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Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Atkinson returns from 18-month exile having learned his lesson


"Ron Returns" was the back-page headline trumpeting Ron Atkinson's return to football after an 18-month exile.

Christopher Davies

Atkinson was sacked by ITV for making a racist remark, which also included abusive language at Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly, the former Manchester United manager unaware that his words went live to Dubai when a sound technician failed to cut the feed during the Blues' Champions League semifinal against Monaco.

Atkinson's indiscretion has cost him about £1 million and he has spent much of the last year and a half apologizing, reassuring everyone he is not a racist.

Ironically he has signed up to front an access-all-areas documentary by Sky on Swind on Town, which is sponsored by the broadcaster. Swindon's manager is Iffy Onuora, one of four black managers in professional football in England.

Unsurprisingly, Atkinson's comeback, working with Onuora, has split both the white and black communities -- some believe he should never be allowed back after what he said while others take the view that although he did the crime, he has also served his time.

What Atkinson said was horrible and an insult to every black person. The N-word does not come out of the ether -- it is either in your vocabulary or it isn't. The F-word may be part of industrial language in all aspects of life though throwing in "thick" and "lazy" merely added to the argument that this was the comment of a racist.

It is difficult for white people to appreciate how insulting the N-word is to the Afro-Caribbean society because there is no singularly abusive word for non-blacks. Ian Wright and Robbie Earle, two black ex-players who are television pundits like Atkinson, had no sympathy for "Big Ron," and it is surprising Sky is so benevolent because it has sacked people for making non-politically correct jokes or remarks.

Onuora admitted he had doubts about working with Atkinson.

"I had reservations," said the Swindon manager. "I spoke to him about racism because I needed to know his thinking. He realized he made a mistake, but he was defensive about it. I told him how appalled I was, but we have to move on and he deserves a second chance. I do not condone what he did, but you can't bury him over that."

IN 1990 the then Arsenal captain Tony Adams served 56 days of a three-month sentence at Chelmsford Open Prison for a drunken-driving offense. It was fortunate that when his car crashed into a wall there were no pedestrians around.

Was Adams' offense worse that Atkinson's? Adams returned to play for Arsenal and England and has become something of a role model for recovering alcoholics. Had Adams not been allowed back into football he would not have been able to set up his drug rehabilitation center to help others in a similar situation to himself.

Last March Jermaine Pennant of Arsenal, on loan to Birmingham at the time, was given a three-month sentence for drunken-driving while banned with no insurance. Countless other footballers have served driving bans for driving under the influence of alcohol and returned to the fold.

In 1994 Everton's Duncan Ferguson, now a regular substitute for Everton, served 44 days in prison for head-butting a Raith Rovers player while playing for Rangers. George Graham was banned from football after the Arsenal manager was found guilty of taking a "bung" but returned to management with Leeds and Tottenham. Graham Rix was given a 12-month sentence for having unlawful sex with a 15-year-old six years ago but is now head coach at Hearts.

Atkinson committed no crime as such -- perhaps against society but not in the eyes of the law of the land and therefore had no official punishment. Perhaps it would have been better if he had because then Atkinson would have had a tangible time-scale to serve.

While in no way minimizing the impact of Atkinson's comments or condoning them, it is difficult to argue that what he did was worse than potentially killing innocent bystanders when a drunk plows into a wall or assaulting a fellow professional.

Maybe it is the belief among many that Atkinson will always be a racist whereas Adams is no longer reliant on alcohol that one now has played a significant role in the sport whereas the other still attracts "not welcome" signs. Adams has been punished and is "cured," but Atkinson's problem is seen as forever.

Onuora probably hit the right note when he said we should move on and Atkinson should not be buried over his remark. If a broadcaster or a football club wants to employ Atkinson they should be free to do so, though nobody is likely to be trampled in the rush for his services.



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