An edited version of this piece appeared in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, on 31 July 2012. The link is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/31/racism-kicked-out-of-football-not?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
The issue of racism in football is alive and well. Mark McCammon, a professional footballer, has just successfully brought a case for racial victimisation against Gillingham, his former football club. McCammon, who is black, was found by an employment tribunal to have been unfairly dismissed due to his race: this finding in his favour is the first of its type in English law.
Elsewhere, the issue of racism in football – in the form of the Ferdinand-Terry saga – is alive and dull. Sometimes it feels like what this episode really needs is a vampire slayer: that it badly needs Buffy. But she has retired, and so this stubbornly undead affair trundles on, with two of its own protagonists perhaps most weary of this drama. The FA has charged Chelsea’s John Terry with the alleged use of abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand, contrary to FA rules. This comes, of course, after Terry was found not guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand in a criminal trial. More recently, the FA has also charged Rio Ferdinand, Anton’s brother, with acting “in a way which was improper and/or bought the game into disrepute by making comments which included a reference to ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race”. This latter charge came after Ferdinand, the Manchester United defender, retweeted and laughed at a comment referring to Ashley Cole, the Chelsea and England defender, as a “choc ice”.
Some might say that this is minor compared to what McCammon suffered at Gillingham, who are due to appeal the finding of the tribunal. “Now that’s real racial victimisation”, they might say. What emerged from the Terry-Ferdinand trial was that, during that match between QPR and Chelsea on October 23rd, two grown men had traded insults in a childish spat, the likes of which you might find in a primary school playground at break-time. Ashley Cole, when called to give evidence, was clearly exasperated. “We shouldn’t be sitting here”, he told the court, and many, having followed the trial closely, would be minded to agree with him. At this point, in the manner of a popular chat-show, we can step back from the fray and ask – in an appropriately pompous tone – What We Have All Learned.
There is nothing much new that has been learned about Anton Ferdinand, save his somewhat unimaginative choice of abuse. There is nothing new that we have learned about John Terry. Those with good or bad feelings towards him prior to this latest round of charges will feel much the same about him now. The same goes for Rio Ferdinand, although it is a minor mystery that a renowned authoritarian such as Sir Alex Ferguson allows one of his players to be so prolific and so vociferous on Twitter. But I think that a great deal more has been learned about the FA, and its attitude to racism in football.
To use a well-worn analogy, that of Charles Dickens’ “The Tale of Two Cities”, this affair has shown the FA in the best of lights, and in the worst of lights. This affair has shown the FA in the best of lights, in their decision to charge Rio Ferdinand for his conduct on Twitter. If they had done otherwise, they would have opened themselves to the accusation that the only type of racially offensive slur that they found acceptable was that made by a white person about a black person’s skin colour. While this charge may to some appear trivial, I believe that it is consistent, and therefore fitting. It shows that the FA is determined to be exhaustive in its efforts to address any form of racial discrimination in football.
In one key respect, this affair has shown the FA in the worst of lights. Though John Terry was well within his rights to seek a postponement of the trial until after the Euro 2012, I believe that the FA should have made him unavailable for selection during that time. This would not have foreshadowed his guilt: of course, in any criminal trial the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Instead, the FA would have shown everyone that the disciplinary process takes priority over everything, including football: which, after all, is just another form of employment, if more glamorous than most. However, the FA did not have the bravery to take this opportunity.
There will presumably be several players out there who have suffered racial discrimination in football, and who will anxiously be watching how the FA handles the final stages of this issue. They will be hoping that the FA plods scrupulously and rather more bravely through every stage of the process.