The Ugly American

That’s Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King on Malian referee Koman Coulibaly—perhaps now the most hated man in America—who called yesterday’s already infamous match between USA and Slovenia (which ended in a 2–2 draw for those who don’t know). King’s also got a column to go with this tweet.

I have no words. But thankfully, others do.

From Zunguzungu:

Peter King’s SI column, for example, is really just run of the mill chauvinism; his dark mutterings about how Coulibaly — “from the landlocked West African country of Mali” — must be unprepared for his job since he only previously refereed in the African Cup of Nations is the sort of sports-commenter crypto racism that the US has been producing more and more of lately, but which has been pretty standard issue in Europe for quite a while. We’ll need more of that in the days to come, but don’t fool yourself: every newspaper in England has at least half a dozen writers capable of turning out that kind of performance at the drop of a hat. And his wailing indignation just demonstrates what an amateur hour dog and pony show he’s running. You get the idea that he really does think he’s the first soccer commentator to demand accountability from FIFA, which I bet he even knows how to pronounce. I hope someday he has the chance to cry and moan after a ref takes away his victory in the semifinals or the quarterfinals, or even the finals themselves. And maybe, just maybe, someday God himself will reach down onto the pitch and hand victory to his opponents.

Read the rest here. It’s an excellent takedown. For more reactions from around the world’s blogosphere, I suggest this nice round-up from Global Voices. Also weighing in is Our Man in America. Even the New York Times comes to Coulibaly’s defense, sort of.

I stand with Coulibaly. Let’s hope FIFA doesn’t drop him for the rest of the Cup.



  1. Did you see his twitter non-apology? Apparently, he didn't mean to demean an entire country, it's just that Malian referees aren't qualified. So there we are.

  2. It's not a takedown. It's a bunch of anti-American nonsense. I won't apologize for being an American, or for recognizing when a guy way over his head, from an undeveloped country, can't do his job right.

  3. Oh, Lester, that's adorable. I hope that someday someone does ask you to apologize for being an American, so you can have the pleasure of refusing to comply. I imagine you'd enjoy it very much.

  4. It's funny how King went with the 'he's from West Africa' argument, when tragic calls by refs in the States happen all the time. We never call out a referee's home state and say all referees from that area are bad refs, therefore the sports league should never draw referees from there again. Sports fans in America direct their hatred at that particular referee.

    I know that referees have different personalities, like police can be both good or bad. Coulibaly was incredibly bad.

  5. the ref was terrible, he should be dropped from the WC. It has nothing to do where he is from, he just did a terrible job. Stand by Coulibaly, stand by poor performance.

  6. It isn't crypto racism- The call was bad. US anger would be the same regardless of where the ref was from.

    This is nothing new. In 1998 following the tied Chile Cameroon game, there were anti-white riots in Youande to protest the call by a Hungarian ref. I had a friend trapped in the anti-theft cage of a bar– the police eventually rescued him. Radio-33 said 2 Koreans were killed as proxy for the ref.

    Some people are too serious about soccer.

  7. I suppose I'm mostly confused what you feel should be done. The official made numerous terrible calls, fine. Some group of people said something ridiculous and maybe even racist in response to this, fine. Is that the conclusion en total? Or, are we to extrapolate to Americans and their international parochialism and backwardness? or boycott the US team? Demand Peter King's resignation? Chastise him publicly as a racist?

    What is the 'drive' that should be accomplished with this narrative? Or, is this a terminal expression of discontent written into the ether?

  8. This one is easy. The call was bad. And the reporter's blaming it on the referee's nationality is stupid or racist if you prefer.

