On Mario Balotelli: and why Gabriele Marcotti got this one wrong

By | April 1, 2011

In one of his more recent columns, Sports Illustrated columnist Gabriele Marcotti defended much of Mario Balotelli’s reprehensible behavior.

According to Mr. Marcotti, the Manchester City bad-boy is actually a victim of an over-zealous media, intent on vilifying the Italian, and completely oblivious to a unique combination of hindering factors. Balotelli is – Mr. Marcotti claims – a casualty of his nature and nurture.

Besides the fact that the whole nature vs. nurture debate is plagued by uncertainty, Mr. Marcotti’s “explanation,” as he puts it, is rampant with the types of generalizations that seem compelling at first, but are easily debunked upon further examination.

Take his view on Balotelli’s upbringing for example. Mr. Marcotti writes that, Balotelli “was abandoned shortly after his first birthday and raised in the Italian countryside by a white family.” As a result, Mr. Marcotti goes on to explain that Balotelli had to deal with, not only abandonment issues, but with the insecurities that come from being the “other,” as well. That is to say that the Italian often found himself being the only black kid in school, on the football field, and perhaps even the village. Needless to say, these events can certainly become an indelible part of one’s identity, and one can go so far as to say that that they can become ‘festering sores’ if unaddressed; nevertheless, that is a long way from the sweeping generalization that these events invariably lead to offensive behavior. By making such claims, one is inadvertently minimizing the accomplishments of those who have managed to overcome similar, or even worse obstacles. Moreover, it must be noted Balotelli is now reaping the benefits of having been brought up by his foster parents (the Balotellis). He is after all making absurd amounts of money playing a sport they made accessible to him.

There is of course the question of racist abuse, which Mr. Marcotti is correct in bringing up. Balotelli has been, and unfortunately, will continue to be the victim of racist abuse. This is a part of the game that is still far from being stamped out. Yet, Balotelli is by no means the only black player who routinely faces the chants of disgusting individuals that use stadia as platforms for their insidious drivel. Using racists and xenophobes as justifications for one’s objectionable behavior, is to ultimately vindicate their abhorrent ideology.

Mr. Marcotti also makes numerous references to Balotelli’s age (20). The idea here is that Balotelli is not old enough to know any better. About the latest debacle concerning the player, which involved the throwing of darts out a window in the direction of youth players, Mr. Marcotti writes, “Dangerous? Yes. Stupid? Yes. But the guy is 20 years old.” Young adults the world over must be celebrating this reasoning. Finally, an answer to that daunting question: “why did you do it?” Of course this is a ludicrous apology. Sure, many twenty-year olds are still wrestling with the idea of right and wrong, but the dangers of throwing pointy objects at people was covered when I was eight!

In concluding his article, Mr. Marcotti does offer a “natural cure for [Balotelli’s age-related] ills: the passage of time.” However, there are far too many instances in soccer where time hasn’t cured “unhinged” (Jen Cheng’s word) players. Paul Gascoigne and Joey Barton quickly come to mind.

Perhaps Mr. Marcotti is correct in claiming that the media is having too much of a field day at the expense of Balotelli. That is clearly not helping the situation. In fact, it is only increasing the fervency with which fans attack the player. But one cannot justify his actions by delving into his history or chalking them down to his age. That won’t help Mancherster City, and it will certainly not help him. What Balotelli needs is a concentrated effort on the part of his employers to get his head straight again, and that could mean sidelining him the way Mourinho did at Inter Milan. Which reminds me. What was it that Mourinho said again? Oh yes, Manchester city will regret signing Balotelli.

 

Gabriele Marcotti’s response:

Eric… thanks for taking the time to respond to my piece. Here’s my response to your response…
1. I’m still not 100 percent certain which parts of Balotelli’s behaviour really are reprehensible, which ones are media creations and which ones become reprehensible because it’s him. So let’s try to sort it out.
2. The behaviour at Inter (especially throwing his shirt) was reprehensible. It showed a complete lack of maturity and a total brattiness. The inability to get along with his teammates and his manager also fall into this category.
3. The dart incident? I’m not so sure. Or, put another way, is Balotelli throwing a dart at a youth team player and clearly missing him much worse than Ashley Cole (who is 10 years older) pointing an air gun and shooting an intern? Cole wasn’t crucified for that in the same way Balotelli was.
4. The red card against Dynamo? Yes, a very bad foul and he let his teammates down. I consider that reprehensible. But then I also consider it reprehensible when Paul Scholes does it (and he’s 16 years older) yet, funnily enough, many just giggle and say “Oh, look at Scholesy, he never learned to tackle!”
5. The “I’m rich” comment? I’m not a teenage black male and I don’t drive a sportscar. Maybe if I was and I had no clue why I was being pulled over or why the cops were so insistent on wanting to know why I had so much cash on me and I was speaking in a foreign language, maybe I would say something like “I’m rich.” What else is he supposed to say? “I’m a highly paid professional footballer and I just opened my bank account but I don’t have a credit card or ATM card yet so I had to withdraw a lot of money?” Yeah, maybe. But then remember, he had been here a few weeks and couldn’t really speak English. Oh, and remember, we only have the cops version of events (and even then, that’s only because, rather than respecting the privacy of a traffic stop, they chose to leak it to the press).
6. What else is so reprehensible? The fact that he doesn’t track back or that he’s supposedly lazy. Some players are like that. They usually pay the consequences for it. Unless they’re good enough that they get away with it. But suffice to say, few players generate so much debate based on whether or not they happen to be smiling on the pitch. And few players turn so many pundits into “body language” experts.
7. Nobody – certainly not me – suggest that Balotelli’s upbringing inevitably (your word, not mine) leads to this kind of behaviour. Just that perhaps it might leave you predisposed to having certain issues. He’s not the only black Italian professional footballer: others, like Stefano Okaka or Angelo Ogbonna are model pros. But you can’t totally separate somebody from their past and their upbringing.
8. I am certainly not blaming the Balotellis for Mario’s behaviour. I’m not sure where you get that impression, so the fact that they played a part in his becoming a professional footballer is entirely irrelevant.
9. I did a number of stupid and dangerous things when I was twenty. So did many professional footballers I could name. Frank Lampard, for one. Jamie Carragher, for another. Both those guys – I think we can agree – are now model professionals. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you never screwed around with a dart, drank too much, drove too fast, reacted in a stupid and petulant way, disrespected your elders, etc. Many have. It’s not a justificaiton, it’s not a get-out-of-jail free card, it’s just a fact of life. Some people behave that way at a young age and then grow out of it. Some don’t.
10. I’m not a fan of Joey Barton by any stretch, but by most accounts he has largely outgrown his demons. As for Gascoigne, it’s clear he’s mentally ill. That happens sometimes.
11. One last point on the racist abuse. Balotelli has never used it as an excuse for his behaviour. I don’t use it as an excuse either, because, as I pointed out, others have faced it and not been affected. But, when you look at all the factors: the parental abandonment, the racial solitude, the racial abuse, the enormous expectation of huge physical and athletic gifts, being hailed as a Messiah at the age of 17, finding yourself in a new country… well, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that it may all have played some part. And that with age and maturity he may overcome this. Just as many before him have.