With the not guilty verdict rendered in the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand racism case, it is important that the right conclusions are drawn, and the correct future actions taken. So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts on the issue - feel free to add your own opinion in the comments.
- Football has issues - I think it is fair to say that the way footballers speak to each other on the pitch is pretty appalling. Sledging takes place in many sports (it is a time-honoured tradition in cricket), but only in football is it so utterly foul-mouthed. Much has been made in the newspapers of what they like to refer to as 'industrial' language. Having had a fair bit of experience working in an 'industrial' context, I can testify that such language is common, but it is very rarely used in such an aggressive and directly abusive way - football stands apart on that. For all their 'Respect' campaign and handshakes, the FA have clearly failed to engender a sense of basic human decency in players - oh for more of the Iker Casillas spirit, who on seeing Italy suffering at 4-0 at the end of the Euro final, urged the goal-line official to tell the referee to end the match out of respect. No wonder neither Terry or Ferdinand wanted this in court - neither have appeared in a favourable light. Even if Terry was not racist, neither player has demonstrated themselves to be a paragon of virtue.
- This shouldn't have gone to court - This decision puzzles me. Why, of all the offences committed on a football pitch, was this one picked for trial? Why was the Suarez case not considered serious enough, and yet this one was? (Why is Terry not similarly up for assault after the second leg against Barcelona?) The FA should have dealt with this quickly, like the Suarez affair, recognising that as a sporting body, the burden of proof is not so heavy (the ICC had handed out its own spot-fixing sanctions long before the corresponding criminal trial had started). With the evidence available, it was never going to be established beyond reasonable doubt that Terry had racially abused Ferdinand - so why? All we have achieved is an undedifying opportunity for the * to compete with the letter e for 'most commonly used character'.
- Other victims will be more reluctant now - possibly the most serious of the repercussions from this case is that players who are already reluctant to come forward will now be even more reticent. The judge commended Ferdinand for his bravery in testifying, which is a fair comment, considering the appalling hounding he has had from members of the public. As with the Liverpool fans in the Suarez affair, people side with their team rather than wanting justice and condemning racism as they should. The FA could have dealt with this, handed Terry a sanction that he cares about (a ban to a footballer is much worse than a measly fine in this financial era) and demonstrated that racism is not to be tolerated. Out of fairness the criminal justice system requires greater proof, and therefore it was inevitable that they could not convict. It essentially boiled down to one man's word against another - and that is not enough to overturn the legal presumption of innocence (this is as it should be, but poses difficulties in cases like this). Will other players come forward knowing that they may not even see justice done?
- Terry's story did hang together - a lot of people came to their own conclusions before the trial on the basis of YouTube footage. Having read Terry's defence and watched the footage, it does actually make sense to me. His body language as he speaks can be interpreted as a sarcastic dismissal of an alleged accusation. Personally, I find it slightly more believable than the judge did. It is worth noting that the judge concludes that Terry did not change his story and was consistent throughout - whether it is true or not, there was not enough evidence to contradict him. People have compared this case to OJ Simpson's trial, but I don't think it's that clear-cut. I think Terry's explanation is legitimately plausible, whether it is true or not.
- The FA has work to do - the difficult of the FA waiting until after the trial to carry out their own work is that it may become harder to act contrary to the legal verdict. This season has made it clear that racism is not dead in football, or in the wider country - it is good in one sense that such an issue is made of this, because we do not want a return to the late 70s and early 80s. They must make sure that racism is not tolerated, but they need to go further. Football has long been worse than other sports for language used, both between players and towards officials. Perhaps miking up the ref might help - in rugby it ensures players talk to the ref in an acceptable manner. Football should enforce these things more - players can learn pretty fast when they have to!
- Where does this leave freedom of speech? - this is more a question than a comment. Should this even be a legal issue? Let me be clear, I think it is perfectly acceptable for the FA to forbid racist language around football grounds - every employer and professional organisation reserves the right to make codes of conduct, and I think that is right for the FA to do so. However, as a firm believer in freedom of speech, should the law of the land adjudicate on this matter? Let us assume that Terry was guilty of a racial slur - should he be legally prevented from saying it? Why has he been singled out? He was not inciting violent behaviour, he was not encouraging people to assault or discriminate against black people - it was an insult. Where is the line drawn at legally acceptable language? Should ginger hair-based insults be illegal? What about sexuality-related insults? I do not condone it by any means, but part of me is disturbed that this can become an issue for a criminal trial. As Voltaire said: 'I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it'. Thoughts? Are there things that it should not be acceptable to say? Should all things be sayable? If we legally forbid people saying things that are commonly agreed as wrong, does it open up the way to more severe censorship?
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter. Feel free to chip in, especially with your opinions on the last point.