One of my favorite tropes in film and television is the awkward gathering. Sometimes it’s the experience of coming home to a place that doesn’t feel quite like home for whatever reason, like in Garden State. Or it’s the simmering tensions between various factions of a large family like the opening scenes in the Home Alone movies. Or it’s a treasonous blood bath in the middle of a wedding like in Game of Thrones. Any way you slice it, these big moments usually feature a high level of drama.
The Unwelcome Houseguest, though, is one that stands out for me. Often this person comes to a dinner or for a short weekend vacation or some big family event and is either unexpected or unwelcome or both and hi-jinx ensues.
This Wednesday, Liverpool will host one such unwelcome guest at Anfield. Friends, Jamie Vardy is coming to dinner.
We’ve gone round these parts in the past about people like Jamie Vardy. Specifically, people with spotted and problematic pasts and their relationship to the game. What their contributions off the pitch and their consistent presence on it necessarily communicate to fans with valid reasons to wish to avoid this player.
We’re not here to re-litigate those specific infractions. There’s no point in that, really. Only Vardy knows exactly what he meant when making his racist remarks. And only Vardy knows what internal shifts have taken place since the blowback from that time. Only Vardy knows, then, what kind of work has taken place to allow for reconciliation with the parties and communities affected. The restoring of community - and, believe me, there are Asian Leicester fans that likely had to do the necessary mental gymnastics of rooting for their hero after his unsavory incident - involves a series of things that I simply am not privy to.
I cannot know, then, if Vardy has done enough - or anything at all - to rehabilitate his image. To reconcile himself to a demographic of football fans.
But I know that when I see his name come up on the list of opponents my stomach churns a bit. My heart sinks. He’s not welcome in my house.
A question, I’m sure, most have is what exactly would that reconciliation look like? After all, I’ve spilled copious amounts of digital ink on the acts of Jamie Vardy nearly four years ago now. Surely, I must have thought about it.
Of course I have. Of course I have! To know that a major figure in the sport you love, one often hailed at every turn as the idealized avatar of the working class boy turned pro, could so easily allow a racial slur roll so easily off the tongue just chafes. So, yes, I have wondered what type of work it might take for someone like Vardy to find his way back into the good graces of my particular home.
The truth is that I don’t have any easy answers. For one, I’m not an avatar for my community. And what I think would be worthwhile may not be worthwhile for others. Because of the aforementioned distance in space between someone like Vardy and me, I also am not sure of where he was starting from when it comes to his experience with people of different races. So, I don’t know what specific programs would be beneficial for him specifically.
But I do think that him taking the time to participate fully in diversity programs like the Kick it Out campaign would be a start. Using his moment of notoriety to speak out, especially inside of his own hometown community, to talk about the problems with racism within the UK broadly and within football specifically. Moreover, doing this would necessarily address the fact that he had to have learned that language and that philosophical posture from somewhere. And the likely thing is that his neighborhood probably was rife with such language and ideas. Addressing, honestly, that he’d made a mistake and continuing to work to undo these actions moving forward would be a big step.
Lastly, in an effort to ensure that racism broadly is addressed, I would hope that he would advocate for anti-racism policies. The segment of the population affected by his actions could use very real help in terms of legislative protections. Most notably, things that cut at xenophobia in an England that is currently awash in it. Vardy could use his considerable profile to help the people he’d injured. That’s what restorative justice looks like.
This thought experiment is a nice one to have, for sure. One that allows us to see an optimistic future. I am personally pessimistic that this kind of work is happening. I know that I’ve seen, for example, comments from Vardy bemoaning the fact that he’ll forever be labeled a racist. Despite the lack of news reports indicating the work he’s doing to undo that. It reeks to me of someone more concerned with being labeled a racist than undoing racism in his midst. A racism that he was a part of. A racism that has allowed him to retain his considerable success and privilege inspire of his racist actions.
So, on Wednesday, this is Liverpool’s dinner guest. A flawed man. An unwelcome one.