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By Matthew Handley
‘It is therefore possible that what he 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 not guilty’; so read the concluding remarks of Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle in explaining how John Terry managed to perform what many will consider to be a Houdiniesque escape from charges of using racist language towards Anton Ferdinand last October. All parties agreed that Terry had screamed ‘you black c***, you fucking knobhead’ at Ferdinand, who was standing 26 metres away from him. Terry’s (successful) defence, was that there were inverted commas around the first insult, and a question mark thereafter. ‘Not guilty’?
The courts have had their say; the burden of proof placed upon the prosecution meant that it was always going to be difficult to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Terry was using the language in a racist manner. This leaves the FA in an incredibly difficult position. In the same month as the Terry incident, Luis Suarez was accused of using derogatory language towards Patrice Evra. Once again, both sides agreed on the language used, in this instance ‘negro’; the question was one of context. Suarez contended that he was using an inoffensive South American term of reference, rather than anything genuinely discriminatory. In that instance, Suarez was given an 8 game ban and a hefty fine by the FA; the case never reached court. What gives? And what to do next?
The first thing to note, is that had the Suarez case reached court it is almost certain he would have been found innocent, for two reasons. First, because the burden of proof in FA hearings is a balance of probabilities, rather than the much more stringent standards imposed within courts of law, meaning a guilty verdict is much easier to arrive at. Secondly, because of the nature of the charges; the FA was unconcerned with context, and rather sought to discover whether or not racist language had been used full stop, whereas the prosecution in a court case would’ve needed to search for the intent contained within the statement. However, the much more important thing to draw from this is that were Terry to have been investigated by the FA, he would almost certainly have been punished. And crucially, he should be.
The FA has a radically different jurisdiction to a court of law. Rather than trying to determine legal right and wrong, it seeks to try and determine what is within the rules of the game, and what is fit to occur on a football pitch. Regardless of the intent behind the comments, no one should use racist language on a football pitch, especially in a game that is being televised to millions, as the QPR vs Chelsea match was. When we examine comments or usages of language made within what is essentially a mass entertainment industry, our concern should not be what is just the intended meaning of the language, but how it can be interpreted by a watching audience. To use the words ‘black c***’ in any context is offensive, whether that context by accusatory, questioning, sarcastic, or otherwise; in the midst of a heated argument it becomes impossible for such comments to carry anything other than racist connotations. The FA’s consideration is not what the meaning behind the words were, but the words themselves, and the impact they can have on both the players and those watching. For racial slurs to remain in football’s lexicon in any way is unacceptable, and the FA needs to act.
Obviously, given the court ruling, any sentence the FA were to pass would bring vehement defence and appeal by John Terry, and risk continuing what has already become an ugly and protracted incident. However it’s an incident and a wider issue that needs our examination; whether or not a 10 year old Chelsea fan thinks that his captain using violent and aggressive swearing and racist language is acceptable is something that we need to pay attention to. Now isn’t the time for the issue of racism in football to be brushed under the carpet. The courts of law have had their say; this shouldn’t preclude the FA from having its own as well, regardless of how difficult it may be.
PHOTO// Ryu Voelkel