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Sunday 15 July 2012

Lads' verbal brawls aren't just on pitch

Male mickey-taking is here to stay -- education is the only cure for the racist element, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

THE game of football bores me senseless, but the soap opera aspects of the industry are a different matter. Dodgy foreign owners, thick overpaid young geniuses, Wags, celebrity babies: all human life is there.

Last week in court, we had drama and amusement over John Terry, loutish captain of Chelsea and, until recently, England, accused of having last October used "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress", with the offence being "racially aggravated in accordance with section 28 of the Crime and Disorder act 1998" etc, etc, etc.

We will probably never know if Judge Howard Riddle was surprised to hear how players commonly address one another on the pitch, but his conscientious summary certainly livened up his 15-page judgement: "The defendant does not deny that he used the words, 'f**k off, f**k off', 'f**king black c**t' or 'f**king k***head'. His case is that his words were not uttered by way of abuse or insult."

As the aggrieved party, Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers, explained, the only problem was with the word "black". The rest was the usual "handbags" or "banter". (The definition of "banter" is "an exchange of light, playful, teasing remarks; good-natured raillery".)

What was agreed by both sides to be good-natured raillery in the heat of the game consisted of Terry calling Ferdinand a c**t and making a gesture implying his breath smelled, Ferdinand returning the compliment with "You shagged your team-mate's missus, you're a c**t" and then making a "slow fist pump" gesture to illustrate the accusation. (In 2009 father-of-twins Terry won the title 'Dad of the Year' around the time he was allegedly having an affair with the ex-girlfriend of Wayne Bridges; since then he has endured many "teasing" remarks on the subject.)

There were several more such light-hearted exchanges before the fateful word "black" was used.

The case hinged on whether Ferdinand had accused Terry of calling him "a black c**t" or, as Terry first suggested, merely the playful "blind c**t". On mature reflection Terry accepted he said "black", but that was because he was wounded and outraged because he thought Ferdinand had wrongly accused him of using the b-word -- therefore suggesting he might be racist -- which, as the judge agreed, would have been a "shocking and offensive" accusation. In the event, there was insufficient evidence to find Terry guilty.

Ferdinand was not the instigator: this ludicrous case would never have come to court had not some off-duty TV-watching cop lip-read the "banter" and made a formal complaint; it could cost the taxpayer half-a-million.

On the whole I respond to insults with equanimity, but of all those levelled at me over the years, the notion that being called "Irish" would be the most offensive strikes me as preposterous. Racism is wrong and unpleasant, but you don't defeat it by censorship, but through education, example and the encouragement of a culture of mutual respect.

Twenty years ago, black footballers on English pitches had hideous racial insults levelled against them that are still common abroad but are now very rare here. Terry's black friend and team-mate Ashley Cole testified that Terry was no racist.

For those of us who care about freedom of speech, this has been a particularly ludicrous example of how stupid are many well-meaning laws. It has done nothing for racial harmony and merely reinforces our knowledge that dedicated sportsmen will do anything to win and that this often involves intimidation and verbal abuse.

It's common even in the more genteel cricket. (Famous exchange: Aussie Rodney Marsh to Ian Botham in an Ashes match: "So how's your wife and my kids?" Ian Botham: "The wife's fine. The kids are retarded!")

It should come as no surprise that football players have a limited vocabulary. Mostly, as ill-educated teenagers, they were bought by football clubs who trained them as fighting machines. Paid ludicrous salaries (Terry is on £6.5m a year), they get into trouble with drink, drugs, women and gambling. They're luckier than their forebears, the Roman gladiators, but with their professional lives at stake, they won't behave like vicars on the pitch.

Last week in the House of Commons, two privileged Oxford graduates, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and Ed Balls, his Shadow, screamed accusations and abuse at each other in what was kindly described as a "playground brawl". They didn't use obscenities but that doesn't mean they weren't repressing them. After all, in the days when Balls was Gordon Brown's right-hand man, his aggressive circle was known by the beleaguered Blairites as 'Planet F**k".

It's a testosterone-induced boy thing, which non-participants can never fully understand. But if you want your team to win, don't expect them to behave like nice guys.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards