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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]


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.

Like a lot of right-wing arguments, this sounds intelligent until you consider any facts. These are the same Italians who think it's funny to throw bananas at their own black players we're talking about here.

Amusing stuff, some of this!

"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."

I try to sift this remarkably tweaked (and somehow sloppy) statement, yet am left with very little. It is at best a wishful and fantastical prescription / analytical strategy when considering the Zidane incident (whose key elements may never be fully recovered.) "Achieve mastery over [your temper]"! Shame upon "split-second fits of pique"! How admirable! If one cannot pre-program all future tempermental responses, then, for every slip, one is 'morally culpable' -- those two words serving to conceal / re-direct a prosaic thesis, namely, that any loss of control is causally referrable to a lapse in psychic engineering. This Cartesian dictum does not actually say very much about how a moral conscience might then begin to adjudicate specific instances / degrees of pique, which is where all of the interest and difficulty lies. Treating any and every failure of composure with blanket disdain is an impatient and vapid gesture.

What happened between Zidane, the Italian defender, the two competing teams, the watching multitudes; the interplay of psychological and social actions; and the defining role provided by athletic and cultural norms -- these heady ingredients are the stuff of multi-layered and conflicted interpretation.

It is a sacred duty (yes, I am being a little silly) to hold onto the sense of shock and confusion that many of us felt in the immediate aftermath of that televised transgression.

There are so many questions and worm-infested cans bursting open. Why rush the matter to a quick verdict?

I am still moved by the incredible sensation of watching and then imagining this man under so many kinds of pressure (the harrassment, the performance anxiety, the stage, the stakes, the injury, the personal history, the sense of awesome responsibility, the burden of his mother's illness) and driven by such powerful discipline and conditioning, confronting some deviously hatched verbal weaponry, some inspired implement working its way into his core and igniting a cloud of synergistic responses, of moves and counter-moves.

It takes the breath away.

How about some facts instead of speculation. First, Zidane is recognized as the best player of his generation. He is no one’s inferior on the pitch. And he knows it. And so does everyone else. The idea that in that context he’s in a power disadvantage vis a vis the Italian player is absurd. Second, wait for some actual real reporting on the matter. Le monde and El país both report on an Italian paper’s interview with Materazzi. Le monde’s version has more details. He claims that Zidane was giving him shit for grabing on to his jersey, which Materazzi did, but if you watch any soccer matches, you should know that the way Materazzi did that is done up and down the line and was not an egregious version of jersey grabbing. Materazzi says that Zidane then said that if he wanted his jersey, he could wait till after the game. Materazzi claims that while Zidane said this he looked him up and down arrogantly. The Italian then admits he went on to insult Zidane for this. He claims that he did not call him a terrorist, nor did he mention Zidane’s mother. He won’t say what his insult was, but does say it’s the type of thing one hears many times up and down the pitch between players. So there you have Materazzi’s version. Now let’s wait to see what Zidane has to say. According to his agent (in another Le monde article), he claims what was said to him was very serious and that he will explain it in a number of days. The article in Le monde also explains that when asked about whether the insult included the word terrorist, Materazzi gestured to his 10-month old daughter sleeping next to him on the plane back to Italy and said, that’s the only terrorist I know. When he denied having said anything about Zidane’s mother, the article included the information that he lost his mother at the age of 14 and was believed not likely to insult anyone’s mother, though the article goes on to explain the Materazzi is known for getting into fights and so forth. So there you have actual reporting and not assumptions, jumping to conclusions and the contradictory lip-reading by so-called experts. To me it looks like a case of insults being traded, and one of the players just loosing it for whatever reason. I only reference Le monde’s and El país’s versions of the Italian article because I can’t read the original (at least not well). I can’t do links, but if you google Le monde (or El país), you will easily be able to find the articles.

Zidane? Dude should have kept his cool. He failed his team, and the nation of France. I am however quite delighted due to the fact that Italy should have won the game 1-0 in regulation if it was not for the free kick that the ref's gave france.(only 10 meters outside Italy's goal). All the sportscasters were biased in France's favor. The only reason I could see for the biased reporting was mabye they thought that it would be good for a multicultural French team to win the World cup to help alleviate some of the violence that has been rampant in france between the African immigrants and the native French. Either way though when it comes to sports I believe politics should take a back seat to athletic prowess and skill, which unfortunately for the frenchies, ITALY HAS MORE OF.

I think by stripping Zidane of his golden ball FIFA is stripping the world cup of its most formidable player. Zidane in 2006 stood for courage and great skill. He outplayed players 15 years younger than him, and has become an inspiration to millions. He made an error by headbutting Materazzi, but he also apologized for his action and accepted the punishment. He has shown courage and grace even off the football field.

If FIFA wants to retake the golden ball, then it should to back to the moments when Materazzi was harassing Zidane, and give both players a RED card. Otherwise, don't anyone dare touch Zidane's golden ball. He deserved it!

What a stupid debate the French are driving. I have played, studied and watched soccer for over 30 years. First, Abbas' comments are all too typical in the post modern 'blame the victim' age. I reject his comments outright. Second, let's get some facts straight here. Materazzi is indeed a known trash talker but no worse than the kinds we see in the NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA. This talk of FIFA dealing with trash talking is nonsense. I've been called many, many awful things onthe pitch and never ever thought to do that. Why? Because Iknow they are trying to get in my head. His best friend is a Nigerian team mate at Inter Milan and Italians themselves cringe everytime he touches a ball. Interestingly, as much as Materazzi dishes out he takes stunning punishment in Italy. Yet he never reacted like Zidane. Third,the sad reality is that Zidane (and all Italian soccer fans know this as he played for 6 or 7 years at Juventus) has always had a temper. When he plays poorly he lashes out. Just in this world cup alone he earned TWO red cards. He has headbutted players in the past and stomped on others. There is clearly a pattern here. Not to mention the sickening attempt to justify his barbaric act. Only the French and Arabs would come up with such faulty logic - as they did post 9/11. Fourth, all it showcases is the arrogance and fragile mental state of one individual who put his own needs before the team. It also shows that he got played. We are defending the indefensible. Imagine if Materazzi headbutted HIM? Zidane is a thug and has only himself to blame. As usual, look in the mirror. If anyone remains unconvinced, read carefully his hollow apology. It reveals a frightening ethos that prevails in the West.

Frankly, I can think of some scenarios where, in Zizou's place, I would find it hard to justify to myself NOT headbutting the guy, including being racially slurred.

Winning a World Cup isn't everything. So what if he's a great footballer, that doesn't mean he has to slavishly please fans with a tunnel-minded devotion to victory in sport. And maybe lacking that singular devotion makes him an imperfect footballer, but there are some dignities worth headbutting a guy over, even if it costs you the game.

I think it would be a mistake to transform a violation of the etiquette of a narrowly circumscribed role (e.g. football) into a violation of human morality writ large. From a sports fan perspective, I think Zidane's headbutt was abominable, but from a justice perspective, I think relentless, egregious, hate-mongering speech ought to be punished.

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