What does it feel like when the captain of your football team galvanises the hatred and disdain of the entire English Premier League? I don’t know I don’t support QPR and am thus spared any association with Joey Barton. But I am a Chelsea fan. Black my whole life, have always been a woman and a Chelsea fan when I was little. I haven’t closely followed them all my life but my fandom renaissance began a few years ago, I’ve only known one captain at the club, John Terry.
My patch of South London is a Chelsea enclave, flags fly on balconies, branded bath towels hang on washing lines and the local kids wear their replica kits around the communal trampolines. My surroundings provide a novel experience because for the most part I am used to being the only Chelsea fan in the room. We are an easy team to hate apparently but for a fan this has been a noteworthy year for reasons good and bad, we’ve lived through the best and yeah the worst of times.
Champions League triumphs over Barcelona and Bayern Munich were the ultimate reward at the close of a dramatic Premier League campaign. The mid-season jettison of a new manager signposted a notable dip on the rollercoaster that crashed through our tumultuous year. The aristocratic touch-line crouch master Andres Villas Boas- still mad at him for going to Spurs, was still in post when one of the most contentious episodes occurred in October 2011 during the QPR vs. CFC match. Based on a complaint made after an exchange between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, a police investigation led to Terry facing a charge of “a racially aggravated public order offence” under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. He has been found Not Guilty by District Judge Riddle.
“F*** off, f*** off, f****** black c***, f****** knob head”
Watching the YouTube clip without audio or subtitles complicated emotions rise up, those poisonous words are laden with betrayal but for me there is no reason why I shouldn’t be surprised by what I’m seeing. I’ve never heard of John Terry being connected to racism and I wanted him to be on the right side of this when I saw it, what I needed was context. There is behaviour there that needed to be scrutinised and explained and it’s not all John Terry’s.
As a rivals, you bay for blood, anything to weaken the confidence of the opposition and level your own chance of celebrating victory, and it’s not just the fans. What has been exposed for those that didn’t know is the flavour of interaction between players in the febrile atmosphere of a game. Terry made reference in his cross examination to the “industrial language” that footallers use,
“Wives, girlfriends and mothers are fair game for abuse, race is a no go area.”
The depressing acceptance of sexist and hate language involving women is a social permission that Terry is clear about, it’s deeply troubling to hear it but hardly illuminating, whatever point the culture has reached in its management of racial politics, the very real presence of sexism within the football experience for the most part goes untouched. I think it’s safe to assume that many of his fellow players also operate within this framework. Anton Ferdinand admits to goading Terry over the allegation that Terry had an affair with the ex-girlfriend of a former team mate and friend. The allegation, since unproven led to Terry being stripped of the England captain’s armband. The armband wound up on the arm of Rio ‘Spit Roast’ Ferdinand, elder brother of Anton.
Terry’s confirmation of the existence of this paradigm is significant because it speaks to his personal standards and the awareness that race hatred is off-limits to bait and trap fellow players. Ashley Cole’s reluctant testimony to the court provides the closest corroboration of Terry’s account; Cole thought he heard Ferdinand use the words
Cole’s instinctual assessment of this was immediate and after the match he did not shake Ferdinand’s hand. The judgement from District Judge Riddle acknowledges the credibility of both Terry and Ferdinand as witnesses, he does not feel that either man lied or gave a dishonest account from their singular perspectives. A misunderstanding occurred, one in which knowingly unacceptable words were said in a situation where the intent was to challenge Ferdinand rather than debase and dehumanise him.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, under which Terry was charged is viewed by some as being inadequate. A campaign to scrap it was launched in May this year with the support gay rights activist Peter Tatchell and former Home Secretary David Davis.
Section 5 outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.”- via politics.co.uk
Currently if a policeman is irritated by an Oxford student telling him his horse was ‘gay’ the student may be arrested under Section 5. This actually happened. Perhaps the silliness of a student prank is the wrong example to give. Consider then the football stadium, if you are in the vicinity of hate language being used and are the target of abuse from the crowd, a complaint would lead to a charge under this law. Coincidentally if you overhear the taunting chants that the crowd directs towards their rivals in that febrile environment, the same law would be applied should you feel offended and raise a complaint. Motive is not the issue. The Crown Prosecution has defended the decision to bring the case against Terry to trial, this is the law that they are working with. As it stands the attainment of harmony through justice seems unachievable, it is impossible for the law to draw a distinction between racist and non-racist usage and there is no provision for the law to do so, I think it’s important and necessary to draw distinctions between the two.
