John Terry: Racist thug or defensive superman?

For many, John Terry ‘the footballer’ and John Terry ‘the man’ are two separate individuals entirely. The former is the model of the English centre-half, a modern day Moore, willing to risk his body for his team and providing Churchillian inspiration, rallying his men when all seems lost. The latter is a wholly different beast, a thuggish philanderer, embodying the decadence and destructiveness that tarnishes the modern game. But in assessing John Terry’s career and persona, football writers and fans will forever have to combine the two, because of three brutally simple words: ‘f***ing black c**t’.

The John Terry/Anton Ferdinand saga has been the story in English football for almost a year. As Queens Park Rangers played Chelsea in an October 2011 Premier League game, Terry was caught on camera screaming those words at his opponent and national teammate’s brother. The subsequent trial and drama is now old-hat – the stripping of the English captaincy, the resignation of Capello, the snubbed handshake, and Terry leaving the national side are all now stories of this nation’s footballing canon. But, through all of this, Terry was found by a court of law to be innocent. His lawyer, playing a Bizarro version of Atticus Finch, managed to prove reasonable doubt by suggesting that his client had said the words, ‘Oi Anton, do you think I called you a…’ before his insults. This was deemed sufficient to prove that there was no racist intent behind the comments. So Terry walked away free, though his name was about as clean as Jamal’s kitchen.

Last week however, the FA fined and banned Terry for his actions. Many cried foul and suggested that if he’d been found innocent in a court of law, the FA had no grounds to punish Terry. Those people are morons. Not only was the charge the FA brought different (that of using insulting words and/or behaviour), but their burden of proof was different (having to only prove Terry’s guilt on a balance of probabilities, as opposed to beyond reasonable doubt). This is why medical tribunals can strike doctors off even after a court has found them innocent. The FA was clearly within its rights to act.

More importantly though, there was an imperative for it to act. First of all, the action itself was one that compelled punishment. To scream racial slurs at a player, whether in an inquisitive manner or not, is wholly unacceptable. The notion that in a televised game and in a heated environment, the use of such language can be construed as anything other than racist is a laughable one. For the FA to have allowed such an act to go unpunished would have been wholly unforgivable. Secondly, given that the FA’s remit is not only to consider what happens on the pitch, but to also consider the impact of football and footballers on ‘the game’ in general, making examples of those found guilty of racist behaviour is necessary. Whilst the days of banana-throwing are thankfully consigned to history, the idea that discrimination is gone from the sport is false. This incident and the Suarez/Evra controversy highlight the fact, as does the problem that the colour of a player’s skin, or their ethnic background, is still a topic for abuse from the terraces. Racism is a cancer on football and needs to be eradicated. The FA needs to be consistent in its application of a zero-tolerance standpoint, and Terry had to be punished. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, John Terry had to be punished because he’s John Terry. He was the England captain, one of the most successful and most prominent players of the modern era, and a star off the field as well. Like it or not, Premier League footballers have a prominence in society which forces upon them a certain degree of responsibility to set a good example for the millions watching. John Terry failed to do that. It was right that he was fined £200,000 and banned for 4 games; ultimately, this punishment should have gone even further.

As such, when judging John Terry’s impact upon English football, it would be wrong to view him in terms solely of his sporting achievements. The reasons the FA had to act justify this; his on-the-field résumé now contains the enormous blemish of his comments to Anton Ferdinand. Moreover, in a post-Beckham sporting landscape, the player and the man are indelibly intertwined. John Terry’s head needed to be put to better use than merely making last-gasp clearances and rising above opposition defences to score vital goals; it needed to consider the true emotional impact on his victim and on everyone watching football who’d ever been singled out because of their race, as well as the young fans who observe and imitate the behaviour of their idols. He failed in that. And he shouldn’t be forgiven for it, no matter how many Champions League trophies he manages to surreptitiously hold aloft.


PHOTO// Julian Mason