The FA’s anti-racist kangaroo court

He may be a thug, but John Terry’s showtrial shows how all white working-class people are now seen to be racist bigots.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

John Terry divides opinion. But love him or loathe him, we can probably all agree that he won’t be on the New Year’s Honours list. Nor will he win BBC Sports Personality of the Year. And he is most definitely NOT a national treasure.

The former England captain has become one of the most reviled figures in English football – well, reviled outside Stamford Bridge, that is, where ‘Mr Chelsea’ is still revered. I’ve no idea whether he racially abused Anton Ferdinand. And, to be honest, I don’t particularly care. What does bother me is that the protracted Terry saga has exposed the sorry state of anti-racism today. What was once a progressive struggle for equality has now become little more than a reactionary inquisition against name-calling.

John Terry is one of those rare players who transcends football. Not in the Beckham, sarong-wearing, gay-icon sense. Just as FC Barcelona claims to be ‘mes que un club’ (more than a club), John Terry is more than a footballer. He is a metaphor. He follows in a long line of maligned footballers before him, such as Lee Bowyer, Joey Barton and Ashley, who have attained fully fledged metaphor status. Terry is seen as the embodiment of all the perceived ills of modern football: venal, thuggish and racist. Oh, and he shagged his best mate’s missus.

I’m not going to spin you a yarn about how JT does a lot of charity work for disadvantaged children. I really don’t know or care whether he helps old ladies across the road or sells them drugs. Nor do I care whether he intended to insult Anton Ferdinand with the words ‘f**king black c**t’. If he did racially abuse Ferdinand then the matter could and should have been settled informally without any need for the police or the FA to get involved. What’s said on the pitch should be dealt with on the pitch, even if that means administering some ‘off the ball’ justice.

One of the worrying features of the Terry case is how an exchange of ‘verbals’ on a football pitch should end up in court – and now in an FA tribunal. Everyone knows that FA tribunals, with their 95 per cent conviction rates, are little more than kangaroo courts. Terry is charged with contravening rule E3, which prohibits ‘threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour’. He can be found guilty regardless of whether he intended a racial slur. But even if he did intend to insult, should using indecent or insulting words really be a disciplinary offence? Think about it. Are there any footballers who don’t insult or abuse their opponents? If the FA were to ban every player who used ‘indecent or insulting words’, football would literally grind to a halt.

Many will argue that the FA had to act given the racial nature of the insult. According to the FA’s rulebook, ‘a reference to any one or more of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race’ is punishable with ‘an increased sanction’. In other words, a racial insult is worse than your bog-standard insult. In a society where blasphemy or sexual swear words have lost their shock value, racial insults are the only taboo words. This reflects the extent to which casual racism, which was commonplace 30 years ago, has disappeared – and that’s a positive thing. However, the Terry case, with its focus on racist speech, reveals the extent to which racism and anti-racism have lost their traditional meanings. The metaphorical John Terry represents, for many people, the bigoted core of English football. A negligible handful of recent racial-abuse incidents have sparked a debate about whether English football is still racist. Last week, a House of Commons Culture Media and Sports select committee inquiry into racism in football concluded that: ‘Recent incidents of racist abuse in the UK highlight that there remain significant problems.’

So, is football racist? Viewed through an equal-treatment lens, it’s an absurd question. Black players, who constitute around 25 per cent of professionals, are over-represented in football. It’s one of the few well-paid jobs where skin colour is not a barrier. Even if we take one of the more unpleasant symptoms of racism – abusive chanting – this has pretty much disappeared from English football grounds over the past two decades. So why, despite the overwhelming evidence that racism is no longer a problem in football, is there still a public discussion about it? I think this preoccupation with racism tells us more about the prejudices of those whose voices dominate the discussion – journalists, parliamentarians, the anti-racism industry – than it does about the perceived problem. Essentially, the charge that football is racist is an indirect way of saying that white working-class people are bigots. In this topsy-turvy reading of racism, it’s the behaviour and cultural insensitivity of ordinary people which is presented as the problem.

Anti-racism during the 1970s and 80s in Britain was primarily a political struggle aimed at powerful institutions – the police, the government and the immigration authorities. The problems faced by immigrants in Britain – deportations, passport checks, police harassment, employment discrimination – required social and political change. But, over the course of the past three decades, the definitions of racism and anti-racism have been altered beyond all recognition. The first big shift was the rise of multiculturalism in the 1980s. The multiculturalist policies of the ‘municipal socialists’ in local authorities turned a political issue into a cultural problem. Instead of demanding integration, as the US civil-right movement had done in the Sixties, multiculturalists demanded respect for different cultural identities. It was here, in the multiculturalist obsession with language and cultural sensitivity, that today’s tyranny of racial etiquette was born.

The second key shift was the 1999 Macpherson Report on the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Macpherson introduced the concept of ‘unwitting racism’, which recast racism as a psychological problem. Racism was now effectively a thought crime. As a consequence, anti-racism today is predominantly about gagging, censoring and punishing. It’s a policing issue, not a demand for equality.

And that’s why, if John Terry is found guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, I won’t be celebrating. Making an example of the former England captain isn’t remotely a sign of progress. Rather it illustrates how anti-racism is now just a stick with which to beat the supposedly stupid, bigoted white working classes. You don’t have to like John Terry as a person to see that a guilty verdict is a victory for the thought police.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics


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