Such was the intense interest in the trial of the Chelsea captain, everyone who followed this trial on Twitter was supplied with as much detail as Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle presiding over the case in Westminster Magistrates Court . The nation’s journalists seemed to be engaged in a perpetual race to see who could be quickest off the mark to let the Twittersphere know everything from the expression on the witnesses faces to the colour of Terry’s tie. It allowed anybody that was unable to gain entrance into the confines of the courtroom to virtually place themselves in the public gallery.
What we all observed was a tawdry tale of name-calling and playground thuggery that pivoted on the crucial context of the words uttered by Terry towards Anton Ferdinand during the closing stages of Chelsea’s ill-tempered 1-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers last October. Irrespective of the judgement, it is safe to say that nobody emerged from the affair with any credit. The liberal use of invective and the puerile claims about weight, halitosis, parental behaviour and their alleged extra-curricular activities with former team mates’ wives served only to paint a picture of ugly adolescence.
Putting aside the racial element for a moment, what this spectacle has provided is miles of column inches about the shame brought upon the game of football due to the language used by the protagonists on the field. Endless sermons have been conducted over the base nature of the sport and its players with even Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt – yes, the same one that recently covered himself in glory at the Leveson inquiry and also made some ill-advised comments on the Hillsborough disaster – trying to buy himself some goodwill by sticking the boot in.
Thankfully, there has been the odd voice of reason defending the sport from being singled out in this regard and one of them has come from the world of cricket, the so-called gentleman’s game. Former England captain Michael Atherton wrote a considered piece in The Times when he shed light on the kind of barbs slung in the throes of battle with Mervyn Hughes, Glenn McGrath, Ramnaresh Sarwan and even the softly spoken John Emburey cited as mouthpieces emitting insulting bad language. The Australians used to call it ‘mental disintegration’ and it was employed not to demean the opposition but to put players off their game. It wasn’t personal – despite the nature of the insults – but solely an additional weapon used to achieve victory. I doubt Ferdinand was personally aggrieved at Terry’s alleged affair, neither do I think that John Terry really believes the QPR man has bad breath. It is gamesmanship. Unsavoury gamesmanship but nothing more.
However, returning to the crux of matter – the alleged racial slur –it strikes me that many have chosen to ignore due process and have preferred to assume John Terry’s guilt. The verdict provoked a rash of outraged responses from both the football world and wider society with the wide proliferation of footage posted on YouTube having made everybody with an internet connection an instant expert in lip-reading and legal affairs. I wonder, though, how many of those apoplectic with rage actually read Riddle’s full judgement? If they had done, then they might not have condemned the court with such indecent haste when faced with the even-handed approach that was conducted by the magistrate. I implore you to read it for yourself which you can do by clicking here.
While the view of the masses can often be skewed and uninformed, what is particularly surprising is the view taken by the prominent anti-racism campaigner and the chairman of Kick It Out, Lord Herman Ouseley . His urging of the FA to “deal with the racial element” of this case effectively exhorts the game’s governing body to punish Terry for an offence for which the justice system itself has shown that – at the very least – there is insufficient evidence to prove his guilt. Had the magistrate arrived at a different verdict, I would be standing alongside those calling for the book to be thrown at Terry. As it is, the fundamental tenet of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ appears to have been totally disregarded by Lord Ousely as it does not serve his agenda.
Even more extraordinary is the now infamous endorsement by Anton Ferdinand’s brother, Rio, that Ashley Cole was a “choc ice” due to his testimony given in support of his club team mate. The comment made via Twitter was excused by the Manchester United player as not referring to Cole’s background or the colour of his skin but as a reference to Cole being “fake”. Now Rio might be a footballer but he’s not so stupid as to be unaware of the connotations of this comment especially given the fact that Cole is mixed race. To the Chelsea player’s credit – and, no doubt, Ferdinand’s relief – he has decided not to fan the flames of an already sensitive issue, choosing to laugh it off instead.
The problem with the reactions of those such as Lord Ouseley and Rio Ferdinand is that it could potentially serve to undermine the excellent and imperative work of organisations such as Kick It Out. Both individuals have contributed significantly to the eradication of the problem that has blighted the sport and society in general but in order to continue the fight against racism these mixed messages must be avoided.
Racism is abhorrent and should not be tolerated but assuming guilt in the face of either contrary evidence or its noticeable absence is almost as dangerous. John Terry might not be everyone’s cup of tea but the British justice system has found him not guilty. Without forgetting the need to tackle discrimination in perpetuity and barring the emergence of any unequivocal new evidence, it is now time for the FA, the Ferdinands and football itself to move on.
You can read more of Phil's opinions at ShoutyAndSpitty.com or on Twitter @PhilLythell