that it hasn't ever happened with anyone else, but I do love it when someone shows enough strength of character to allow that someone else's argument can be persuasive. Kudos, Abbas.

maruta, for myself, I haven't given it a "que horror" slant. Now, I remember seeing a football player, a defensive lineman or a linebacker, give a punch in the face to the opposing quarterback. I don't remember who, but I remember John Madden saying, "he'll get fined, and he should get fined for a cheap shot like that." I agreed with John Madden on that one.

In Zizou's case, I don't have that same feeling that "he's just an asshole and a thug." My first reaction was simply incredulity: "what the hell? What on earth did he do that for?" Given a moment's reflection, I assumed that on the contrary, he had probably been very badly provoked. But it's just that, well, he knew that this wasn't like American football, where he'd just get fined; he knew it could mean the Cup. Not so much a moral judgment that he was a bad person, just that, like a general, you've got to keep your cool and your wits.

As mentioned, though, our friend Helmut brings up the real possibility that MuuMou may have physically assaulted Zizou, before the head-butt, and this changes everything for me. I don't know that I can really ask a guy to just sit there and have his body fucked around with and jerked around, especially in a spot (his arm) where he's had an injury; and we do know that MuuMou definitely gave him the titty-twister/Purple Nurple, so Helmut's claim there is sadly too credible.

I liked your use of Dan Dennett's philosophy in the above post, although I'm not sure if you can argue that you are always "morally culpable for your split-second fits of pique." If one is making an earnest effort to control their temper "offline" and has an occasional slip, does that make him morally culpable?

I agree that it doesn't make him innocent, but I think the problem is with your use of the word "morally." He should be held responsible, but I don't believe that makes it necessarily an immoral act. It may have been so if he had more time to think/react to the situation, but if it were a reaction to an immediate and hurtful moment, he can be excused a little for his instinctual reaction. Morality should be based on both consequences and intentions.

How does the fact that it was a racist comment make it any more acceptable? It makes them both equally idiotic. Its like when Tuzzi sucker punched Moore. Everyone who supported Tuzzi backed up the fact that Moore had been throwing out inappropriate comments all night, without getting a penalty for 'over use of the tongue', so he had it coming to him.
The idea or fact that Moore had said something didn't make it any less acceptable for Tuzzi to smash him in the face, just as it doesn't make it anymore acceptable for Zidane to head butt another player.

Granted - the racial comments makes the hit more understandable, but no more acceptable than before.

We disagree with the conclusion because part of controlling darker impulses is that people should expect certain consequences for certain actions. We do not burgle for several reasons, but prominent among them is our certainty that we would have our faces blown off if we tried it. Let us not forget that if Zizou were Jewish we would not be having this discussion, and instead it could be seriously discussed whether his provoker would be doing jail time. (As it is, the famously racist and corrupt Italian team may go to jail anyway.)

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