Why I’m Not Offended by David Norris’s Goal Celebration
by Brian Phillips · November 11, 2008
Background, for anyone who hasn’t been following this story. Last June, Plymouth goalkeeper Luke McCormick went to the wedding of his friend and former teammate David Norris. Driving home—drunk—early the next morning, he fell asleep at the wheel and caused a car accident in which an eight-year-old boy and a 10-year-old boy were killed. He was arrested, his contract was terminated by Plymouth, and he was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison.
This weekend, David Norris, the friend at whose wedding this began, scored a goal for Ipswich and celebrated by holding his wrists together in what was widely interpreted as a “handcuffs” gesture meant to signify his support for McCormick. The British public and media exploded, not necessarily in that order, and Norris is currently facing a storm of wrath which he’s exacerbated by giving contradictory explanations for the meaning of the gesture.
Let’s assume that the popular interpretation is correct, and that, like Tim Cahill before him, Norris was using the handcuff sign to express solidarity with a criminal. I still don’t think he did anything wrong. In fact, I think the assumptions behind the public outrage are a lot uglier than the handcuffs gesture itself.
The first assumption is that Luke McCormick’s guilt in the deaths of the two young boys makes it morally illegitimate for David Norris to continue to care about him. The second, underlying assumption is that Luke McCormick’s crime has rendered him absolutely unforgivable. The third assumption is that the public nature of goal celebrations obligates footballers to adapt them to public standards of propriety. I think all these assumptions are wrong.
David Norris has the right to care about his friend, even though his friend did something terrible. That’s one of the things we want from friendship, isn’t it? That’s one of the reasons friendship exists? So that even if we find ourselves, rightly or wrongly, punished by and outcast from society, we won’t be utterly alone?
There might be exceptions to that rule, cases in which the wrong is so terrible that it dissolves any bond of human commitment or affection. It would difficult, and possibly immoral, to persist in a friendship with a serial killer, and the media portrayal of Luke McCormick, drawing from all sorts of established narratives about the selfishness and presumptuousness of footballers, essentially depicts him as that sort of monstrous pariah.
But what Luke McCormick did was drive drunk. It was a tragically stupid, morally indefensible thing to do, and in my opinion he deserves every bit of his punishment. But it isn’t the equivalent of deliberate murder, and what it reveals about Luke McCormick is not that he’s irredeemably evil. I have friends who have driven drunk, you have friends who have driven drunk, many of the ruddy moralists currently attacking David Norris have driven drunk. Any one of them could have found themselves responsible for a life-destroying accident like the one Luke McCormick caused. Horrible as that is to contemplate, I don’t believe that they would therefore deserve to be cut off from all human sympathy. Luke McCormick was 24 when he caused the accident and will be 32 when he’s released from prison. I’m not trying to turn him into Raskolnikov, but there’s still a chance that he could do something good with his life.
The third assumption, and the hardest in some ways to refute, is that Norris’s goal celebration violated a standard of public propriety in a way that was unacceptable for the occasion. What bothers me about this idea is that it seems to come into being only at moments when the media sees a chance to froth up its audience. Most questionable goal celebrations get negligible press coverage because they’re old news, but a gesture that plays into the emotional pornography at the heart of tabloid culture—dead children, callous celebrities, the Decline of All We Hold Dear—suddenly qualifies as a shocking breach of public trust. A great deal has been made of the feelings of the relatives of the boys upon seeing Norris’s handcuffs sign. But how aware would they have been, how aware would anyone have been, of a seconds-long incident during an Ipswich-Blackpool game if it hadn’t been blasted into their living room by the roaring guardians of culture?
Norris sent a message to his friend that he supports him despite his crime. He’s been fined by his club, attacked in the press, threatened with suspension by the FA, and subjected to public fury. Enough.
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