    However, and somewhat related, at what point should we start questioning the racial views of writers on a blog (namely this one) who consistently highlight the racist views of one demographic group, Caucasians, while ignoring the racist views of another demographic group of whom they are a part, or feel a very close connection to, namely Africans? This is not meant to be a cheap shot.
    Certainly a blog/people must be allowed to focus on a topic. You can't blog or think intelligently about everything. And certainly the racist views of Caucasians should be condemned, and to do that they must be highlighted.
    What if we came along a blog, written by Caucasians, that consistently highlighted the racist attitudes of some Africans against Caucasians, while ignoring the racist attitudes of Caucasians against Africans? Certainly many would disapprove and likely even label the blog itself "racist."
    I suppose my point is that while the cause of fighting/exposing racist attitudes towards Africa by the West is a just one, it is also very selective and convenient for the authors of this blog. As the old Bible verse goes,
    "How easy it is point out the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye while ignoring the plank in your own."

    And yet again I'm not sure that I am necessarily advocating for a more "balanced" discussion wherein if you want to talk about racism you must talk about both black racism and white racism (and asian racism for that matter) because that seems unwieldy.

  9. Justin,

    Racism is a word coined by Trotsky to denote the incidence of the oppressive application of racial bigotry.

    You see if I say "whitey', it means that I possibly, or probably harbour unfriendly, resentful and bigoted notions towards white-skinned f*cks who imagine they are being oppressed because black are the insensitive and uncouth product of real racist oppression; and treat their whiney bleating about “racism” with the contempt it deserves. Geddit?


  10. JohD,

    No, I don't "Geddit."
    As a white person I certainly don't feel oppressed by, and certainly am not "whineying" about, black racists.
    My point, if I really had any, was simply that moral difficulties arise when we single out for condemnation a single demographic group for a particular fault (in this case racism) that is not confined to that demographic group.
    And yet how it also seems unreasonable to disallow discussions of such topics because of those difficulties particularly because the causes that they promote are often just ones.

  11. I agree with both JohD and Justin in a few specific areas.

    Regarding JohD, Peter King's comments were clearly racist in this very specific sense. He might have called the official 'boy.' He's suggesting that a 'small African' country cant officiate a game, why? Did Peter King notice that it takes one person to officiate? So, an African country of one would be sufficient. We can only guess if Peter King was concerned that Coulibaly was too hungry, or too illiterate, or just too generally backward to officiate the game.

    Regarding Justin, what can we extrapolate from Peter King's demonstrably racist comments? I feel like many perspectives were poised for attack, waiting for a conflict to say "see I told you" (that Africa can't do things correctly, or that Americans are latently racist and parochial.)

    Considering that Peter King apologized, suggesting that he misspoke ("Re being painted ugly American in ref controversy: Sorry to denigrate Mali. Point was, FIFA thinks it has to put refs from all regions … in WCup. Coulibaly's resume was weak. No intl competition beyond Africa. Many of his biggest games were things like U17 games… In many ways, he was less qualified than a MAC ref at Super Bowl. My point is simple: Scores of more qualified refs are sitting home …because FIFA insists on putting far less qualified refs in the biggest games in the world, and FIFA paid with a debacle in US-Slovenia,") I would rather suggest that his comments were ignorant of a multi-cultural register of speech. So my point is, what are we to do? Are we to call people like Peter King ignorant and racist, or, encourage and educate on a more inclusive register when, in any case, "crypto-racists" don't have ill intent. It can't possibly be expected that everyone, always, say what is acceptable to this register, so what's the role of others? pitchforks and torches? or, like I say to my grandpa who is perfectly well-meaning but doesn't have a grasp on multicultural speech, "you know, /how/ you said that is offensive."

    Otherwise, if we've decided that Peter King is outside the sphere of civil speech, lets have his head immediately. (Again, what is to be done? What are the broad conclusions here? )

  12. What if we came along a blog, written by Caucasians, that consistently highlighted the racist attitudes of some Africans against Caucasians, while ignoring the racist attitudes of Caucasians against Africans?

    We call it the mainstream media.

  13. Sonja, and there's another issue here that I think you've conflated. What does it mean to 'stand with' Coulibaly? I feel like this implicitly suggests that the FIFA process will itself be latently racist. If this is what you're saying, fine, lets stand with Coulibaly. But if the FIFA process is (more or less) impartial and fair, then I gather you're saying that Coulibaly should be defended only because he has been the subject of racist attacks by others which is something entirely apart from FIFA's (impartial) process. Should he receive special consideration on account of his nationality (or skin color) on top of an impartial process?

