A race to judgement

Late yesterday afternoon the Football Association published the full report of its Independent Regulatory Commission into the racial abuse of Patrice Evra by Luis Suarez in October.

It’s a very long (and sometimes repetitive) document, but in essence it came down to three questions.

1. Did Suarez use abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Evra?

The vast bulk of the report is geared to answering this question. There is evidence from the players involved, plus Dirk Kuyt who was closest to the incident; from several Manchester United players as to what Evra told them had been said; from the referee and his team as to what they were told both on the pitch and in the dressing room immediately afterwards; and from Liverpool backroom staff as to what Suarez told them he had said.

The Commission found that while Evra’s statements were consistent with other available evidence, such as the referee’s report, the sequence of events seen on the video, and the fact that several United players independently said that Evra had told them the same thing, the submissions from Suarez were inconsistent and confused, and changed as new evidence was made available to him.

It’s worth noting that all parties – including the lawyers for Suarez and Liverpool – accepted that the case was not simply about “one man’s word against another’s”, because there was enough associated evidence to allow the Commission to decide whether one or other of the points of view was closer to the truth.

The best – and possibly crucial – example of this concerned an exchange between Liverpool’s Director of Football, Damien Comolli, and the refereeing team of Andre Marriner and Phil Dowd. Comolli had become involved as a Spanish speaker (Suarez speaks and understands very little English) when a member of staff had made him and manager Kenny Dalglish aware that Evra and his manager Sir Alex Ferguson had made a complaint to the referee. Comolli actually went to the referee’s room under his own steam immediately after Dalglish was summoned there, to “confirm the version of events told to Mr Marriner by Mr Dalglish”.

The evidence from Marriner and Dowd was that both Dalglish and Comolli had said that Suarez had told them that he had said “[because] you are black” to Evra, although it was unclear in what context. This came across identically in the English (from Dalglish) and the Spanish (from Comolli), but importantly Dowd asked Comolli to spell out the Spanish “tues negro” for the report.

Comolli later denied spelling out “tues”, and said that he had only done so with the word “negro”, but the Commission decided that it was unlikely that Dowd and Marriner had made this up in a report written within hours of the event.

The reason this was so important was that Suarez’s case was that he had only said “Por que, negro?” (“why, black?”) in response to a statement by Evra, and in a manner that would have been considered friendly in Uruguay. By introducing the “tues” (“you are”), the whole meaning of the phrase changed. The corroborated evidence suggested that what Suarez said translated as “because you are black” rather than “why, black?”

Even allowing for this decision, the Commission did make strenuous efforts to discover whether the phrase “why, black?” could, as Suarez claimed, have been a friendly attempt to calm things down. Two experts in Spanish language and culture in South America were asked to produce reports. They stated that, yes, in some contexts the word “negro” was used as a “matey” term, in the same way we might use “fatty”. But they also reported that some black residents of the area found this unwelcome and, more crucially, if anyone used it in an angry or confrontational way it would be understood to be racially offensive.

It was also noted that Suarez only began using the argument that he used the word “in a conciliatory manner” after he had seen the experts’ report which discussed this as a possibility.

Having weighed all of the evidence, and discussed it together with the balance of probabilities and the motivation of each party, over around 330 paragraphs of text, the Commission found that Suarez did use abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Evra. It also rejected a claim from Suarez’s lawyer that it should decide whether Suarez intended the words to be abusive and/or insulting, in the same way that it would not normally judge serious foul play on the intent but on the action.

2. Did the words and/or behaviour include a reference to Evra’s colour?

The FA rules are specific in making reference to ethnic origin, colour or race an aggravating factor when considering the penalty for using abusive and/or insulting language.

In this case, the Commission pointed out that because the abusive word in question was specifically concerned with Evra’s colour, it was pretty clear that this aggravating factor was present – in fact, it was impossible to argue that it was absent.

3. What should the penalty be?

The standard penalty for a player sent off during a match for this offence is two matches, and the FA rule states that the “entry point” where there is an aggravating factor of colour should be double the normal penalty. (It also goes on to state that for a second similar offence it should be at least treble the normal penalty, and for any further offences a permanent ban can be considered.)

The Commission listened to submissions from both sides as to the appropriate penalty and decided that, because Suarez used the abusive and/or insulting words seven times, and in three different phases, it was far more serious than the “entry point” of four games which would have applied for just one use. The Commission added:

“Those who are victims of misconduct of this nature should know that, if they complain and their complaint is upheld, the FA will impose an appropriate penalty which reflects the gravity of this type of misconduct.”

