Banter - it's a fascinating word that's bandied around incessantly to justify atrocious behaviour by footballers and supporters. It's also a term I frequently hear when I'm booking someone for dissent or threatening to send someone off for using abusive language.
It was the excuse used by supporters of Andy Gray and Richard Keys of Sky Sports as they tried to defend the indefensible comments made by the two men. Well let me tell you what "banter" is in the eyes of footballers, with apologies for language.
Banter is telling an opposing player, "I fucked your wife last night" or "I'm going to stab you after the game" or "I hope you die of cancer." Ho Ho Ho, very funny eh? This is sick footballing repartee that has been finessed at the more senior professional levels of our game and is commonly used on the parks around England every weekend. I was once reffing my 16-year-old son in a Kent Youth League game (I know I shouldn't have been but the ref didn't turn up). He'd only just broken into the team but came up to me after half an hour and said he wanted to be subbed because he was going to punch the opposing centre half who was making all the above comments to him. Only it wasn't his wife, but his Mum.
When professional footballers are together, they have little respect for anything, especially for themselves or for women. They're too cosseted to be ordered to change their behaviour unless it goes beyond the extremely low standards footballers are expected to adhere to. What's interesting about Gray and Keys is that they tried to insert themselves into this bubble of footballing celebrity by adopting similar language and standards.
Undoubtedly the fans on the terraces making monkey grunts at black players reckon it's all "banter." Even some players may think that including a racist reference amongst a jumble of obscenities is just "banter" aimed at riling an opponent.
At the heart of the issue is what is and what is not socially acceptable. It is NOT acceptable to threaten to kill your opponents or to make grotesquely sexist or racist remarks. That is NOT banter. It's insults, threats, call it what you will, anything but banter. Banter is a light-hearted exchange that amuses. Teasing is about as far it should go. No further.