“I I’m sorry, Jason.” Those are the words Jason Lee has waited 25 years to hear from David Baddiel, and finally they are being delivered – to his face. Before Lee has a chance to respond, Baddiel lists offenses from belittling the striker to his racist portrayal of the former Nottingham Forest player on Fantasy Football League in the mid-90s.
Without doubt Baddiel’s actions are sincere. He, among others, helped define Lee’s career for the sake of laughter and little else. Few football fans can hear Lee’s name without the immediate response of “pineapple head”.
“Long overdue,” Lee says of the apology. “I’ve had to wait a long time, I’ve always felt I was contactable and there was an opportunity. I thought it was a poor excuse to say he couldn’t get in touch with me. I think he admits embarrassment, shame and the longer it took, the harder it was to have that conversation.”
The conversation takes place on Lee’s new AbsoluteLee podcast. “I didn’t build David Baddiel up to be anything other than a small man whose job it is to take the piss out of people,” Lee says. “For him to meet me physically would have been very difficult, not just emotionally. He came in and wanted to get it off his chest as soon as possible. I think that showed a bit of vulnerability from his side, it did not show confidence, it did not show strength in that situation.”
The two were finally brought together because Baddiel has made a Channel 4 documentary, Jews Don’t Count, on antisemitism and felt the need to address the issue he has created through discriminatory behaviour. Everything clicked for Baddiel when Leigh Francis, aka Keith Lemon, performed what many have seen as an antisemitic impersonation on Bo’ Selecta!, putting Baddiel in Lee’s shoes. Baddiel has apologized publicly to Lee in the past in the media but never personally.
“A lot of people go through life not having an understanding until it actually impacts them or their family or friends,” Lee says. “You may have a gay friend or black friend and you don’t understand because it hasn’t happened to you until you have witnessed it.”
Fantasy Football League allowed Baddiel to do blackface as part of his Lee caricature, and the program mocked his dreadlocks that he tied up during matches and did sketches where Lee would be unable to put something in the bin, for example, because of his perceived poverty finishing. Lee was rightly proud of his dreadlocks but they were the key focus of Baddiel’s and Frank Skinner’s jibes. Skinner has also apologized via the media.
Lee was at the peak of a career that took in all four divisions but what he achieved on the pitch has been overshadowed by two men and their jokes that made him a household name. They were the faces of the show but were backed by a BBC production team. Lee says no one from that team has apologized to him.
“It is not my personality to accept being mocked face to face,” Lee says. “David Baddiel would never have gotten away with that in the same room. He only got away with that because he was on TV and he had the mic and quite a lot of control and a lot of people who backed him and enabled him to carry on in that way.”
Fantasy Football League invited Lee on to the show, via Forest’s captain Stuart Pearce, but he did not want to endorse the racism it was airing. Few spoke out against the content.
The apology and interview are not the end of the matter. It is a milestone but more needs to be done on discrimination, something Baddiel’s own projects and Lee’s work for the Professional Footballers’ Association in its equalities department will help to tackle.
“I think it was important to try and draw a line under it,” Lee says. “There is no point apologizing and then going out and putting your foot in it and continuing to make grave mistakes. It is a process. You have to give people the opportunity to apologize and prove that they are sincere. The first part is the apology and now let’s see how you conduct yourself.”
Lee is in his home office when we speak, surrounded by shirts from his career, including those of Nottingham Forest, Lincoln and Watford. Those of opponents hang on the wall from European nights against Bayern Munich, Lyon and Auxerre. In the Premier League for Forest, he scored in an away win at Leeds, two goals against Manchester City and earned a point at Chelsea in front of Baddiel.
“I look back on my career with pride and joy. It took me a long time to hang my shirts up in my house. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing but there are some impressive shirts. They are little reminders to me that I wore that shirt and played at a really decent level. Before I was playing for Forest, there were no pineapple chants. It was only when I got really successful and I was playing in the Premier League that Baddiel and Skinner picked up on it.”
Lee will go on to interview others for his podcast, although none will be as personal as his long-awaited encounter with Baddiel. “He didn’t ruin my life or career and I am always keen to push back on that when these people are trying to create that narrative,” he says. “I am not going to give that guy that much credit.”
Absolute Lee: episode one with David Baddiel is available from 10pm on Monday