There were a couple of other points which are worth noting from the hearing. The first is that, to an extent, Evra started it. The exchanges came about after he complained to Suarez about a foul five minutes earlier. The Commission is quite clear (thanks to the aforementioned Spanish experts) that while Evra’s initial comment translates directly as “your sister’s cunt”, in common use its meaning is closer to “fucking hell”. In any case, Suarez confirmed that he did not hear this, and Evra mentioned it of his own accord.

Second, nobody at any stage claimed or found that Suarez “is a racist”, as opposed to “said racist things”. The finding is essentially that we all do really stupid things that we regret, or fail to appreciate the impact of, but that we should nevertheless be prepared to take the consequences. I suppose an analogy is that someone who causes death by careless driving is not “a murderer” but will still find himself in prison.

The overall impression given by the full 115-page report is of a Commission absolutely determined to do, and be seen to do, the right thing. All of the arguments advanced by “interested parties” in the days after the announcement of the suspension – “it’s OK in Uruguay”, “Evra’s a liar”, “it was one throwaway comment” – are dealt with at length and in detail. The report suggests that by the end of the proceedings Suarez accepted that he was wrong to say what he said, and promised that he wouldn’t do it again.

Where does this forensic approach leave Liverpool FC and its fans? Twenty-four hours after the suspension was announced, the team, including manager Kenny Dalglish, warmed up at Wigan in T-shirts bearing Suarez’s name and picture, in a gesture of “support”. Nobody at the club seems to have considered what a message this sent out. Knowing all the evidence in the case, they still saw fit to act as though one of their players had been imprisoned in a foreign jail for missing the team bus.

And after the event, the club’s official website – not an unpoliceable fans’ forum, the official site – treated us to a full photo gallery of the T-shirt campaign. This has, unsurprisingly, been picked up (by an unrelated retailer) as a marketing opportunity. A football club can’t necessarily be held responsible for the worst excesses of its “supporters”, as widely and horrendously demonstrated across the Internet in the last fortnight, but it should at least make sure that its actions don’t inflame things. A one-line statement saying “Liverpool FC is disappointed with the suspension and is considering whether to appeal” would have maintained the position while not doing anything to foster the rabid outrage mentality. But even the initial statement, let alone the stupid T-shirt stunt, talked of “extraordinary” decisions and encouraged disciplinary retaliation against Evra.

Given the comprehensive reasoning of the Commission, I’d find it astonishing if Liverpool actually launched their appeal. Perhaps they could get a couple of games knocked off – but they could also get a couple added. Middlesbrough have previously demonstrated the folly of launching daft appeals, conincidentally also after a match at Anfield.

So, only one question remains from the whole affair. With its actions in the days immediately following the announcement of the suspension, Liverpool FC appears to have committed a prima facie breach of Rule E3(1), the same rule used to convict Suarez, which states (with my emphasis):

“A Participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.”

At what point will the FA find it appropriate to launch proceedings? Maybe they will wait until after any appeal. However I don’t think the two things are linked, so this coming Tuesday seems like as good a time as any.

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6 Responses to A race to judgement

  1. Babak Golriz says:

    Good account of things! Well written too…

  2. Hbc says:

    Very well written, except:
    “The report suggests that by the end of the proceedings Suarez accepted that he was wrong to say what he said, and promised that he wouldn’t do it again.”

    I don’t read this in the report. Suarez says that he won’t use the word “negro” again, but doesn’t state he was wrong to say what he did. Suarez is also of course claiming he used the word once and not 7 times as concluded by the panel.

    I read this section of the report as Suarez saying that he will not use the word negro on a football pitch in case it gets misconstrued as him being racist in the future.

  3. wengerball says:

    An excellent summary, best I’ve read so far.

  4. Pingback: the FOOTBALL channel - Page 855 - Digit Technology Discussion Forum

  5. JG says:

    Nice article and agree the club should be charged. Their statement was one of outstanding arrogance.

    I wouldn’t dignify the shirt-sellers with a link.

  6. Ronald says:

    Great summary. The reaction to Liverpool FC and their fan base to this incident is absolutely awful and unforgivable.

    Whether you support a team or not you, broader issues of racism and racist language should, without any question, totally dwarf club allegiance.

    This ‘victim mentality’ being demonstrated by so many of their fans is as absurd as it is embarrassing.

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