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Signing Serge Aurier would be an insult to Tottenham fans

Without a true making of amends, signing a player with a history of homophobic speech is a betrayal of the club’s ethos.

 A view of a rainbow above White Hart Lane Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

If rumors are to be believed, Serge Aurier is poised to become Tottenham Hotspur’s second signing of the season. There’s no doubt that Aurier is an international-caliber fullback who would markedly improve the side. Spurs need a new right back, and he’s excellent.

But if winning the league hinges on signing him, we’d be prouder of the empty slot in our trophy cabinet than any silverware he helped us win.

For readers who may be unaware, last spring Aurier did a Q&A on Periscope where he insulted several of his teammates and called then-coach Laurent Blanc “une fiotte,” which translates to English as “f*ggot”. After initially claiming the video was a fake made by an imposter, he eventually admitted it and issued an apology. It reads:

“I made a big mistake, I am here to say sorry to the coach, the club and my team-mates, and to the supporters because they are the most important people," he said.

“I want to apologise especially to the coach, I can only thank him for all he has done for me since I arrived in Paris. He wanted me and since I came here everything has gone really well. I owe him a lot and that is why I apologise sincerely to him for what was said, which I deeply regret.

“I will accept any sanction the club impose on me regarding this incident. I made a mistake, it was unforgivable and I am ready to face all the consequences.”

This “apology” doesn’t address any of the core issues. We’re not saying amends cannot be made, but before we discuss why Spurs fans should demand contrition with far more substance and sincerity before accepting this transfer, we need to talk about why his words are so harmful in the first place.

Homophobia, like racism and sexism and other forms of bigotry, is pernicious. Slurs like Aurier’s damage and dehumanize an entire community of people regardless of whether they fell inside the intended blast radius. This is the thing about hate speech. That slur is something Serge Aurier said offhand in a video, but it’s also what an awful number of LGBT folks have heard from someone who planned to hurt them.

According to survey data from GALOP, about 25 percent of LGBT folks in the UK are survivors of bias-related physical assault. Words hurt in part because they recall and reactivate thoughts of those crimes; they say to an LGBT person, even to kids, you may not be safe, you may be subject to violence simply for being who you are. I’ve heard many straight people treat these words casually, as if they’re just the stuff teenagers say when they’re messing around. But that’s not how they’re heard by everyone.

That history of violence is why intent isn’t really the point with bigoted speech. Whether intended or not, hate speech imposes the full weight of societal oppression on every single member of that community. The way this works is particularly harmful at the intersection of bigotry and fandom. That communal experience of fandom makes sports a peculiarly valuable place of refuge in difficult personal or political times. It’s a place we can do our caring and our worrying separate from the rest of our lives.

So when an athlete uses this language, it impinges on sports as a place of refuge. It means that in order to be an LGBT fan, you have to pay a little extra price that other folks don’t. You have to be reminded of the pervasive threat of violence and bigotry in the world while other folks can carry on cheering. For the most part, fans do “get over it” in the sense that they keep on singing, watching the games, and reading articles online. But no one truly gets over it because that bigotry carries a cost, a reminder of worry and suffering, an implicit threat, an unwelcome pinch in the back of your brain. And that cost is borne by LGBT fans.

The question this raises is, why would a football team impose that cost on some of its fans? Indeed, Spurs have been by all accounts welcoming and positive in their relationship with the Proud Lilywhites and other LGBT fans. So when there are football decisions to be made about how to fill a hole at right back, the club must think of its fans and what those football decisions will mean for them and their relationship to the club. Unless the club has a substantive plan to make amends, to make things right, they should not impose that cost on any of us.

One part of that cost is the way that the reminders of bigotry end up getting woven into the fan experience. The tribalism of fandom means that we’ll see some Spurs fans defending what Aurier said, minimizing it, and in so doing extending the cost paid by LGBT fans. It’s not just a one-off at the signing, it will carry over through the years the player is on the squad and reverberate into our future.

Already the more toxic elements of our fanbase are rearing their ugly heads.

Like it or not, this is a Spurs fan. We’ve seen what happens when these people are emboldened and encouraged. When their hate is given room to blossom and march in the streets. Just the rumor of signing a player who has publicly expressed hateful bigotry is all the encouragement this Spurs fan needed to call for the murder of his fellow supporters. This is the cost that signing Aurier imposes: threats of violence against fellow fans and LGBT supporters never feeling entirely safe among the crowds of Spurs fans.

Signing an unrepentant Serge Aurier is a slap in the face to every LGBT supporter, employee, and player at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Spurs offer an escape from the everyday horrors of the world, and in 2017 that escape is more important than ever. Fostering a climate of intolerance that deprives our LGBT brothers, sisters and non-binary family members of that refuge is cruel and inhumane. We owe it to them and to ourselves to make Spurs a welcoming club and community we can all take pride in.

We’ve seen it before—when John Terry or Luis Suarez racially abuses an opponent, when Jamie Vardy does the same to a passer-by at a casino, when Jack Wilshere demands to keep England English. We know it’s wrong, and we insist we’d never stand for that at our club. We’ve seen how other fans tie themselves into tribalistic knots to excuse the behavior, dismiss it as isolated incidents, or try to separate it from football.

But we’ve also seen it closer to home. In 2009, then-captain and current club ambassador and Spurs legend Ledley King was accused of racially abusing a Pakistani bouncer at a nightclub. Many Spurs fans may not even know that this happened. Most of us forgive it, or at least pretend that it never happened. He was drunk. It was a one time thing. He’s Ledley King. But among the Pakistani community of Spurs fandom, I imagine it’s not so easily erased, and brushing the incident under the rug has done a grave disservice to our fellow Spurs supporters. We were wrong.

