Andre Gray and the handling of hate speech and social media in football

When an athlete misbehaves, on whom does the burden of forgiveness fall?

Image: Andre Gray via Twitter

This is a story about chronology. The facts, few though they may be, stay relatively stable in each telling, but the story varies based on where one starts and where one goes from there. No matter how one tells this story, mind you, few of its characters come out looking good.

In early 2012, Andre Gray took to Twitter. At the time, he was a 21 year old playing for non-league Hinckley Town, a club that would soon thereafter cease to exist. The tweets in question have since been deleted and their language violates just about every editorial guideline that this and other publication has, but I am going to quote one verbatim so you have an idea what we’re talking about here: “Is it me or are there gays everywhere? #Burn #Die #MakesMeSick”

Then as now, the language in Gray’s tweets was profoundly offensive. In fact, the problem with his tweets isn’t really linguistic. Calling for the death of “gays” is bad because it’s an incitement to violence; the use of slurs is secondary. But anyhow, it’s bad by the standards of the time and place, as well as today’s. That we are talking about Andre Gray’s tweets is curious because they are not particularly controversial: the offense is painfully obvious.

And yet, the tweets festered on Twitter for years. They were seen and retweeted and life went on. In that time, Hinckley Town folded. By that time, Gray was long gone, playing for Luton Town, then Brentford, and most recently Burnley. Four years and about 120 appearances went by without the tweets coming up. But they were in the public sphere all along. Anyone with a clever search or a desire to dig through archives could have found them. The tweets were out there.

They were also on the internet last weekend, when Gray scored his first Premier League goal against Liverpool in a shock 2–0 Burnley victory. That’s when the tweets came to light. They were retweeted hundreds of times over in their full homophobic horror. At that point, nobody could ignore them. PR people surely fretted behind the scenes. After hours of uproar, Gray released a statement:

Gray says he’s grown up and is different than he was in 2012. Who knows if that’s true? In this strictly chronological telling of his story, it’s possible that Gray has learned a lesson in the last four years. He would not be the first person to do that, and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community have evolved rapidly in this lifetime. But again, who knows? He would say that he’s grown, wouldn’t he?

(At this point, I pause to note that Andre Gray was still tweeting the word “gay” as a derogatory term in 2013, a year after the tweets this latest furore centers on. At the time of writing, those tweets had yet to be deleted, but there is little value in embedding them here. Maybe Gray truly has grown since 2012 and all that growth took place after 2013. Suffice it to say that even the strictly chronological “linear growth” story gets complicated the moment you do some digging.)

The FA doesn’t really care if Gray has grown, which is understandable. How do you quantify growth or assess its veracity? It’s what every athlete in this scenario would say. The tweets are now public (though they always were, in a sense) and they are a problem for an organization that purports to have zero tolerance for homophobia. Thus, after the tweets were retweeted to prominence, the FA announced that it was charging Gray with bringing the game into disrepute, even if its social media rules were introduced after Gray’s tweets.

It’s not clear exactly how this story ends, but a safe bet is that Gray serves a suspension, apologizes, and pays some kind of fine before doing good works, and nobody will be particularly satisfied when it’s all over. That is roughly how the system is supposed to work.

One could just as easily argue that Andre Gray’s story starts last weekend, when he appeared against Liverpool. As a story about public figures and comments made in the public sphere, the inciting incident is really Gray’s appearance on a quasi-global stage. None of that changes the fact that Gray wrote hateful things, but it acknowledges that they are only international news because of this more recent context: Homophobic tweets by a non-league player are awful, but the global reach (and ambition) of the Premier League changes everything. The tension in this version of the story is that we don’t know how much of it really takes place in the present day. Any talk of past versions of Andre Gray presupposes that those views are indeed in the past, and there can be no certainty in that regard.

This story can too easily center on the nature of publicness. While virtually everything on Twitter is public (RIP Gawker), there are different levels of publicness. My tweets as a broke journalist are rarely exposed to the same scrutiny as Mesut Ozil’s tweets. The bad ones are called out (thankfully) but I tweet with generally lower stakes. Where things get complicated, however, is that individuals can move from one level of publicness to another. Andre Gray is now justifiably exposed to more public scrutiny than when he was a non-league player. Promotion to a more public status should not erase all past misdeeds — Gray said what he said — but one might reasonably argue that retrospective punishment is not the way forward in a society where we are all haunted by digital ghosts.

