LARRY RYAN: Putting banter to bed

It seems to be official. ‘Banter is being phased out’, ran the headline on skysports.com this week.

As usual, you heard it here first.

We have kept a watchful eye on the bantz in these quarters, and its close links with ‘controvassy’.

We have tried to gain some understanding of this compulsion, among football men, to say and do crude, unnecessary things in search of amusement. We have tracked the downfall of banterers — men like Keyesy and Gray and Marshy and Malky.

As well as men who have just about stayed afloat, having bantered poorly, such as Martin O’Neill. And others, like Sav and Tubes and Fenners and Coisty, who have bantered often but more or less responsibly.

And we told you, 12 months ago, that it was as good as over.

As with so many other things, it took Trump to bring about this new normal.

When tapes were leaked of Trump boasting about his habit of sexually assaulting women, he swiftly wrote it off as “locker room banter”.

Immediately, it was as if the scales fell from the eyes of the sporting world. Perhaps some of them truly saw their dressing rooms for the very first time. And many of them swiftly distanced themselves.

Naturally, this revulsion found its voice in the only meaningful form of modern protest, a hashtag: #NotAllLockerRooms.

It wouldn’t stop Trump being elected, of course. But football’s sense of dignity is a step or two above politics. So we assured you, by this Christmas, one traditional line would no longer feature in every ex-footballer’s autobiography: “The thing I miss most is the dressing room banter.”

From there, change blew swiftly. A year ago, BT Sport seemed to be screening football purely as a vehicle to promote Fletch and Sav. But this summer, Fletch and Sav’s ‘Banter Bus’ was parked.

And now it is former England man Kieron Dyer who has announced the winding down of bantz.

“It’s getting less and less,” Dyer said on Sky’s The Debate. “The banter does still exist, but it is phasing out, there are more avenues now to report and complain.”

Dyer has his own history with controvassy and leaked tapes and less than gentlemanly conduct. And just two years ago, he arrived in the jungle for I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! promising to “have banter with everyone”.

“I like to stir things up. I’m a mickey taker,” he added, as all kinds of warning signs flashed.

So it can’t be easy for Dyer to put the bantz behind him.

It hasn’t yet been classified as an addiction. Perhaps, had Ophelia not kept Paul Merson from the One-Zero conference in Dublin this week, where he was due to talk about gambling addiction and alcoholism, we could have gained more of an insight into the bantering condition too.

“Grovesy was used to stick. My party piece was to shit in his pillow case just to really wind him up,” Merse wrote in his book How Not to Be a Professional Footballer.

“I used to love seeing the look on his face.”

We certainly must spare a thought for Grovesy in this scenario and many like him. As the Secret Footballer put it in his latest book What Goes on Tour, of his early forays into that environment: “I just couldn’t get to grips with ‘the banter’. People talked shit non-stop. There was a hierarchy of shit in the dressing room. I fucking hated them.”

Dyer explains that football’s locker room banter is “probably the most extreme you can get, compared to society”.

Kieron might be overestimating Trump and the lads there, but a low tolerance for the bantz doesn’t always end well, as we saw this week in the Plymouth Herald, which reported a Sunday League player has been ordered to pay £1,500 in compensation to an opponent whose jaw he broke in response to some “mid-game banter”.

So as we picture Merse, as he so vividly describes, “squatting above Grovesy’s bed, letting one go”, it is hard to mourn the demise of the bantz.

And yet it is not men like Merse who have brought down the bantz. It is not the kind of men who were just driven by a love of seeing the look on Grovesy’s face.

Dyer was speaking this week after an independent investigation concluded that former England women’s coach Mark Sampson appeared to have “difficulty judging the appropriate boundaries when engaging in ‘banter’ with the players.”

Sampson’s misjudgments, the investigation found, caused him to ask a mixed-race player, Drew Spence, apropos of no penchant for crime, how many times she had been arrested; and express concern to Eniola Aluko that her Nigerian relatives might carry the Ebola virus to Wembley.

We don’t know whether Sampson just wanted to see the look on Aluko’s face, or whether he had more malevolent intent, but we have gradually come to learn that the bantz also operates as a convenient valve through which all manner of badness can escape. The sexism and the racism and the bit of homophobia featuring heavily.

Dyer heard enough of that stuff too, in his day.

“Does it cross a line? It didn’t to me. I classed it as banter. If there was a joke about a black man, I’d laugh along with it because it’s just banter.

“But another black person might take that as offensive, and that is where there is a big problem.”

It was a problem too that Dyer had to develop a tolerance for it and it has brought us nearer a day when training grounds will ban bantz like they do mobile phones.

And if nobody ever again finds the tops of his socks cut off, or his new suit in the toilet, or a surprise in his pillow case; that might be a small price to pay.


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