Peter Young
9 October 2003
England Football Online
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Comment: The Aftermath of the Rio Ferdinand Affair

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The Football Community’s Response is Not Promising

 

What is most noteworthy about the English football community’s reaction to the Rio Ferdinand  affair is its general evasion of the merits of the important issue of fair play the England players have so dramatically raised.  The substantive poverty of the response is not promising for the future of the game in England.

The reaction from the media and fans alike has taken several forms, but, with rare exception, it shares a refusal to come to grips with the fairness of the procedures by which Ferdinand was suspended from the Turkey game—and that is the only issue the players have raised.

First, the players’ position has been consistently distorted, sometimes through ignorance but often deliberately.  They have never claimed they are not subject to the drug testing rules that are in place.  They have never questioned or criticised those drug testing rules.   They have never said that Ferdinand should not be disciplined.  All they have objected to is the infliction of punishment on a player without first giving him the opportunity to defend himself at a hearing—the violation of a right that is deemed fundamental in all civilised societies.   This flouting of fair play is a threat to all players, not just Ferdinand or the England players.

Second, the media have trotted out the opinions of old-time players who almost universally condemn the position the England players of today have taken.  Sir Alf would have sent the lot packing, bleats Alan Mullery, for example.  These old-timers put up with shoddy treatment throughout their careers.  Times have changed; we have advanced considerably in our notions of what constitutes fair treatment in general and even more in our concept of the treatment to which players are entitled in particular.   With all due respect, this appeal to authority couched in the trappings of nostalgia has no bearing on the merits of the issue.

Third, and most notably, the response has been characterised by apoplectic anger which has taken the form of hysterical name-calling and pillorying.   Who do they think they are?, trumpets the Daily Mirror, for example.  There have been endless streams of newsprint blasting them as spoiled, arrogant, pampered, coddled, overpaid, stupid, treacherous and traitorous, ad nauseam.  None of this shrill and bullying ad hominem is worth reading because it simply avoids the issue at stake. 

Some of the outrage stems from the players’ threat to boycott the Turkey match.  History teaches that those unfairly denied any other way of redressing deeply-felt grievances inevitably resort to threats of extreme action.  In this case, the Football Association, for the first time in modern history, imposed a suspension on a player without first conducting a hearing.  This constituted a radical change in the normal disciplinary rules, one which drastically departed from commonly accepted principles of fair play and one which threatens all players.  The F.A. took this astounding action without consulting either the players or, more important, their representative organisation, the Professional Footballers’ Association.  Bypassed and given no voice, the players had no other way of demonstrating the level of their dissatisfaction than to threaten a strike.  After all, they were dealing with an organisation, the F.A., that had arbitrarily and autocratically ignored the rules of fair play, both in imposing the suspension without a hearing and in changing the normal disciplinary procedure without consulting anyone.  The only way to get the F.A. to listen to them was to force the F.A. to listen to them.  

The proper target for outrage is the F.A., for its arbitrary and dictatorial flouting of fair play and for its prevaricating and dissembling, which seem to be its routine practice.  As the England players were voting unanimously to strike, the F.A.  was lying to the press, claiming that all was amicable and there was no threat of a strike.

The F.A. is dissembling still.  It now claims that in suspending Ferdinand, it was acting on its lawyers’ warning that if he played, Turkey could protest that he had failed to take the drug test and UEFA could order a forfeit on that ground.  This smacks of after-the-fact rationalisation for an horrendously unfair suspension, for the F.A. surely would have mentioned it much earlier had it been the actual reason for the suspension without hearing.   It would not excuse the failure to conduct a hearing in advance of the suspension in any event--the due process requirement is not so easily circumvented--although it might have been grounds for speeding up the process.

More important, this belatedly-offered reason is wholesale fabrication.  As UEFA has made clear, it has no jurisdiction over the drug test Ferdinand failed to take and would not take any adverse action were he to play in Turkey.  A simple telephone call to UEFA would have set the F.A. right on this. But no such call was made, of course.  There was no occasion for such a call because the possibility of adverse UEFA action is the F.A.’s after-the-fact rationalisation.  For what it is worth, the Turkish F.A. also has declared that it would have no objection were Ferdinand to play.

If, as it claims, the possibility of a UEFA sanction was the reason the F.A. suspended Ferdinand, one would expect the F.A. would reinstate him now that UEFA has announced that Ferdinand's participation in the match would not pose a problem.  That the F.A. has not now reinstated him demonstrates that the fear of UEFA action was a fabricated reason for the F.A.'s rush to judgment.

The F.A. has now promised a thorough review of its disciplinary procedures.  It is to be hoped this is more than an empty gesture to players so embittered they threatened a boycott.   Given the F.A.’s deplorable conduct throughout the entire affair, we have our doubts.  Any review the F.A. does conduct will come too late for fairness to Rio Ferdinand, of course; he will involuntarily sit out the game this weekend despite the undeniable fact he has been afforded no hearing.   It will also come too late for fairness to national team coach Sven-Göran Eriksson, who wanted to play Ferdinand, to Ferdinand's team-mates, who note that the suspension has greatly weakened the team, and to England's fans, who also have an interest in a full-strength England side taking the pitch.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed that on the very afternoon he missed the drug test, Ferdinand, having realised he had forgotten it and discovering that the testers had already left for the day, telephoned the F.A., confessing his mistake and begging desperately that the F.A. arrange a test.  That, too, was a mistake.  He was told it was his problem.  The F.A. is not an organisation to be looked to for understanding or for fair treatment.