But again: that debate detracts from the fact that Andre Gray said he’d like to see gay people burn and die. A more understanding and forgiving public sphere is probably a net good, but forgetting what Gray said is an awfully high price to pay for a vision of the public sphere that does not yet — and may never — exist. The fact that discussions of truces only happen when someone says something remarkably hateful speaks to the power imbalance at play: the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups are expected to forgive an awful lot in the name of nebulous gains to the public discourse. Andre Gray did something awful, even if it was four years ago, and one can reasonably take umbrage at that.

The FA version of this story starts with public outcry and works backwards. That, after all, is what English football’s governing body is doing. The FA’s telling of this story quickly takes on aura of inevitability. At the point when the tweets became public and Gray apologized, the organization had to take action.

Credit doesn’t need to be given to an organization that only acts when backed into a corner. If it really cared about the game’s reputation, the FA could have looked these tweets up over the last four years. The same goes for all of Gray’s teams. All the now-outraged parties are guilty of a total lack of curiosity. Outsourcing your vetting process to the caprices of Twitter (what if Gray hadn’t played against Liverpool or not scored?) does not make for a good or consistent system. The alternative — clubs and leagues constantly poring over past tweets — is unsavoury, but at least it’s internally consistent.

Even if all this came to light through a strange confluence of events, Gray did bring the game into disrepute. But that disrepute happened in 2012, not when everyone suddenly took notice. Everyone is simply late to the party. Talking about it in such terms allows for a condemnation of Gray’s acts as well as football’s enforcement mechanisms, which appear to operate on ad hoc basis as opposed to solid internal logic. The FA, by attempting to punish Gray for an action that predates its own social media rules, is hoping you’ll forget this inconvenient reality.

The problem here is that all three stories to be told about Andre Gray, Burnley, and the FA are equally true and wholly incompatible. It’s true that Gray tweeted abhorrent things. It’s true that nobody in a position of power seemed to care about any of this until he scored a Premier League goal. It’s true that people grow. It’s true that growth isn’t really an excuse. It’s true that Twitter is public. It’s true that we have no way of knowing if Gray has actually grown. It’s true that the publicness of comments and individuals changes over time. Good luck balancing all those facts.

This is annoying because soccer in every country — seriously: just throw a dart at a map — has a problem with homophobia. Handling these issues badly, as everyone in this story has done since 2012, does all those who care about these issues a disservice. It is possible for procedural fairness and strict opposition to homophobia to coexist, but not here. That opportunity was lost long ago, and Andre Gray — no matter what his defenders might eventually protest — is neither the primary nor the sole victim in that scenario.

I want to believe in growth. I need to believe in growth. Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ issues have changed a great deal in my lifetime. Gay marriage, which seemed like a distant possibility when I was a child, has been a reality for almost half of my life (and far more briefly in America). Some of the most homophobic people I once knew have since come out or changed their views. That doesn’t undo past damages, but progress requires a certain amount of personal growth on the part of people who once held loathsome beliefs. Past homophobes should not now be granted a free pass, but arguing that they are incapable of growth or forever holding what they once thought against them is equally unreasonable.

I want to believe in Andre Gray’s growth. To an extent, I need to believe in it. That doesn’t mean I actually believe he has grown. Pledging growth when you have been caught red handed is rarely a compelling argument. I’m not sure what, exactly, I want Andre Gray to have done differently, beyond never having tweeted homophobic slurs. I suppose he should have deleted the tweets, but that wouldn’t have changed the underlying act. Archival materials are often at odds with personal growth.

Above all else, however, the most frustrating part of this story is that the burden of empathy — as is so often the case — is shouldered by those with the fewest protections. For four years, soccer clubs and governing bodies sat on their hands while a player evinced few outward signs of growth, and now the case for affording him forgiveness and the benefit of the doubt requires letting all these jerks off easy. None of them deserve it. An adult who called for the burning and death of my (and lest you forget, dear reader, your) family and friends is not the vessel in whom I’d like to invest that emotional energy. An adult who called for my death is not worthy of that effort. I want to believe that Andre Gray has grown, because the Andre Grays of this world need to grow, but I don’t have the emotional energy to forgive him; the powers that be in football have exhausted what little I had left.