On John Terry and racial abuse

So the verdict is out. An Independent Regulatory Commission has adjudged John Terry to have used “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand and which included a reference to colour and/or race” contrary to the Football Association’s rules.

Terry has been given a penalty of a four-match ban from domestic football and a fine of £220,000; his penalty is suspended until after the outcome of any appeal, should he choose to make one.

Though the full written reasons for this verdict have not yet been released, the Commission’s decision does not come as a shock.

The difficulty that the prosecution faced at John Terry’s criminal trial for the alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand was the burden of proof, which was in that case insurmountable – there needed to be no reasonable doubt that Terry had said these words and meant them to be offensive.

Here, the bar was far lower: it needed only to be a question of being more likely than not that Terry had meant to abuse or insult Anton Ferdinand with the phrase “f**king black c*nt”.

Even at the first trial, the presiding judge considered that the prosecution had built “a strong case” and that there was certainly a case to answer. On that logic, the finding of proven misconduct does not seem to be an unreasonable one.

There is great controversy over the length of Terry’s ban. Some have raised concerns that it is only one match longer than a player would be suspended for a red card offence. Others, more pointedly, have drawn a direct parallel with the punishment that the FA handed out to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, having ruled that he had made a series of racially offensive comments to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.

Following a protracted and highly controversial case, Suarez was handed an eight-game ban, and a fine of £40,000. At first glance, the discrepancy in suspensions is startling. Yet the crucial paragraph of the Suarez-Evra judgment seems to be paragraph 411, which states that “Given the number of times that Mr Suarez used the word “negro”, his conduct is significantly more serious than a one-off use of a racially offensive term and amounts to an aggravating factor”.

The logic seems to be that if Terry had repeatedly used the offensive phrase in question, then he would have found himself suspended for a similar period.
Of additional, if brief, interest is the size of the fine levelled at John Terry. Though £220,000 may be, as several have remarked on Twitter, just under a fortnight’s wages for Terry, it remains a very considerable sum of money.

Indeed, if there is any inconsistency, it is here: it is unclear – without the aid of written reasons – why Terry’s one-off utterance earned him a fine five-and-a-half times that of Suarez, who was adjudged to have made a series of racially offensive remarks. Until we see such reasons, we can at best leave a question mark over this area of the process.

Perhaps, the key element in all this, though, is the non-financial price paid by John Terry: and that, ultimately, has been very significant. The FA, had it been harsher, could have denied him the opportunity to represent his country at the Euro 2012 tournament, or to play a leading role in Chelsea’s FA Cup and UEFA Champions League triumphs.

Indeed, some of Terry’s comments have implied such a harshness, whilst in the circumstances the FA seem to have been very accommodating of his concerns.

The greatest cost that Terry faced, as did Suarez, was to his reputation, which is why it would be somewhat surprising if he did not appeal this decision.

Terry’s standing in the eyes of many will not be greatly altered by this verdict – there are many within his club who will swear by his day-to-day kindness and considerate manner around the place, just as there are many more outside Stamford Bridge who are convinced of his unpleasantness.

We will probably never know quite how he was regarded within the England dressing-room when he decided to retire from international football. However, the suspicion is that if everyone associated with the national side had been as vociferous in their support of him as Roy Hodgson, then he might still be available for selection.

Whilst it seems premature to consider this battle over, it does appear that, in one sense, there has been a winner: and that is the FA.

It has shown, if somewhat falteringly, a rare fortitude over the last few months. In the face of tremendous pressure from some of the world’s biggest clubs, it has shown a persistence of which many commentators thought it incapable.

Many will dispute the FA’s findings – whether Suarez said what he said, what Terry actually meant, whether choc-ice is a disreputable phrase – but few can recall a time when this institution has gone into more exhaustive detail, and then made its decisions open to such furious scrutiny.

The Terry verdict was guaranteed to cause displeasure to almost everyone who received it: but the FA is to be commended for bringing the matter this far, towards some measure of closure.

This article originally appeared for MSN Sport on 27 September 2012, titled “There’s only one winner – the FA”, at the following link:


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