STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Queens Park Rangers at Britannia Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Stoke on Trent, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
The conclusion of John Terry's trial leaves the FA, and English football, in a perilous and awkward position.
Finally, 2011-12 is over. The last piece of outstanding business has been dealt with, the trial that disrupted the careers of John Terry, Anton Ferdinand, his brother Rio, Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson, and Harry Redknapp is over -- there is no higher law than that of unintended consequences -- and we can finally draw a line under a season that was at times as depressing as any in recent memory. Right? Sadly not.
For a start, it was a distinctly unedifying week for the game in general. The recitation of the confrontation -- which began when Terry, apparently on a whim, accused Ferdinand of having bad breath; continued as Ferdinand, through the medium of the elaborate fist-pump, reminded Terry of his alleged infidelities; ended with that Youtube video; and managed to drag in Paddy Kenny's girth and crude chants regarding Terry's mother's sexual inclinations -- sounded, in the dry context of the courtroom, utterly puerile. And there has since been much concern that both parties liberally salted this exchange, and so their evidence, with the word "c*nt", which I am obliged to asterisk here lest any of you be offended by vowels.
But it would be moralistic handwringing of the very worst kind to focus on the preponderance of foul language and conclude that this was any kind of discovery, that we were suddenly being shown the seamy side of the beautiful game. If it's still a shock to anybody that footballers swear, a lot, at the referee, one another, and the world in general, then they've been avoiding the evidence with a desperation that would concern even the most agoraphobic ostrich. Nor are the players the only ones at it: it seems safe to assume that not everybody that called John Terry a c*nt at Loftus Road was in the employ of QPR.
People swear in football, and whether this is a problem is, ultimately, a matter of individual taste; cover the ears of your children if you buy into the whole footballers-as-role-models thing. Castigate footballers for their lack of obscene imagination if you like, though it's difficult to do so without sounding a little bit like a Telegraph leader. (Why aren't they biting their thumbs at one another? Do they just not read?) But the important question is not whether it's okay for footballers to call one another c*nts. It's whether there are mechanisms in place to ensure that when abuse crosses the line, it can be dealt with. For all that the criminal trial managed to bugger up the England team and keep us diverted, amused and horrified for a week, in many ways the knottiest problem -- for English football in general, that is -- is yet to be addressed. And as is so often the case, it falls to the FA.
Their first job is to look at the evidence available and decide, with reference to their own precedents, procedures and protocols, whether any disciplinary action should be taken against either Terry or Ferdinand. With reference to Terry, the fact that the verdict retains a significant amount of narrative ambiguity means that the FA can't simply point to a thundering exoneration, run off some photocopies on their own letterhead, and leave it there. As has been widely pointed out, FA decisions are made on the basis of the balance of probabilities, not the stricter 'beyond all reasonable doubt' used in court. The possibility that Ferdinand might also be charged only makes things more delicate.
Because whatever the disciplinary outcome -- and divining FA decisions is a task beyond even the tea leaves and chicken guts that litter my table -- the FA has to ensure that not only is it fair to both parties, but that the outcome doesn't have the unwitting effect of chilling future complaints of unacceptable abuse. As a fundamental and non-controversial principle of general human co-existence, a person should be able to make a complaint about the way they've been treated without being dissuaded by the possible negative consequences of that complaint.
It is certainly beyond the power of the FA to prevent brainless bigots sending bullets through the post, and there's perhaps not all that much they can do about the chorus of boos that will rain down upon Anton Ferdinand's head next time he visits Stamford Bridge, nice as it might be to see them try. But it is imperative that any footballer can tell themselves that complaining isn't futile. As Musa Okwonga has pointed out for MSN: given what he's been through as he waited for the trial, Ferdinand might view the entire process as having been more trouble than simply letting things slide. So, by extension, might anybody else.
Most people don't complain to get somebody else in trouble, however conveniently that notion might sit in football's endless cycle of contemptuous "you c*nt/no, you c*nt" tribalism. Complaints come because somebody is hurt, or disturbed, or offended, and what the complainant wants isn't necessarily punishment, but the knowledge that whatever the outcome their hurt has been acknowledged, and taken seriously, by the body that owes them a duty of care. That, the FA can do, whatever it ultimately decides. And it must.