  14. IMO, Coulibaly made a bad call, his nationality and race had nothing to do with it, Peter King’s remarks are idiotic, at best, and if that makes me anti-American then I’ll proudly wear that badge at least I can go on pointing out idiocy to blind patriots as and when I see it. No love lost there.

    Now concerning Justin’s comments, yes you make a good point, but is it relevant to this blog? To me this blog is primarily focused on the cultural aspects of Africa – things that are happening now. It also goes without saying that Africans are Black, Arab, White or Indian. Now, within this frame, do you have a link referring to Africans currently misrepresenting White Europeans or ‘guilty of racism’ (whatever that means if one takes JohD’s views into account)? If you do, please post it, I’m not hip.

    1. When I say black racism I'm not referring solely to blacks who have racist views of whites, I'm referring to blacks who have racist views of anybody.
      If you want examples, check out some of Malema's comments, or those of Uncle Bob in Zim, the xenophobic (at times blatantly racist) attacks that happen sporadically in SA, or the violent tribal fighting going on and off in Kenya. Race-based or ethnicity-based or tribe-based (all these categories are of course crude and imprecise) hatred is sadly all too common a feature of African cultures (and yes every other culture on the planet), and yet that gets very little air time on this blog Despite Sonja saying that this blog seeks to discuss how Africa is represented by Africans and by others, most of the "calling out" that it does only occurs when whites (Sean apparently dislikes the word "Caucasian") make racist fools of themselves. Again why the convenient selectivity?

      Personally I have always found African tribal politics to be fascinating, complex, and totally misunderstood and would love to hear Africans discuss it more. But, and probably in part thanks to colonialist assertions that "tribalism is bad/primitive", there seems to be a real reluctance amongst Africans to discuss in an open and non-defensive way the important role that tribal and ethnic beliefs and allegiances play in modern day African politics. Part of that discussion would probably need to focus on condemning extreme forms of African racism/tribalism, but I think most of it could be spent celebrating the great diversity that is Africa and finding explicit ways of dealing with that diversity in politically peaceful and productive ways.
      But then this has turned into a tangent, so I will stop.

      1. Justin, that argument is very different from what you put forward at first, because you were on the verge of saying something controversial even though I get what you were asking. For the deeper substance of your more recent qsn, that is for Blog Admin, but on this blog I know I've seen stuff on Malema, Mugabe, opposition to the persecution of homosexuals in SA and Malawi. But then I found this blog earlier this year when these things were happening, so I don't know what's gone before.

        For me I am tired of having my narrative has always been told to you as one of ethnic conflict, dictatorship, poverty etc don't you think if you were me, you'd get to a point where you just want to say enough? See the latest post called Welcome to Hell which proves why blogs like this are important. I think if you have links of stuff that fall within the ambit of the blog which express your point, I say post it. If it's relevant and on point, I'm sure Admin wouldn't mind getting the word out there and getting pple talking abt certain issues.


      2. My two points are directly related. This blog's reluctance to discuss how Africans represent and relate to eachother in terms of tribe/ethnicity, and in particular to be critical of some of those interactions, while at the same time indulging in selective outrage at incidents of white racism was precisely why I went to the "verge of saying something controversial" as you put it.
        On the other hand, I completely agree with you that the constant negative narrative about Africa is a huge problem. That's why I said that most of the discussion about Africa's tribal diversity could and should be a positive one.
        Its a problem of balance, rather than having to choose either/or.
        I guess that is my comment in a nutshell, at times I think this blog doesn't get the balance right, between celebrating Africa's modern cultural achievements (which it does a lot), rightfully condemning white racism (again a lot of that), exploring the role of tribe and ethnicity in modern African narratives about itself (very little) and condemning African tribal/ethnicity-based hatred (again very little).

  15. Oh and another thing, it's too limiting to see things in terms of race, there are so many complex issues agwan in the Big A, represented on this blog. Issues of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, diasporic relations, religion & class etc are all represented here in some way or another.

