Sticks and stones (and bottles and cans)

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There can’t be many people who haven’t heard of or sang the nursery rhyme paraphrased in the title. Obviously the rhyme persuades the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm and good-natured. I’m sure we’ve all we’ve all sat through the lecture from a parent or teacher referencing it after someone has teased us as a child!

According to various sources the rhyme is reported to have originally appeared in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, an American publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church with a mainly black audience, where it is presented as an "old adage" in this form:

“Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.”

The phrase also appeared in 1872, where it is presented as advice in Tappy's Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature, by Mrs. George Cupples. The version used in that work runs:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But names will never hurt me.”

Whatever the version, the words are simple enough and the message a sensible one. Indeed, as much as the modern moral is aimed at children, clearly the initial readership must have sought comfort in the dreadful daily battles they had with racism and slavery in 19th century America. As such, I don’t think anyone should be embarrassed to reference the words in their adult life.

With that in mind, as the phoney bigotry war once again envelops Scottish football, perhaps we need to ask ourselves what we look to achieve as we take offence at chants we hear at stadia around the country. Do we really want people arrested with the threat of a five year jail term for singing nonsense that is easily shrugged off? Or is it more to do with the agreeable chance of punishment for rival clubs, not to mention the grandiose one-upmanship of tut-tutting at their alleged behaviour?

Referencing nursery rhymes is actually quite appropriate with respect to this issue as the overall debate is often simplistic. Not only will you often be ignored by politicians or other authority figures if you attempt to discuss the issue on ‘social’ media; but the quality of the media’s contribution rarely rises above that you’ll find in any primary school playground. Add in Scottish police and stewards playing the part of the bully, then generally the issue is all about who stamps their feet and shouts the loudest to get themselves heard.

Let’s look at one recent contribution from Helen Martin – an experienced writer and community editor of the Edinburgh Evening News which is part of the Scotsman group of newspapers. Link available here.

According to her Linkedin page, Ms Martin has worked in the industry for almost 40 years so you’d expect a fairly mature view on most social issues. Unfortunately, in her column of 25th January, her eagerness to use unsubstantiated gossip was accompanied by the kind of hysterical comment I’d expect of an infant. Claims of Hibs fans at a December game at Ibrox being ‘pelted with coins, lighters, bottles and cans’ were juxtaposed with the suggestion widespread chants of ‘die you fen!an bast!rds’ were also aimed at the Hibees tucked away in the Govan West Corner. The clearly upset Ms Martin then concluded that ‘the Army be sent in’ to deal with the ‘hate-filled thugs’ the police were bizarrely ignoring.

To be fair to the journalist, despite the fact the chant above doesn’t exist, Rangers were actually forced to make a statement condemning their fans’ singing of the Billy Boys chant which references ‘being up to their knees in fen!an blood’. I won’t waste any time trying to defend that version of that particular battle hymn. However, quite simply the coin/lighter/bottle/can throwing incident(s) absolutely did not happen. I’ve been a season ticket holder at Ibrox for almost 20 years and have never seen such missiles thrown – and that includes from home or away fans during heated Old Firm games. I think the worst example is paper aeroplanes being made out of the material used in card displays. Ouch! And I’ve definitely never seen anyone smuggle in six cans of lager as us pre-determined football hooligans get body-searched at the turnstile!

Of course the daft article above isn’t the only recent example of faux offence being taken at football matches. We have Celtic fans reported to the SFA for smoke-bombs and sectarian/racist chanting while Motherwell fans invaded the pitch to goad Rangers supporters after their play-off win last year. Interestingly, it was two Hibs fans that became the first football supporters in Scotland to be convicted and sentenced under the offensive behaviour at football legislation in 2012. Both were fined and given banning orders for singing a ‘racially-offensive’ song on a train. Three years later Celtic and Scotland striker Leigh Griffiths was admonished by Edinburgh Sheriff Court after apologising for apparently singing the same song in a pub. Mobile phone footage certainly has a lot to answer for – strangely the supporter in Ms Martin’s piece decided against videoing the hail of missiles they sheltered from last month.

Addendum: Interestingly, the same day our article was published, the Herald had to publish a retraction and apology for erroneous claims made by their journalist Graham Spiers about Rangers' anti-sectarianism work. You can view this apology here.

At this stage you’d be forgiven for thinking Scottish football is a hotbed of hooliganism and bigotry. Perhaps we do need the Army to intervene after all?! In actual fact the truth is a bit less neurotic. Yes, perhaps in the 1970s and 80s, there was an issue with regular poor behaviour but football stadia in Scotland are now largely safe places to visit. For one thing, most games are overly-policed and segregation is rarely required as most fans mix well in and around matches. However, even for higher category fixtures, genuine trouble is extremely rare and usually quickly dealt with. Will you hear the odd offensive song? Absolutely. Will you come across the odd imbecile? Sure but none of us are perfect!

With that final truism fresh in the mind, I think we all have to ask ourselves where this debate is going. Why should we and our children have our civil liberties ignored before we enter games? Do we really want clubs docked points for the odd actions of a few? Or are we not clever enough to note the games being played by football committees, politicians and police to secure a few extra votes or pounds? We certainly can’t trust certain sections of the media to report on the issue in a balanced, rational fashion so if we really want to press ahead with the tedious sanitisation of Scottish football, let’s continue to claim the moral high-ground any time we can’t win on the field.

Or maybe, just maybe we could hum the rhyme at the top of the page, remember what real discrimination is and apply a bit more honesty to an issue which is overplayed and misrepresented time after time?

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