The oily slipperiness of banterese makes attempting to pin down why it’s become the touchstone of maleness (or, at least, self-proclaimed ‘ladness’) a Sisyphean task. The banterers aren’t listening.
Anyway, @BarnayRonay has already expertly speared the way banter has weedled its way into mainstream sport (or football, as it’s known outside of the tabloid back pages) all shit-eating grin and shrugged shoulders, hands raised in defence, “It’s only bants!”
And @EvaWiseman took a scalpel to the seams holding together the “Just bants, gramps!” excuses, in the awkward silence as UniLad shuffled its feet and squeaked out an apology for celebrating the low convinction rate of rapists.
Banter is now, essentially, an excuse to be inexcusable. It’s driven by fear – of silence, of being outflanked, of failing to be the dog that’s doing the eating. It’s tribal, it’s aggressive. It’s not sparring with words, it’s half-formed nonthoughts scrapping like boys in a playground, all headlocks and hamfisted thumps.
The “it’s just a joke!” defence means one thing – “I didn’t mean it!”. Banter is a loud and unpleasant fart, semi-self aware, guiltily enjoyed for the effect it has on bystanders but ultimately and unavoidably a waste product that could have been avoided. Or at the very least genuinely apologised for.
In 2012 banter isn’t Oscar Wilde or even Newman and Baddiel. Like Barnay Ronay says, banter is “anti-chemistry”. It’s shutting other people down, drowning other voices out, filling the verbal space with guff spuffed directly from the sludge of the unconscious, the hindbrain, bypassing thought.
I stopped watching football after binging on the World Cup in 2010. I’ve since lost all interest in the sport. One summer of listening to men paid to share their knowledge and experience of the game blurt out inane, uninformed lazy commentary was enough to kill football for me forever. My own knees, meanwhile, were enough to stop me playing.
“This player has the ball, oh and now that player has the ball, he’s taken the ball past another player and hit the ball with his foot and, oh, the striker nearly put the ball into the net to score a goal which as we all know would have made the game a different game to the game which we are watching now which is actually still the same game because what I said could have happened didn’t.”
I’ve thrown myself into cricket instead, a sport that can still boast a full-voiced beer-fuelled population while managing to talk about itself without smirking, joking, winking or nudging. Cricket commentary in every form covers the game, the tactics, life and everything inbetween. Football commentary seems trapped in inane nothingness. In banter.
Almost a year ago @MartinKelner wrote a fantastic article comparing the sparse, sure-footed commentary of Brian Moore in the 1981 FA Cup Final with the nonstop nothing-speak of latter-day TV sofa-saints like Clive Tyldesley: “It is almost like a form of Tourette’s”. Or banter.
There are some great analysts in football – I loved Gordon Strachan’s short stint on Match of the Day, and occasionally one of the old cloggers will shed light on an aspect of the game usually given nothing even approaching lipservice by the Andy Grays and Richard Keys of the world. But you simply can’t fill every second of a match with considered thought.
But banter can fill a thousand stadia, a hundred thousand silences. So commentators banter with each other, cast judgement on a player’s off-field life or make idiot abstract observations. And the language of football, the teased statistics, gives these babblers all the mouth-amunition they need to fill every second of a match with unconsidered nonthought.
In Saturday night pubs automaton voices parrot the same witless verbage, proving their commitment to the sport through their dedication to memorising the accepted phraseology. And on the Sunday morning sports fields the adult voices bellow remembered lines of commentary at confused kids attempting to learn an incredibly technical game. Attempting to enjoy learning an intricate and hugely tactical game.
What other sport promotes the voice of the fat-ankled radio presenter, the bellowing fan, to such a towering level they can spit out judgements of a player’s commitment or effort while picking donut out of their teeth? How can you take seriously a sport which insists on elevatating the recognisable voices, the cloned outrages, the echoed opinions?
The phone-ins complain about the skills of English players, players who have only ever been told to hoof it out of danger into the channels or the mixer, who never heard an extended and exploded discussion of the thought behind the action during their grassroots years, who grew up listening to commentators filling dead air with dead thoughts.
I honestly believe that commentary is a huge and compelling factor behind the English football team’s inability to win a major tournament. It’s a cycle of non-ambition that begins with watching the game on TV, through to the yelling of fans in the stalls, and the limp questioning of TV interviewers in post-match broadcasts.
And it’s this need to banter, to talk, to spout noise endlessly at all levels of a game that has the same base strength as cricket or rugby (another sport that manages to retain thought without being sapped of excitement) that makes football the obvious contender for mainstream tribalism, easy access sports tourism.
It’s precisely because of this ubiquitousness of football that the massive influence of TV and radio mouthpieces spouting sport talk about anything but sport can’t be underestimated. Football can’t go anywhere but down if it continues to elect its champions from the ranks of the banterers, the unreconstructed lads, the echo chambers in human form.