    I think a more robust critique wld be better otherwise pple tend to get stuck in the same ol' same ol' blinkered binaristic conversations abt Africa/Europe Black/White reverse/racism.

    Not trynna Stan for the blog I'm sure the bloggers hve their own voices, I'm jst putting in my 2 cents.

  16. @zunguzungu

    Cute retorts that aren't factually accurate aren't cute. Can you provide any links to any major mainstream news stories that discuss incidents of black racism? And then honestly argue that such stories are a regular feature?

  17. I suppose some of these guys making the insensitive remarks think racism is limited to calling someone an epithet.

    Look at this quote from Jurgen Klinsmann, the great German footballer who is now an analyst on ESPN, speaking after Brazil vs Ivory Coast:

    “African teams gets very emotional and angry (when they are losing) then they begin to make fouls that could really hurt your players.”

    Wow. Just freaking wow!

    There is also something people who are being defensive don't know: This is not about white vs black. You can be black, but if you believe that your people are inferior, you are a racist. Black on black racism comes from blacks who think that very few black people (usually them) can do what people of the supreme races can.

    Although had no plan to blog about the World Cup, some of the words I have heard coming out of ESPN commentators have kept my computer on my lap as I watch the matches.

    Below is a satirical piece I wrote yesterday when I noticed that they were still talking about how "we was robbed."

    "America, since everyone must conform to your demands, we the people of “other countries” promise “democratic reforms” ahead of Brazil 2014. We’ll feed our soccer players filth from the fast food joints you’re spreading around the world. (We’re “Lovin’ it!”). Come kickoff, you’ll see 300-pound Africans, Europeans, Asians and those guys from the countries south of your border (I think they are all Mexicans).

    Every country’s overweight Bafana Bafana will don spandex and helmets. (That’s not wussy) If your boys can kick the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and score without suffering massive heart attacks, we’ll credit you six goals. We’ll even throw in a penalty kick to make it seven."

  18. Lets be clear here. This discussion has pretty clearly become much more than its initial incident. That is just a surrogate for letting fly some already-held beliefs (as ESPN's coverage is a circus of cultural stereotypes from Mexico, to France, to North Korea, and of course the African teams. If only China were available for caricature). This isn't about the 'actual' statements of sports illustrated commentators or an 'oh-so offensive' comment by Landon Donavon, these are surrogates to talk about what we really want to. But just as well, they're abused as surrogates, like one with an ear to the seashell or someone with only a hammer of people so quick to feign offense.

    Did you hear? Something like 25% of people in America think Barack Obama is a secret Muslim wanting to destroy the country. The shit is everywhere; are we expected to be fully insulated from racist and horrendous speech? So the point is, does anyone want to be on a perpetual witchhunt against abhorrent speech? Or, can we all be a little humbled by the terrors of our own hearts that are brought out through those of others? (I dont have all my shit figured out; do all of us so quick to characterize nations or races?)

  19. Thank you all for the comments. I won't respond to all them because others have already made some excellent points (and here I thank Zunguzungu, KonWomyan and Our Man in America).

    It's clear from the comments though that some of you are new to the blog, and are unfamiliar with what we do here. As KonWomyn points out, a large part of what interests us here is the ways in which Africa and Africans are represented, by themselves and by others, across various mediums (mainstream and otherwise). This is not the first time we've called someone out for their suspect remarks on Africa, and I can assure you this won't be the last. If you don't understand why that kind of work is important, then I dare say you're in the wrong place.

    Additionally, neither I nor Zunguzungu ever disputed the fact that the call was bad. This is the World Cup—bad calls happen. If you want to get on the instant replay bandwagon, then I suggest you call FIFA.

    What interested me here was King's reaction. To invoke an entire country, and by extension a continent, as the reason for that bad call was, at best, uncalled for. And that I won't stand for.

    1. That's an important point, Sonja, that most of us do not dispute that the referee made a bad call.

      Some like me were even rooting for the United States, but switched after the match, when Coulibaly's mistake became Africa's.

