In the shadows of Manchester City’s extraordinary 6-1 win at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, one of the Premier League season’s more eyebrow-raising results of the season so far was being played out at Loftus Road, as newly-promoted Queens Park Rangers beat Chelsea by an odd goal. It was a curious match in several different respects. Chelsea were reduced to nine men – one red card, that of Didier Drogba, was as undebatable as they come, whilst the other, awarded against Jose Bosingwa, was somewhat less so – but Queens Park Rangers found the going more difficult than they might have expected playing with a two-man advantage, and the paucity of their performance with this advantage will give manager Neil Warnock something to chew over ahead of his team’s trip to White Hart Lane to play Spurs on Sunday afternoon.
Such matters, however, take second place to the accusations made of racism in the direction of John Terry on Sunday afternoon. It was the second successive week that such an accusation has been made so publicly (following on from a spat between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez the week before) and, for the second week in a row, the decisions over what has happened seems to have already been made before an investigation into it at any official level has begun. The video footage of the Terry incident is inconclusive, to say the least. None of this, however, has prevented the lip-reading experts of social media websites from making their immediate pronouncements of guilt – or otherwise – in Terry’s direction.
There is much about John Terry that we have the right to find objectionable about. For many, he has become the personification of much of what is wrong with the modern game and this means that the player himself has less room for manoeuvre than many other players in terms of his behaviour. The way that he was painted as history’s greatest villain in the tail-wind that followed the rumours regarding his private life a couple of years ago, for example, were out of all proportion to what had actually been going on, but the same process seems to be opening up again now. On the subject of John Terry, we all have to have an opinion. There can be no room for middle ground. You must either hold the opinion that he is the greatest defender that Chelsea or England have ever had, or that he is the worst human being of the twenty-first century.
Of course, the problem with either of these positions is that they start from a presumption of innocence or guilt, before working their way back, trying to retrospectively justify this initial presumption. This, of course, is not the way that any justice system worth its salt should work. The media environment in which we find ourselves, however, demands instant answers, and the system that we have in place to deal with such allegations – an inquiry, based in empirical evidence – doesn’t fit with this level of expectation on the part of those looking in from the outside. Is John Terry a racist? Did John Terry make racist slurs in the direction of Anton Ferdinand on Sunday afternoon? The only honest answer that anybody apart from Terry can give is “I don’t know”. It won’t stop people from being certain about something that they almost certainly didn’t see with their own eyes, though.
So the investigation will push on. The Metropolitan Police have already confirmed they “have been notified of an incident on Sunday 23 October involving alleged racial abuse”, whilst Queens Park Rangers are meeting with Anton Ferdinand today to ascertain whether they should be making a formal complaint over the issue. Should it be decided that Terry has a case to answer, we can be certain that this story will rise to a crescendo-like pitch (we already have, ahem, “helpful” articles such as this in the Daily Mail this morning – you have the option not to click and to take our word for it should you wish – stating that “Things may not be perfect but, at the end of the day, Gary, there are worse things to complain about”, lord preserve us). In the meantime, no matter what our private opinions of John Terry might be, both as a man and as a professional footballer, we have little option but to await the outcome of any investigations into it and save our opprobrium for after this is made public.
It is, in some respects, encouraging to see that – the Daily Mail aside, apparently – there is at least no debate over whether players should just “man up” and get on with dealing with racial abuse on the pitch. At least, we might console ourselves, the issue of racial abuse is being taken seriously. We should, however, perhaps pause to consider what sort of effect scurrilous accusations of racism might have. We cannot say at present whether the accusations made so far – either in the direction of Luis Suarez or John Terry – are scurrilous or baseless, but if it becomes de rigeur for accusations of this nature to be made on a weekly basis, then the likelihood of a baseless one being made increases exponentially and this can only damage valid (and still much-needed) campaigns such as Kick It Out. It is to be hoped that those that might consider making baseless accusations of racism will take such considerations into account. Whether the sort of person that would make such an accusation merely to smear a player would consider such things may, of course, be doubtful.
In the meantime, we are left with a static noise of presumption, accusation, counter-accusation and the unsettling feeling that there will be no satisfactory outcome this situation, no matter what the police, the Premier League or the Football Association find. If John Terry is charged with and found guilty of the accusations made, we have to face up to another act of dispiriting behaviour by someone that has displayed – to put it mildly – lapses of judgment before. If nothing comes of it, then the innuendo will continue regardless, and all of the time, the suspicion will continue to linger in the back of the mind that none of this is to do with combating racism, but is about taking one of the taboos de nos jours and smearing somebody with it because it can be done. There is, in other words, no part of this story that doesn’t cause the heart to sink a little in one way or another.
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