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Like millions of other folks across the globe, I've spent the last three days reflecting on the extraordinary actions of Zinedine Zidane in Sunday's World Cup Final. I can't imagine that there's a reader in the blogosphere who hasn't learned of the astonishing head-butt. On Sunday, in the immediate aftermath of the match, I wrote:
I've been a sports fan since childhood, and in thirty years of watching every imaginable athletic activity (this was the seventh World Cup final I've seen on TV), I cannot think of any incident as shocking as Zinedine Zidane's mindless, inexcusably violent head-butt in the latter stages of today's match. It's as if in the midst of their last Super Bowl appearances, Joe Montana or John Elway were to have viciously kicked a poor defensive lineman in the groin. I've never seen an athlete of such caliber completely lose his head in circumstances as vital and important as these. It strikes me as one of the most self-destructive moments I've ever seen in sport. No words -- no matter how ugly or vicious -- could have justified the violence and thoughtlessness of Zidane's reaction. I'm sad for how this will forever color his legacy.
But I wonder. Zidane is set to speak today about what it was that the Italian player, Marco Materazzi, said that triggered the head-butt. According to the lip-readers hired by the BBC, Materazzi told Zidane "you're the son of a terrorist whore" (among other things) before Zidane turned on him.
We all know the old saying: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." It's quite possible that no other childish nursery rhyme is more fundamentally wrong-headed than that one! And it's also worth noting that the power of words to hurt is racially and sexually charged.
In my fantasies, I am a great soccer player. Now imagine that I was on the pitch on Sunday, not as clumsy Hugo Schwyzer, but as an athlete of Zidane's caliber. I am a white, Christian, heterosexual male. What on earth could Materazzi say to me? In the great arsenal of insults, Western culture doesn't have derogatory language for white, Christian, heterosexual men. The only way to get at me would be to feminize me (call me a "pussy") or "homosexualize" me (call me "queer"), but those would be terms that wouldn't go to the core of my identity. Materazzi's power to injure with words would be considerably reduced. He could also call me the "son of a terrorist whore", but the epithet "terrorist" has no culturally significant meaning when attached to someone of my background.
When a white man and a man of color are playing on the pitch, no matter which European language they speak, the white man will have more "weapons in his verbal arsenal" than his rival. Leaving aside gendered and sexualized insults, what power do the words "honky" and "cracker" and "redneck" have to hurt compared to, say, the word "nigger"? If you call me a "cracker" (a term more accurately used to refer to poor rural whites), I'm going to laugh -- there is no history of violence and hatred behind the word. If I call a player of African descent the "n" word, I'm going to expect a different reaction -- not because he has less self-control than I do but because of the extraordinary legacy attached to that term.
There isn't a single term in English that you can use that attacks me for being who I am. Put bluntly, the word "cunt" has more power to hurt than the insult "prick"; the word "nigger" more power to hurt than the word "honky", the word "faggot" more power to hurt than the word "straight." Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" -- indeed, if I happen to be a privileged white male using Western European languages!
It is dangerous for whites, particularly white Christian men, to suggest that players like Zidane (who is of African descent and is a non-practicing Muslim) ought to be able to control their tempers better. While all of us will be insulted at one time or another in our lives, it is absurd to suggest that all of us are equally vulnerable to racial, sexual, or religious slurs. To be an African Muslim man, as Zidane is, renders one at the least doubly vulnerable to verbal attack. And it is the height of arrogance for those of us who have never experienced these sorts of psychic injuries to demand constant self-control from those who have.
Mind you, in the end, I think Zidane deserved the red card. Head-butting has no place on the pitch. But I favor red cards for racial, religious, and gendered slurs as well -- and if necessary, I favor giving them retroactively. If FIFA can give a retroactive red card to Germany's Torsten Frings for a punch he threw after the game with Argentina, they can certainly give one to Materazzi if his abuse is verified to have been racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious in nature. When black players in Europe are pelted by banana peels or peanuts or monkey calls when theirs is the visiting team, award their side a penalty kick. We need to be as strong and decisive in confronting verbal violence as we are in confronting head butts. To do otherwise is to ignore the reality that words are genuine weapons, and in a racist culture, those weapons are unevenly distributed.
UPDATE: Of course, there's another theory (Bernard-Henry Levy partially made it in the Wall Street Journal, h/t Rusty Parts): Zidane was tired of being the hero, the great man carrying the weight of a world's hopes, tired of always being elegant and beautiful. His head-butt was a "I'm a man, just a man" moment -- a refusal to play the role he had been assigned and a impassioned plea to be seen as a human being. Levy writes:
Yes, a man, a true man, not one of these absurd monsters or synthetic stars who are made by the money of brand names in combination with the sighs of the globalized crowd. Achilles had his heel. Zidane will have had his—this magnificent and rebellious head that brought him, suddenly, back into the ranks of his human brothers.
That may not be far off, and it certainly arouses tremendous sympathy.