Mario Balotelli, despite his skills as a striker, isn't the shrewdest social media marketer. On Sunday, the 24-year-old sat out Liverpool's 2-2 home draw against Arsenal. The match wasn't memorable; Brendan Rodgers' struggling Reds picked up a point on Martin Skrtel's 92nd minute header. Balotelli, meanwhile, with zero goals in 10 Premier League matches this season, maybe wasn't missed.
Balotelli's reason for missing the match, however, was memorable. On December 1, soccer's Super Mario editorialized a seemingly innocuous "Don't be racist!" image of Nintendo's Mario, a pithy social media mainstay since 2011. Balotelli's two-line addition, though, wasn't well-received:
Balotelli soon realized his error and deleted the post, but not before sparking a virtual firestorm. Later that day on Twitter, he added context ("My Mom is jewish so all of u shut up please") before offering his mea culpa:
"I apologize if I've offended anyone. The post was meant to be anti-racist with humour. I now understand that out of context may have the opposite effect. Not all Mexicans have moustache, not all black people jump high and not all Jewish people love money. I used a cartoon done by someone else because it has Super Mario and I thought it was funny and not offensive. Again, I'm sorry."
Read More: Freddy Adu to be Released Again. Is this the End for the 'Next Pele?'
Last week, the English FA fined him 25,000 pounds, suspended him one game and reportedly ordered him to attend educational classes, Balotelli's personal history of suffering racial abuse spared him the typical five-game punishment.
Oddly enough, the incident recalls what Clippers forward Matt Barnes endured last November, dropping the n-bomb on Twitter following a Clippers-Suns scrum:
"I love my teammates like family, but I'm DONE standing up for these niggas. All this shit does is cost me money!!" Like Balo, Barnes deleted-and-apologized; David Stern didn't care and fined him the same 25,000, although in Dollars, not Pounds.
The tweet, however, found supporters, like Charles Barkley: "Matt Barnes, there is no apology needed," he said. "I'm going to continue to use the n-word with my black friends, with my white friends." Said Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host: "I've used it every day, all day, every day of my life. I like the word."
Balotelli seemingly came from the same place as African Americans who have re-appropriated our country's highest-voltage word. After all, he is a black man with a Jewish foster mother (from the age of 3) and an apparently deep connection to his Judaic heritage; he dedicated his two goals in Italy's 2-1 Euro 2012 win over Germany to his mom, and has been allegedly targeted by Neo-Nazi groups claiming he should "play for Israel, not Italy." (Though, for the record, the website Jew or Not Jew officially rates him a five out of 15 and "Not a Jew.")
No doubt, this is extremely rocky terrain. We can never fully understand the matters of identity and experience that shape what a person says or does. In Balotelli's case, he seemingly tried to disarm the stereotypes he has been victimized by his entire career and life. And it's worth considering: would Arjen Robben joking about his likeness (say, Patrick Stewart) and white people's lack of hops receive the same fate? What if former Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun made a joke about Jews grabbing coins?
As issues of race and social equity become increasingly visible in sports, the way institutions handle them says more than ever. The press, of course, is happy to run wild—especially in England, and especially with Balotelli at the center of things. We've seen, among other things, BBC pieces defending Balotelli while comparing him to a dog in the caption, and a slew of articles calling Balotelli's actions racist, while completely missing the basic definition, history and structural nature of racism.
Prescriptive punishments like the one handed Balotelli give no indication that the English FA is actually engaged with this subject: they simply see bad words as punishable, reducing the issue to black and white, and reducing Balotelli (and fellow athletes) to socially normative machines. After all, the best way to keep a subject taboo is to not engage with it.
Not that anyone, or any institution has succeeded in reducing Mario Balotelli to anything less than his spectacular fire-starting self—on the field, on Instagram, or anywhere else.