By Jonathan Wilson
July 18, 2012

Sometime this week England's Football Association is expected to decide whether to charge John Terry over allegations he racially abused Anton Ferdinand in a league game last year. That may well be a necessary procedural step, even after Terry was found not guilty of the same offense by a magistrate's court last week, but this has become an incident in which almost no one, on any side, has come out with any credit -- with the exception, oddly, of the British legal system, which has shown itself robust, fair and transparent in explaining its workings.

Terry was caught on camera shouting a highly-offensive, racially-tinged epithet at Ferdinand in a game between Chelsea and QPR in October. Terry does not deny using the words, but insisted he was responding to an accusation that he had racially abused Ferdinand by sarcastically repeating the words he had allegedly used. When the matter was reported to the police, Terry was formally charged.

The Football Association stripped Terry of the England captaincy pending the magistrates hearing. The decision soon engulfed the national team. England's manager Fabio Capello quit when he wasn't consulted on the Terry ruling, and with Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand backing his brother, it became apparent that it would be all but impossible for him to resume his partnership with Terry on the English defensive line. New national team manager Roy Hodgson insisted it was "football reasons" -- perhaps concerns over Ferdinand's ability to play three games in eight days -- that led him to leave Ferdinand off the English squad despite a series of injuries, but the suspicion was that he just didn't want him and Terry together.

Now the court's verdict has generated a marked vitriol on both sides of the incident. Part of the problem is the differing levels of proof required by different bodies. A court of law in Britain will not convict unless the evidence of guilt is beyond reasonable doubt. As District Judge Howard Riddle explained, there was "doubt" as to how Terry had uttered the words, and so "the only verdict the court can record is one of not guilty".

Riddle went on add, though, that the prosecution had built "a strong case," undone only by the fundamental issue brought up repeatedly by the defense, that despite lip-reading evidence, "it is impossible to be sure exactly what were the words spoken by Mr. Terry at the relevant time. It is impossible to be sure exactly what was said to him at the relevant time by Mr Ferdinand." Most damning was the judge's comment that, "Mr Terry's explanation is, certainly under the cold light of forensic examination, unlikely. It is not the most obvious response. It is sandwiched between other undoubted insults."

The judge's words implied that, in a process based on probability rather than proof beyond reasonable doubt, Terry would have stood a strong chance of being convicted. How strong we may yet find out; the Football Association has yet to make a decision on whether to pursue its own disciplinary action against Terry. The hearing will be based, like most employment tribunals, on probability.

It was on those grounds that Luis Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra last December when there was no clear proof of exactly what was said. Of course, had it ever got to a magistrates court, there is little doubt that Suarez would have been found not guilty.

That somebody could be found guilty by an employment tribunal and not guilty of the same offense by a court of law, and both verdicts still be correct is is one of the confusing aspects of the cases. But again, different bodies require differing burdens of proof; that's why the outrage some Uruguayans and some Liverpool fans seem to have felt over the Terry judgment is misplaced. It's simply not comparing like with like.

The reactions to Terry's trial have stoked the flames of controversy. Former Tottenham forward Garth Crooks, for instance, now a BBC pundit, wrote in The Guardian that, "Players have been ringing me over the last 48 hours with major concerns over what a not guilty verdict might mean for the wider campaign against racism in football. Will the institutions push the anti-racism campaign further down the priority list? Many fear that it will take us back to the dark days of the 1980s, when racial abuse was rife."

Crooks' statement seems to assume Terry was guilty and has somehow gotten off. If a player was found not to have racially abused another player; how exactly is that a retreat to the '80s, an era when bananas were thrown at black players, monkey chants were common and the far right National Front used football stadiums?

"I believe it was wrong of him to say these words under any circumstances," Crooks went on. Under any circumstances? Really? Let's assume Terry's version of events was accurate. He thought Anton Ferdinand had accused him of racially abusing him; how exactly was he supposed to clarify the issue without using the words Ferdinand supposedly thought he'd used? That was the crux of the case for the defense, the perfectly logical assertion that words acquire their meaning in part through context. Now it may be that Terry did racially abuse Ferdinand and his defense was spinning a cunning lie, but if a court has decided that it can't condemn him then neither should Crooks or anybody else. For now, Terry is legally innocent and he must be treated as such unless Crooks actually thinks his own opinion stands above the courts.

The inflammatory talk hasn't been limited to the media. After Ashley Cole had appeared in court to provide a character reference for Terry, a Twitter user referred to him as a "choc-ice" -- that is, black on the outside, white on the inside. Rio Ferdinand responded, "I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic hahahahahaha!!" It's hard to see how that is anything other than a term of racial abuse given it's a derogatory term rooted in the color of somebody's skin that ascribes a set of values and behavioral codes to that skin color. Ferdinand, of course, denied it. "What I said yesterday is not a racist term," he tweeted. "It's a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake. So there." Police are investigating the original Tweet, but not Ferdinand.

Perhaps the logic behind the use of the term is even more disturbing. Cole, under oath, supported Terry, saying that he didn't think he was a racist. This is -- presumably -- what he actually thinks. So is Ferdinand saying that Cole should have perjured himself to ensure a racial abuse charge was upheld out of some weird sense of color solidarity?

The FA may decide that once a court has reached its verdict, it has no business pursuing the issue further. It would be understandable if it thought enough damage has already been done to the game -- not least in the revelation of just how much players abuse each other during games. But realistically, if it is ever to have jurisdiction in matters of alleged racist abuse again, it must charge Terry. The same standards must be applied to him as were applied to Suarez.

Most of all, football needs a whole reconsideration of race. It has been sickening the extent to which people have used Twitter and other media to abuse Evra and Ferdinand. For them, hopefully, police action will follow. It is also troubling how many seem to think Terry should have been convicted as a demonstration of how tough Britain and English football is on racism. Racism is deplorable, but you can only condemn those who are proven guilty of it.

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