With Aurier, we have the chance not to make the same mistake twice. Here we have no longstanding loyalties to cloud our minds and judgment. The only impediments standing between us and doing the right thing are our aspirations for the club. And we aspire to support a club and belong to a community with integrity and compassion more than we aspire to win trophies. We all should.

Supporting Tottenham Hotspur is about more than watching football matches and winning trophies. If it weren’t, we’d all be United fans. But we’re not. Because while sports are exciting on their own, they’re even better as part of a fan community, chanting, exulting and suffering together at the events taking place on the pitch in front of us. Wherever we come from, we chose to support Spurs. Whether it’s because we’re from Tottenham, or our families are supporters, or we liked Clint Dempsey, something brought us here and kept us here that’s bigger than football. Every day we actively choose to be part of the Spurs community. When you tie yourself to a community it’s important that the community stands for something, and the Yid Army emphatically does.

Besmirched as England’s Jewish club and standing in the face of anti-Semitic abuse, our supporters fought back. We reclaimed the anti-Semitic slur “Yid” and chose to wear it as a badge of honor. Despite the fact that the majority of Spurs fans weren’t Jewish, we refused to accept the denigration of our brothers and sisters and we fought for them. For many of us, learning about our history with the Y-word was one of the things that helped cement our fandom. Spurs weren’t just another sports team. We believed that they were more than that, and stood for something bigger than sports.

That fight continues to this day, and if we are to have any claim to call ourselves Yiddos with any integrity, we need to keep fighting. Unless the Yid Army has been reduced to nothing more than a kitschy slogan, a forgotten relic of a hurtful past, then we need to stand for the oppressed.

If the club is to sign Serge Aurier, then we as fans must demand more than a pro forma apology. Whatever his intentions and personal feelings may be, someone needs to pay the cost of his words, and that cost should not be borne by our LGBT fans. Aurier needs to actively engage with the harm he caused and continues to cause by not disavowing his remarks. And if he doesn’t, then he has no place at Tottenham Hotspur.

According to reports in France, PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi punched a door in frustration over the defender’s lack of sincerity when he was forced to apologize. It’s clear that thus far he hasn’t convinced anyone of his remorse or even considered the broader ramifications of his comments. It’s hard to say what would be enough to show genuine contrition. Every person will have a different threshold for what they consider sufficient. The standard should be set by the community of LGBT fans, not by us, but here are two examples of the kind of engagement that at a bare minimum needs to happen before we should welcome this man on our team.

A few years ago, actor Jonah Hill was being hassled by a paparazzo and called him the F-word. In his apology he said:

I am not at all defending my choice of words, but I am happy to be the poster boy for thinking about what you say and how those words -- even if you don't intend them in how they mean -- they are rooted in hate and that's ... and I shouldn't have said that.

I'm happy to take the heat for using this disgusting word. What I won't allow is for anyone -- it would break my heart to think that anyone would think, especially with all the work that I've done and all the loved ones that I have -- that I would be against anyone for their sexuality. That's absurd to me.

This represents to us the minimum engagement with the issue necessary to start the process of healing. He recognizes that his words were couched in hate, owns up to them, and disavows the homophobic sentiments behind the insult. It’s not perfect, it’s a little defensive, but it’s a start.

A better example comes from actor Chris Pratt, who didn’t insult anyone, but was thoughtlessly insensitive to the deaf community. The text of his Instagram post is reprinted here.

So when I made a video recently with subtitles, and requested that people turn up the volume and not just "read the subtitles" it was so people wouldn't scroll past the video on mute, thus watching and digesting the information in the video. HOWEVER, I realize now doing so was incredibly insensitive to the many folks out there who depend on subtitles. More than 38 million Americans live with some sort of hearing disability. So I want to apologize. I have people in my life who are hearing-impaired, and the last thing in the world I would want to do is offend them or anybody who suffers from hearing loss or any other disability. So truly from the bottom of my heart I apologize. Thanks for pointing this out to me. In the future I'll try to be a little less ignorant about it.

Now... I know some of you are going to say, "Hey! Chris only apologized because his publicist made him!" Well. That is not the case. As always I control my social media. Nobody else. And I am doing this because I'm actually really sorry. Apologies are powerful. I don't dole them out Willy-Nilly. This is one of those moments where I screwed up and here's me begging your pardon. I hope you accept my apology.

Rather than brush off these concerns as petty and minor, he actively engages with their complaints and commits himself to doing better. This is the kind of apology we ask from Serge Aurier and Tottenham Hotspur before accepting him as a member of our community. Frankly, if he’s to remain a member of any footballing community.

As we’ve discussed, homophobia is not just about the specific incident. It’s an endemic, societal oppression that members of the LGBT community fight against every day. It’s not enough to simply not do homophobic things. We have an obligation to actively engage in anti-homophobia or we are complicit in the system of oppression. Homophobia is rampant in football culture, and it’s up to us to fight to stamp it out.

We’ve seen Tottenham qualify twice for the Champions League. We’ve seen us lift the League Cup at Wembley. We’ve seen Gareth Bale and Luka Modric and Harry Kane create magic out of nothing. We’ve never seen Spurs win the Premier League. And if this is what it would take, it would be a bigger point of pride that we never do.