A star player for one of the world’s biggest soccer clubs has come under fire for using a racist term in an Instagram post, adding to an ongoing debate over the word in question as well as highlighting efforts to hold athletes to higher social media standards.
Edinson Cavani, who plays for both Manchester United and the Uruguayan national team, was banned for three matches on Thursday by the Football Association (FA), the governing body for soccer in England. He was also fined £100,000.
The disciplinary action stems from a November post that Cavani made on Instagram. Cavani’s official Instagram account has 7.9 million followers. In the post in question, Cavani thanked a follower for congratulating him on his performance in a United match against Southampton by saying, “Gracias negrito” accompanied by the handshake emoji.
According to the Guardian, the FA termed Cavani’s comment “insulting, abusive, improper and brought the game into disrepute contrary to FA Rule E3.1. The post also constitutes an ‘aggravated breach’, which is defined in FA Rule E3.2, as it included reference, whether express or implied, to colour and/or race and/or ethnic origin.”
Another Guardian article clarifies, “Social media postings are covered by FA Rule E3, and if a comment is deemed to include a reference to a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race or nationality, then that will be regarded as a potential aggravating factor in any punishment. The rules also make it clear that the owners of social media accounts are responsible for any content posted from their account, whether by themselves or by a third party.”
Though the post has since been deleted, it lives on in screenshot form, and various soccer Twitter accounts, like Futbol de Ingleterra, shared it along with news of the Cavani suspension.
The term “negrito” is “a racially-charged word with many meanings,” according to a CNN article in 2011 that explored a controversy surrounding the term that involved another star Uruguayan player, Luis Suarez, who allegedly directed the term toward a Black opponent, French national player Patrice Evra, in a match between Liverpool (where Suarez played at the time) and Manchester United (where Evra played). That incident led to a £40,000 fine and an eight-match ban for Suarez, now playing professionally in Spain’s top league for Atletico Madrid.
The CNN article said the term “negrito,” translating to “little black man,” can be used as a term of endearment, but can also be deemed insulting, dependent in part on cultural context.
“In Puerto Rico, it has one meaning. In Cuba it has a slightly different connotation and in the Dominican Republic it has a slightly different connotation,” said Jorge Chinea, director of the Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, in that article.
Cavani’s ban comes in the same month that his former pro club, Paris Saint-Germain, was involved in a remarkable incident around an on-field racial slur. The French club, best known by its PSG initials, was playing a Champions League match in Paris against a Turkish team, Istanbul Basaksehir on Dec. 8.
Just 14 minutes into the match, as the New York Times relayed, a Romanian official, Sebastian Coltescu, asked the match referee to eject Basaksehir assistant coach Pierre Webó from the match, allegedly referring to the Cameroonian as “the negro.”
Players from both teams objected to the use of the term, and after discussions with the official, decided to abandon the field rather than continue playing. The match was suspended until the following day—unusual in soccer, especially for the popular, globally televised European tournament.
The Guardian story on Cavani’s suspension included a statement from Manchester United, which read:
As he has stated, Edinson Cavani wasn’t aware that his words could have been misconstrued and he sincerely apologised for the post and to anyone who was offended.
Despite his honest belief that he was simply sending an affectionate thank you in response to a congratulatory message from a close friend, he chose not to contest the charge out of respect for, and solidarity with, the FA and the fight against racism in football. While it is clear that context and intent are key factors, we note that the independent regulatory commission was required to impose a minimum three-game suspension.
Cavani will miss Friday’s Premier League match against Aston Villa, the Carabao Cup semifinal match against rivals Manchester City, and the upcoming FA Cup Third Round match against Watford.
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