A year ago this week, in a match between Chelsea and QPR, John Terry insulted Anton Ferdinand. That now seems the overwhelmingly probable version of events, notwithstanding Terry’s insistence that he was indignantly repeating an insult Ferdinand accused him of using, an explanation judged improbable by Westminster Magistrates Court, and “implausible and contrived” by the FA. It seems likelier that after repeated baiting by Ferdinand, Terry snapped.
He uttered three words. Two are normally considered highly offensive, but apparently constitute nothing more than a routine scatalogical reflex in professional football. But Terry also inserted the epithet “black”, and what would have been forgotten in an instant became an indelible stain on English football history.
The consequences of that single word, uttered in the heat of battle, have been staggeringly far-reaching. The domino effect has toppled kingpins. Terry was stripped of the England captaincy. Fabio Capello, England’s £6 million-a-year head-coach, was ousted from his post. Terry’s 78-cap England career was eventually ended by an FA inquiry that contradicted the magistrate’s judgment. Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole both received substantial fines for disreputable tweets. And English football was sent into a continuing convulsion of self-scrutinizing angst.
So it was odd that Rio Ferdinand chose on Saturday to spurn a T-shirt supporting an anti-racism campaign, his grievance apparently being that racism is not being taken seriously enough within football. Other rebels joined in, including Reading striker Jason Roberts. According to Cyrille Regis, Roberts’ uncle and one of the first black professionals in England, the protesters are aggrieved at the perceived leniency of Terry’s ban. “It gives the impression that it’s OK,” said Regis. “Come on, do we have zero tolerance or not?”
This specious logic ill befits the considered and eloquent corpus of black players who are among the football’s vocal anti-racism ambassadors. At no stage has the English footballing establishment indicated that it thinks racism is OK. Not when it stripped Terry of the captaincy before any evidence had been offered, and certainly not when it broke with its own regulations to pursue a guilty verdict against Terry after he had been acquitted in a court of law.
A zero-tolerance policy does not guarantee draconian punishment, nor does it proclude the reintegration of the offender. John Terry hasn’t somehow ‘got away with it’. True, he is not languishing in prison, but he has served his punishment in time and money; and for a single momentary transgression, the greatest accolades of his career have been withdrawn and his reputation irreversibly tattered.
If Terry has been shown leniency, in the length of his ban, in the size of his fine, in being allowed to remain in the national set-up until his guilt was established, then it probably reflects the fact that whilst his remark was reprehensible, it was an isolated offence not indicative of a deep racial prejudice.
For all his faults, no-one could fairly call Terry a racist. No racist would tolerate such a close working relationship with numerous black players, no racist would embrace Didier Drogba so warmly after Chelsea’s Champions League triumph. Terry’s remark was instantaneously calculated to be the most provocative and offensive thing he could say, much like Ferdinand’s earlier jibes probably were, not to reflect his sincerely-held Weltanschauung.
Does English football really have a racism problem? Well, if it does, then God help the rest of British society. As an example of meritocratic multicultural integration, the Premier League is hard to better. That doesn’t mean that things are perfect.
That doesn’t mean that the anti-racism campaign shouldn’t continue its tireless work. That doesn’t mean that remarks like Terry’s shouldn’t be strongly punished. But the problem is one of stupid people sometimes saying stupid things, not of endemic prejudice and institutional conspiracy.
Two black players did not join their colleagues in protest on Saturday. Mario Balotelli and Peter Odemwingie wore the T-shirts. They have both experienced racist abuse far worse than the insult directed at Anton Ferdinand. Balotelli was regularly pelted with bananas when he played for Internazionale and fans once displayed a banner proclaiming “A negro cannot be an Italian.” Odemwingie has talked of receiving jeers and monkey chants “every time [he] touched the ball” during his spell at Lokomotiv Moscow.
They know better than anyone the difference between a culture where racism occasionally materializes through individual slurs and a culture where an ingrained ‘them-and-us’ mentality prevails.
With that in mind, Rio Ferdinand and his fellows rebels might consider the message that a protest uniting black players sends. They might think carefully about their aim to create a black footballers’ union. Are they really defending a besieged community whose interests are not served by the existing football establishment? Or are they taking the first dangerous step down a road that leads to division and alienation?