England defender John Terry denies racism charge

John Terry arriving in court as his trial for public order offenses begins © Getty Images

John Terry has told a court he is ‘not prepared to be called a racist,’ denying allegations that he racially abused another player last year. When does bad taste banter become a criminal offence?

John Terry, former England captain and longtime hero of Chelsea Football Club, has always been a fighter: a last-ditch tackler, a defensive scrapper, a passionate motivator at the heart of any team for which he plays.

But yesterday, he was fighting in a courtroom rather than on a football pitch. At stake: his reputation, and perhaps his England career.

Terry’s trouble started back in October last year, when pitchside cameras recorded him having a fierce verbal battle with a rival player, Queen’s Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand. Both players were clearly using extremely rude language, but viewers with a talent for lip reading spotted something even more serious: it looked, to those watching, as if Terry had unleashed a volley of highly offensive racist abuse.

At first, though, it looked like the whole thing might blow over. Ferdinand and Terry met in the Chelsea dressing room after the match and agreed that their fight had been ‘just handbags’ – rude banter exchanged in the heat of the moment. Certainly, Terry had not been unprovoked. Ferdinand had been taunting him mercilessly over a supposed affair with the wife of another player.

Terry and Ferdinand shook hands and agreed to forget the whole thing. It was only later, watching video from the match online, that Ferdinand discovered Terry’s cursing had swerved into racism.

‘If someone calls you a [swearword] that’s fine,’ he later said. But ‘when someone brings your colour into it, it takes it to another level.’

The police agreed. Terry now faces criminal charges for ‘a racially aggravated public order offence.’

Yesterday, the footballer defended himself in court against the accusation of racism. In fact, he said, he had been accused of using a racial slur by Ferdinand and had then repeated the slur in disbelief. ‘I was just being sarcastic,’ he said.

Now, a judge will decide whether or not Terry is telling the truth. The defence team will try to claim the words were spoken in a spirit of banter; that they were mocking rather than malicious. But if the court finds Terry guilty, no one will be laughing.

Making an example

Certainly, no one thinks racial abuse should be taken lightly. Some people, however, say this John Terry case should never have gone to court. However awful what Terry said turns out to have been, it was said in the heat of a squabble between two grown men. Surely, the argument goes, the police have better things to do than arrest foolish football stars.

Others reply: it is precisely because Terry and Ferdinand are football stars that police had a duty to get involved. Footballers are heroes to millions of people. If racism is to be eradicated from modern society, football is the perfect place to start.

You Decide

  1. Anton Ferdinand said some extremely rude things to John Terry before the alleged racial abuse. Is that relevant to the case?
  2. If someone says something racist, does it matter if they didn’t mean to cause offence?

Activities

  1. If John Terry is found guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, what punishment do you think the judge should impose? Write your answer down secretly, then compare with others in the class. What is the overall consensus?
  2. In twenty words or less, define ‘racism’.

Some People Say...

“No one should ever be arrested for speaking, however wrong the things they say.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I didn’t know you could be arrested for simply insulting someone!
The boundaries between legal and illegal are far from clear. In Britain, it is not illegal to say something racist, but it is illegal to racially abuse someone and illegal to incite racial hatred.
And is it only footballers and famous people who get charged?
No. One woman was sent to prison recently after being filmed delivering a racist rant on a London tram. Like Terry, she was charged with a ‘public order offence’.
If Terry is found guilty, what then?
The maximum fine that can be imposed is £2,500. It sounds like a lot but, in fact, Terry is paid so much by Chelsea Football Club that he earns that amount every two and a half hours.

Word Watch

Chelsea Football Club
Owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, Chelsea FC is one of five London teams in the English Premier League. The others are Fulham, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers.
Lip reading
In normal conversations, many people watch the lips of the person they are talking to for conscious or subconscious clues to what a person is saying. Some people are so good at reading lips that they can understand what a person is saying even without being able to hear them. This is, however, a very advanced and difficult skill to learn.
Handbags
This expression is meant to conjure up the image of women fighting by swinging handbags at each other, ie, a silly, petty fight rather than a ‘manly’ brawl. Arguably, it is quite sexist in its own right.

Subjects