The War on Hate Speech Reaches Britain's Soccer Fields

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.