A very curious business, this “conviction” of Liverpool’s Luis Suarez for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.
I say “conviction” -- which makes it sound as though Suarez has been through a legal trial and duly been found guilty. That is not what has happened.
In response to a complaint from Evra, the English Football Association (FA) convened a disciplinary panel to assess the alleged incident. Chaired by an important barrister, the panel has decided that Suarez did indeed direct racist slurs at Evra, and that his punishment should be a suspension for eight games, and a fine of $62,000.
The fine will hardly be noticed by Suarez -- but the eight-game suspension will indeed have an effect, both on Suarez and on Liverpool. Eight games? Consider: in the last couple of years there have been at least three extremely nasty incidents in the English Premier League of violent tackles resulting in broken legs. Birmingham’s Martin Taylor, who severely crushed the leg and ankle of Arsenal’s Brazilian Eduardo, got the standard three-game suspension. So did Ryan Shawcross after breaking the leg of another Arsenal player, Aaron Ramsey. Manchester City’s Nigel de Jong, after breaking the leg of Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa, escaped with no punishment at all.
The punishment may seem excessive in one case, or not severe enough in the others, but there will surely be plenty of people who consider racism a larger blot on the game than occasional episodes of thuggery.
Clearly, the FA thinks that way, and we can be certain that FIFA does too, for it has long been pursuing a well-publicized anti-racism campaign. The question now becomes a matter of degree -- has the campaign got out of hand, is it being carried too far?
Something of this sort was obviously what Sepp Blatter had in mind when he made his suggestion that incidents like the Suarez-Evra confrontation should be settled on the field with a handshake.
The suggestion was widely ridiculed -- indeed it provoked outrage in the more extreme anti-racist circles, and Blatter had to apologize for it.
The case is further complicated by the fact that Chelsea’s John Terry is facing a similar charge. Terry happens to be the captain of England, adding great sensitivity to his case -- which, apparently as a result of “complaints from the public,” is being heard in the criminal court. That will take time.
The time factor that brings us back to the nature and the workings of the FA’s panel. These “disciplinary committees” that abound in all sports are internal investigative bodies designed to keep incidents of bad behavior (of all types, including that of club managements) out of the courts -- and, maybe, even out of the newspapers. And, of course, to work more quickly than the legal system.
In many cases, probably most, they work quite well. Until, that is, they’re challenged -- when their extra-legal standing always begins to look rather flimsy.
For a start, these panels are never set up by the players -- that is the employees. They are always formed by the bosses. They therefore exist surrounded by suspicions that they are not going to be objective, and that it will the bosses’ justice that dominates their decisions.
That is precisely the criticism being currently leveled at the topmost of all these panels, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is involved in the case of the Swiss club Sion’s protest at being flung out of the Europa League. UEFA has taken the case to CAS, but the Sion president Christian Constantin fears CAS is likely to rule against his club because he feels that it is unfairly weighted in favor of the sports establishment.
The biggest problem with the panels is that they are seen as short-cuts to justice. This means, inevitably, dispensing with many of the time-consuming safeguards on civil and legal rights that have been built into the court system.
One of the first things to notice about the Suarez verdict is that it has been made public, while the minutes of the two-month-long hearings and the very evidence on which the verdict was based have not. This is bound to raise suspicions.
We know that Suarez and Evra were involved in a running dispute during the Liverpool-ManU game last October. Evra claims he was abused more than 10 times -- but admits that he countered the alleged abuse with naughty words of his own. If the FA panel has more evidence, its existence has yet to be revealed. If it does not, then evidently it comes down to the word of Evra against the word of Suarez.
Evra does not come out of that match up too well. In 2008, Evra was involved in a confrontation with a member of Chelsea’s ground staff, who he accused of racism. But the subsequent enquiry -- conducted by the FA -- found Evra’s testimony to be “exaggerated and unreliable.”
The dispute would appear to revolve around Suarez’s use of the word “negrito” which is evidently being treated as equivalent to the “n” word. Something that Suarez -- and a substantial body of supporters from Uruguay -- say is ridiculous.
Suarez has maintained total innocence from the start. He is receiving solid support from his club Liverpool, which has issued a strong condemnation of the FA verdict: “It appears to us that the FA were determined to bring charges against Luis Suarez, even before interviewing him at the beginning of November. Nothing we have heard in the course of the hearing has changed our view that Luis Suarez is innocent of the charges brought against him and we will provide Luis with whatever support he now needs to clear his name.”
That was followed by an equally strong statement of support from all the Liverpool players: “Luis Suarez is our teammate and our friend and as a group of players we are shocked and angered that he has been found guilty by the FA. We totally support Luis and we want the world to know that. We know he is not racist.”
But all those brave words will count for nothing unless Liverpool takes the obvious step: It must lodge an appeal against the FA verdict. So far, it has not taken any action.