By Paul Gardner
John Terry, who has captained England in the past, has now been found not guilty of racially abusing the Queens Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand. Found not guilty, it needs stressing, by a court of criminal law ... by the full majesty of the English legal system, if you like.
Which, barring an appeal, ought to close that case, right? But who would lodge an appeal anyway? It was not Ferdinand who brought the case. That followed the action of a policeman who overheard a crude swear-word-laden exchange between the two players at a game between Chelsea and QPR.
The trial judge insisted that all the naughty words be uttered in court. It wasn’t pretty, but it did give an accurate, warts-and-all -- in fact, it seemed to be only warts -- picture of the on-field atmosphere of English soccer.
As such, it presented something of a problem for the English newspapers. One or two printed the words in full, taking the adult view that these words are in common enough everyday use and its readers would therefore not be shocked. But most papers used asterisks to disguise the words -- meaning their reports were bristling with stars.
Those asterisks now represent a problem for the English Football Association. The FA had started its own inquiry into the incident, but this was dropped, or temporarily shelved, while the legal case went ahead.
(Somehow or other, that case managed to get itself put off until after the Euro 2012 championships -- in which Terry featured as a member of the English squad. The postponement was strange. Even more suspicious was the omission from the squad of Rio Ferdinand, Anton’s brother, who had been widely expected to be Terry’s partner at the heart of the England defense.)
The FA is now coming under pressure to re-open its own inquiry -- with suggestions that it should punish Terry for the very thing that the court has found him not guilty: Racial abuse. The reasoning is that an FA panel would require a lesser level of proof than that required in a criminal court.
Well, that’s certainly true. It is only some six months ago that a Regulatory Commission set up by the FA reported in offensively self-satisfied tones its condemnation of Liverpool’s Luis Suarez to an eight-game suspension for “racial abuse” of Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. The evidence presented to this FA commission would surely not have stood up in a criminal law court. But under the “balance of probability” standard required in a civil court, it was considered valid enough to convict Suarez.
Having heavily punished Suarez, how can the FA now not do the same with Terry? The FA has set its own standards of heavy punishment in a case where the evidence was hardly cut and dried.
But the Suarez case presented the FA with a perfect sacrificial offering, a foreign player who could be portrayed as not used to the supposedly high standards of comportment on English soccer fields. Reading the commission’s report on that case is an uncomfortable experience, as it introduces moralizing arguments that ought to have no place in deciding on the factual truth of the case. But the FA was obviously more determined to proclaim to the world its purity on racial matters than on observing any legal niceties. Disappointingly, the supposedly independent commission adopted the same attitude.
In the Terry case, the FA has a tricky decision to make. It can simply drop its own inquiry -- though this would be seen as a cop out to those who feel, strongly, that Terry deserves to be punished for his comments. Or the FA can re-open its inquiry, in which case it is surely obliged to push it with the same vigor -- not to mention self-righteousness -- that it pursued Suarez. Not easy in the face of the “not-guilty” verdict given to Terry by the court, which ought to mean that the “racial abuse” angle is closed. Anyway, I have major doubts that the FA would treat a former captain of its national team in that way.
That still leaves all those pesky asterisks. I don’t see how the FA can ignore them. They don’t exactly convey the image of English soccer as a rose-garden. That ought not to matter, really -- no one, surely, is saying that the players shouldn’t swear at each other? Don’t be too sure. In its tedious, holier-than-thou, submission to its own panel in the Suarez case, the FA solemnly intoned that “ ... the conduct of Mr Suarez has damaged the image of English football around the world ...” The panel itself piled further responsibility on Suarez by defining his actions as “... wrong because footballers, such as Mr Suarez, are looked up to and admired by a great many football fans, especially young fans.”
One is entitled to wonder what the FA thinks all those asterisks have done for this vaunted worldwide “image of English football.” And what will the FA have to say about the effects on young fans of the gutter language used by John Terry?