Friday, July 13, 2012

Next time, just say "pardon?"

Perhaps if John Terry had come to any professional media advisor before Chelsea played QPR on October 23rd last year, we may have been spared nine months of aggravation and recrimination. Because one of the most important rules of engagement when being interviewed by a journalist is never repeat the question, especially if it is a negative one.

Alaska's leading housewife-come-presidential wannabe Sarah Palin made that mistake when American TV interviewer Katie Couric asked her - as a $700 billion fiscal stimulus package was being considered by US Congress - "If this doesn't pass, do you think there's a risk of another Great Depression?". In her reply, Palin said: "this has to pass or we're gonna find ourselves in another Great Depression", resulting in a slew of headlines all saying: PALIN PREDICTS ANOTHER GREAT DEPRESSION. Well at least she couldn't have seen that from her kitchen window.

Unlike Palin, no one - apart from John Terry and Anton Ferdinand - is fully sure what was or wasn't said between the two players in the heat of battle last October. 

Even in delivering the verdict that today acquitted Terry, Howard Riddle, chief magistrate of Westminster Magistrate's Court in London said he was in no doubt that the Chelsea captain had used the phrase - and apologies for the verbatim repetition - "fucking black cunt" to Ferdinand amongst a string of expletive-laden exchanges between the two players. No one - not even the lip readers who studied Sky Sports video evidence - could determine whether or not Terry had used the phrase in insult, or in sarcastic questioning of Ferdinand using it. 

So we end up drawing our own conclusion. The official court verdict contains more use of the F and the C than an entire series of The Thick Of It with Malcolm Tucker at full-on hairdryer. No doubt the Daily Mail will be experiencing underwear discomfort over the saltiness of conversations between supposed role models, but then I doubt anyone on the Mail's editorial staff will know how much such liberal application of ripe Anglo-Saxon epithets is as part and parcel of the game as shin pads and blonde girlfriends.

Questions, therefore, remain as to why a criminal prosecution was pushed for in the first place, especially as the QPR defender was initially reluctant to come forward and press charges. The public prosecution service, however, was in little doubt: "The very serious allegation at the heart of this case was one of racial abuse," said Alison Saunders, Chief Crown Prosecutor for London. "It was our view that this was not banter on the football pitch and that the allegation should be judged by a court". I'm sure footballers have said worse to each other.

However, the issue is clearly not over. Indeed, the real trouble may only be about to begin. In Terry not being guilty of a criminal offence, there will be a sizeable and vocal lobby in football saying that whatever he did say brought the game into disrepute. There are those clearly demanding their pound of flesh.

Some have argued that Terry shouldn't have just been stripped of the England captaincy over the affair, as he was in January, but that the FA should have banned him indefinitely from representing England under the premise that it made mockery of the FA's 'Respect' campaign.

This is utter nonsense. I have no truck for racism in any walk of life. But if Terry was a true racist would he have really played amongst black players at Chelsea and in the England team all this time?  And, in the grand scheme of things, if he did say what he is supposed to have said as an insult, was it a racist insult or an insult that drew reference to Ferdinand's colour?

While I agree that you shouldn't ever draw reference to anyone's colour, there is clearly a difference between a remark aimed at throwing a fellow professional off balance in a football match and a remark designed to provoke anger by offence, whether it be Ferdinand's bating of Terry, or Terry's apparent response to Ferdinand. Words are just words, and football, for that matter, is just theatre, even if Garth Crooks believes me to be a "dinosaur" for believing this to be "no more than two players engaged in a slanging match".

In an op-ed published tonight in The Guardian Crooks makes a good case that the FA's lack of mettle in addressing the issue early created polarity in the sport; furthermore, I agree fully that Terry simply shouldn't have used the words - even if repeating them.

But..."It is therefore possible," said Riddle in his deliberation, "that what [Terry] said was not intended as an insult, but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him. In those circumstances, there being a doubt, the only verdict the court can record is one of not guilty."

That should be the end of it. Seeking further sanction against Terry will only perpetuate an issue that should now be drawn under.

Crooks, however, believes it shouldn't be over: "If the FA don't act on the undisputed facts, and find Terry guilty of bringing the game into disrepute, a lot of good people are saying to me that there's no point in getting involved in the game at a senior level."

Really? Are we going to suddenly see a mass depletion of players from the Premier League? The likes of Ashley Cole, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck walking out of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United for this? With some clubs playing with more black than white players - something no one really notices and, thankfully, gives a hoot about seeing as it is a totally irrelevant distinction - underlying and seemingly unspoken opinion would have to be pretty strong for a mass exit over this one issue. If anything, football has been one of the most positive environments in modern British society for the promotion of racial harmony, at least amongst the black community. It still has a lot of work to do in the Asian community.

No one wants a return to the banana-throwing, monkey-chanting 1970s and early '80s, and the sort of racism that is, depressingly, still to be seen and heard in Spain, Germany, Russia and other parts of south-eastern Europe. But I question very strongly the notion that for John Terry to go unpunished by the FA for a crime he has been acquitted of in a court of law should send a signal to black players that, in the supposition of Garth Crooks, "an entire generation of black players...feel the game has failed them."

I do agree, Garth, that they shouldn't stand for abuse. But in not taking the Terry-Ferdinand case further, given that a court has established that the evidence doesn't demonstrate an act of racism or even congenital racism by the Chelsea skipper, the sport can at least work on measures that will address institutional racism.

Terry, for the rest of his career, will get hounded by rival fans, as much for his affair with a fellow professional's girlfriend and his mother's own misdemeanor in a branch of Tesco as for what he did say - in one form or another - to Ferdinand. Ferdinand and his brother Rio will continue to get booed by Chelsea supporters.

It's pathetic, I know, but it's football. I'm not defending it, but there are also worse things said between fans in supposed jest (just ask Tottenham supporters) to get a rise out of them. There are also profoundly racist elements in football, just as they exist in any walk of life. Football needs to work constructively about eliminating all forms of prejudice, rather than focusing on a what was, indeed, just a slanging match.

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