On this subject I value the work of feminists Theresa Warburton and Joshua Cerretti. The introduction to their post “What We Aren’t Talking About When We Talk About ‘White Privilege’” provides a line of thinking that can effectively support evolved conversations about race.
“Talking frankly about race doesn’t just mean pointing out hostile attitudes and narrow stereotypes based on race, though; it also means being honest about our own experiences as raced beings. It means talking about how we are embedded in racial systems, not disembodied and dispassionate viewers of them. It also means talking about how being against racism doesn’t mean that we don’t say and do racist things.”– via feministwire.com
I thought about this concept as I scrolled through the ’JohnTerry’snotaracist’ hash tag on Twitter where Chelsea fans were posting photo montages -of Terry laughing with Didier Drogba, hugging Nicolas Anelka, embracing Salomon Kalou, and stood shoulder to shoulder amidst the African contingent of the Chelsea squad. During the trial a call sheet of 18 fellow players offering personal statements of support were given to provide a similar perspective on the character of the accused, some of those quoted are categorical in their belief that Terry is not a racist. Being one is not the charge that he faced.
The first two days of proceedings were concerned with establishing whether there were grounds for a trial. I supported Terry’s desire to clear his name and the case moving to trial was for me a necessary step, the charge so serious that it needed to be tested for the facts and evidence to be judged fairly and objectively. I admit that my starting point in observing the case was one of ‘benefit of the doubt until I’m fully aware of the facts’. I needed the case to be seen through to the end irrespective of the verdict and allowing for any outcome is a necessary element of due process.
The judge made note of Anton Ferdinand’s bravery in making a complaint, rightly so in my opinion. Setting aside the implied machinations behind the scenes of brother Rio and the PR man Justin Rigby, that the case was not proven does not alter the fact that a black or brown player faces a torrent of abuse when he attempts to challenge victimisation. It is so important that the targets of hate speech be applauded for taking action that exposes the instigator of the abuse. As a mechanism to isolate and stigmatise unacceptable behaviour in football this doesn’t happen enough and it’s not difficult to see why.
For its visible openly racist content the Luis Suarez incident is a parallel to the John Terry case. Suarez admitted to repeatedly using a racial slur in an exchange with Patrice Evra during a LFC vs. MUFC match last season. The FA’s investigation and subsequent disciplinary proceedings determined that Luis Suarez was guilty. A fine and an 8 match ban for Suarez were the outcome it is however Patrice Evra who has been the recipient of booing and hateful language from Liverpool fans who have followed through on their manager’s support of the Uruguyan player by printing up t-shirts to celebrate their continuing admiration for him.
Ferdinand must have considered the reception his action would receive, the fact is that football’s governing bodies have not matched their anti-racism campaigns with a structured support system for those attacked by hate language and much more work needs to be done to enable safe reporting of abuse that doesn’t burden the player with the responsibility of challenging the oppression in an environment of isolation. This work needs to be inclusive of players, managers and all football staff alike at all levels. Getting it right is crucial not the least for the culture of the sport at the bottom end of the financial water table where grassroots football is under policed and under resourced.
We do not live in a post-racial society, football will not, indeed cannot eradicate racism from society at large but the expectation remains that a code of protection and transformation of oppressive structures be reinforced by those who run the game. Current practice of governing organisations such as FA, FIFA and UEFA can be viewed as superficial when the priorities appear to focus on the lucrative financial bounty to be had over the well being of the individuals who play the game.
Within the football community, of the many tools that are needed to dismantle structures of oppression from racism to sexism to homophobia, support given to the work of those who challenge and correct it is vital. There needs to be a culture of safety that enables individuals to be self-critical whilst holding frank discussions about the nature and experience of those structures. A legal framework cannot achieve this. For some the narrative of an ‘individual caught in the act’ and yet getting away with it makes it impossible to see this.
The FA investigation will reach a conclusion this week and it must move swiftly in its decision making. After the position it took with Luis Suarez the fact that John Terry has been found not guilty may not prevent him from being sanctioned, the game has been brought in to disrepute but he was not the only person to take it there.