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by
Mike McNally

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February 2, 2012 - 6:48 am

Before you rush to leave a comment on the relative “lameness” of soccer compared to the US version of football, this piece isn’t about the game of soccer as such. It’s about allegations of racist abuse against two of the game’s biggest stars in Britain that have been dominating in the news here for the past couple of months; and about the response to one of those cases in particular, which goes to the heart of issues of race relations and free speech.

In the first incident, Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez was banned by the English game’s governing body, the Football Association, after allegedly directing abuse at Manchester United’s French defender Patrice Evra, who is black, in a game at Liverpool last October. Suarez admitted calling Evra a “negro,” but claimed that the term was not regarded as offensive in South America. He also claimed, rather implausibly, that his remarks were intended to be friendly

The FA banned Suarez for eight matches. Liverpool considered appealing the ban, but dropped that idea after coming under widespread pressure and being accused of undermining attempts to eradicate racism from soccer, and society at large.

Only the most hot-headed Liverpool fans have protested that Suarez is entirely innocent, and shouldn’t have been punished. But the length of the ban was considered harsh by some, and it’s possible, without condoning Suarez’s behaviour, to sympathize with that view — after all, it’s quite possible to break an opposing player’s leg and get away with a ban of just three games. But Suarez was at least dealt with by the soccer authorities in accordance with their rules, and appears to have been given a fair hearing.

The second incident, involving the Chelsea and England defender John Terry, is more troubling. Terry, who is white, faces a criminal trial after being charged with racially abusing the black Queen’s Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand. Terry denies the charge, and his trial is due to begin in July, shortly after England play in the European Championship tournament (a Europe-only version of the World Cup).

The police became involved after a member of the public made a complaint. Terry at one stage admitted directing an offensive term towards Ferdinand, but claimed that he did so only in the course of denying that he’d said the words in the first place; it’s not clear whether he’ll maintain that defense in court. An inaudible video clip, which you can view here, along with an account of the incident, will be used as evidence against Terry — the prosecution will be employing a lip reader.

England fans are worried that the charge hanging over Terry could affect his performances, and England’s prospects, at the Euro tournament. But they, and the rest of us, should be more concerned about what the decision to charge Terry says about the state of free speech in the UK.

If Terry did indeed racially abuse Ferdinand, there’s no way for the prosecution to prove that his words were motivated by genuine racist malice, rather than an outburst in the heat of adrenalin-fuelled battle between men who tend to come from working-class backgrounds, and who tend not to be particularly sophisticated or articulate. And given that Terry plays alongside players of various hues and nationalities at Chelsea, and with several black players on the England team, it’s certainly questionable whether he harbors real hatred for fellow professionals on account of their skin color.

But even if Terry is in fact a dyed-in-the-wool racist, he’s being prosecuted for voicing an opinion, however ignorant and bigoted. Terry did not physically assault Ferdinand, nor did he incite anyone to abuse him or attack him. He may well have said something deeply insulting, but last time I checked, freedom of speech included the freedom to say things that others find offensive and repellant.

And if Terry is convicted, the maximum fine of $4,000 — which on his weekly wage of $250,000 he’ll be able to pay off with two hours and 38 minutes of “work” — is hardly going to force him to rethink deep-set attitudes, even if the negative attention causes him to hold his tongue in the future.

Terry is not being prosecuted because anyone seriously believes it will advance the cause of race relations. He’s being prosecuted because the self-flagellating, politically correct elites who dominate British politics, the criminal justice system and the media — and of course its flourishing race relations industry — demand it to fuel their delusions of self-righteousness and disdain for white working-class British people.

Britain’s soccer authorities are understandably keen to erase the stain of racism from the game, and remarkable progress has been made since the 1970s and 1980s, when black players were routinely subjected to racial abuse from massed ranks of opposing fans (and sometimes from their own supporters), and had bananas hurled at them on the pitch.

As in the wider society, that progress has come as a result of changing attitudes. And in soccer, progress was also made thanks to the skill and character of leading black players, which persuaded fans to look at them as footballers first and foremost, and to disregard their skin color. The fight against racism on the soccer pitch will not be won in the police cell or the courtroom, any more than will be the fight against racism on the street.

Terry should be dealt with, as Suarez was, by those who run soccer. If he’s guilty, let him be pilloried by fans and the press; let him be shunned by black players, and by self-respecting fellow players of every color; let him be paraded in front of schoolchildren to admit that his behavior was inexcusable.

Putting him in the dock, and turning a crude insult into a hate crime, is another step down the road to the routine criminalization of free speech and free thought.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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