      I love soccer but I have never had any interest in writing about it. I think what we see here is an opportunity to challenge people to think before making blanket statements.

      I think the problem here is that these guys are parachuting to Africa armed with knowledge acquired from compatriots who became experts for after a week or two in some "landlocked African country."

      Why do they keep repeating the same mistakes? Because to portray the African as an intelligent and highly educated being would requires the tedious task of re-educating oneself.

      1. "Some like me were even rooting for the United States, but switched after the match, when Coulibaly’s mistake became Africa’s."

        Coulibaly’s mistake became Africa's according to whom? This is a great "blanket statement." And why does such an express view inspire you to 'switch'? I was talking to an American colleague today and asked him about the game on Friday, he just said "I was so excited when I thought we won, it was terrible, but those things happen," and agreed that Peter King's comments were horrendous.

        If you want to find an American (strike that, lets just say an American media commentator) that said anything you'd like to be offended by, you probably will. If the issue is about Dovavon (rather than King), I frankly don't think his comment was so offensive ("I dont know how well he speaks English," is a legitimate concern in /any/ international forum). So frankly, I find that anyone who is so offended by these comments to change support for the US was looking for reason beforehand.

        I feel like this event could have not happened and we could have this discussion just as well. Is it so egregious that we finally throw up our arms and say "this is it! this proves it!" (whatever it was we wanted to say). I don't think anyone seriously thought any society was 'post-racial,' so what's the contribution of this event?

        I just don't understand the stakes or boundaries of such a discussion, (I'm not being facetious or coy, I really don't understand).

      2. Ivan,
        Those words will mean absolutely nothing to you if you have never been in an American college and had your academic excellence constantly questioned because you speak with an accent, and come from a continent that supposed to be of low literacy rates.

        Did you write that? Are you sure this is your own work? etc, etc. All these even when the percentage of African immigrants with a college degree and above is almost twice that of the general American population, per the US Census Bureau.

        When an African does well, he is an anomaly. When he makes a mistake, it is because his kind shouldn't have been there in the first place.

        I don't know how much you've been following the madness that followed Coulibaly's bad call.
        Although the Malian referee has been a FIFA official since 1999, his mistake was because Africa has "third-rate" referees, an only got one in the World Cup because football's governing body had to do "geographical distribution."

        That's why I said Coulibaly's mistake became Africa's. In the referee we saw ourselves. My God, here is a man who we have no doubt has worked so hard for this day and we crucify him for a mistake that many referee have made before? For a "nation under God" America is so unforgiving.

        My problem with Landon Donovan was that a player of his caliber should have known that referees make mistakes, and that a referee do not owe players any explanation for the decisions they make.

        And why does Donovan think that it's Coulibaly who should speak in English, and not Donovan who should learn French? (I have lived in the US for 15 years and I know that he is not the only one who thinks that other people should speak English, even when we are on their soil).

        More acts of arrogance came through in comments from US fans in the media and online. They wanted the referee sent home, and to my disgust, FIFA promised an "expedited performance review."

        They wanted he world to come to a halt in order to investigate a great injustice that had been done to America, the champion of human rights.

        Today I'm more sympathetic than angry. The attendance of their soccer league matches averages only 16,000, but they come to the World Cup every four years and cheer for their team in a sport they don't understand. What they have done is make asses out of themselves on international television.

        I should be laughing, not whining.

  20. The (French) referee in the Brazil v Ivory Coast game was far worse. As noted on twitter though, it seems the French have long forgotten the handball rule.

  21. 1. I repeatedly stated that "calling people out for suspect remarks" as you put, is a just cause. My point was simply that you are very selective in whom you call out.
    2. Your suggestion to those who, according to you, "don't understand" that they are in the "wrong place" is pretty dismissive and rigid.
    If you are going to take the time to make a response, why not address my (mild) criticism? Or is this blog (which I enjoy immensely btw) simply a place where the like-minded pat themselves on the back, while others are told to find their own "place?"

  22. Bad calls?

    1. Brett Hull's "no goal" in the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals.

    2. 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

    Relax, America! You're still making it to the knock out round.

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