If the John Terry racism case was not already messy enough, the latest development has ensured the debate has entered an even more divisive phase.
With the Chelsea player’s lawyer entering a plea of ‘not guilty’ at the initial hearing into allegations that he racially abused QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, a trial date has now been set for July 9th – after the conclusion of Euro 2012. Naturally, the question of Terry’s suitability to lead England into the competition – or even to be selected in the squad of 23 – has been raised with little chance of a consensus being reached.
Today has seen two strident voices emerge from the printed press with Paul Kelso in the Telegraph and Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail offering contrasting opinions as to how they think the Football Association should deal with the delicate situation. Kelso insists that Terry’s position as the symbolic leader of the nation is untenable and that he should not even travel to Poland and Ukraine. If the FA were not to relieve him of the captaincy, so the journalist says, they would relinquish any supposed ‘moral authority’ over the game.
Samuel argues a completely different point, backing the closely protected tenet of the British legal system of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as the path the FA should follow having already asserted that stance in the immediate aftermath of events at Loftus Road last Autumn. While I am usually diametrically opposed to almost everything the Daily Mail prints, I have to agree with Samuel on this one – bar his rather tasteless slight on Jason Roberts – especially where he urges the FA to guard against the modern culture of instant opinion generated by the ‘red button’, Twitter and the blogosphere.
The irony of me writing this on a blog is not lost on me but, placing that to one side for the moment, balanced debate can often get lost amid the outrage and I think it is important that the FA properly consider the ramifications of each potential course of action before making any decision on the matter. After all, the only evidence that any one outside of the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the lawyers involved has seen is a piece of television footage that is far from conclusive. Let’s not forget that Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was found not guilty of affray in 2009 despite CCTV footage showing him land several punches on the alleged victim in a Southport bar. What that teaches us is that context is everything and with the public at large currently ignorant of the mitigating circumstances – if any – in the Terry case, it is dangerous to leap to conclusions.
On the face of it, yes, it looks extremely bad for the national team captain to be embroiled in such an ugly affair and the powers that be could certainly be excused for wanting to disassociate themselves from Terry given the pre-eminent status that football enjoys in this country and the commercial benefits it receives as a result. However, how would they look if the court agrees with the Chelsea man and finds him not guilty? Essentially, they would be sacking a man on hearsay. There have been precedents in English football in similarly sensitive issues, the most prominent of which concerned former Southampton manager Dave Jones who was suspended by the club when he was charged with child abuse at the turn of the millennium. The case was thrown out of court but Jones never worked for the south coast outfit again, failing with an appeal for unfair dismissal despite earning the universal sympathy of the football fraternity.
Conversely, the possibility of seeing Terry lift the trophy in Kiev only to see him found guilty of a racially aggravated public order offence would cast the FA in a very bad light. Their stated commitment to stamping out racism would be ridiculed and the futures of the top brass at Soho Square would undoubtedly be called into question. They are in an impossible position in being forced to make a decision that will be mired in criticism whichever path they choose to take.
Refreshingly, the most sensible comment has come from an MP with Damian Collins of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee urging the presiding judge to reconsider the trial date and bring the case forward so that it can be settled sooner rather than later especially as the case is highly unlikely to last for more than a couple of days.
Whatever happens, I hope that club loyalties – whether pro or anti-Chelsea – do not shape public opinion on the matter. This issue transcends such myopia and those who make their moral judgements based purely upon the team they support should take a long hard look at themselves.