Richard Bath: ‘Sportsmen find they are defined by their mistakes’
THERE were plenty of depressing things about the John Terry court case, not least the fact that it ever came to court instead of being dealt with by the FA, as happened with Luis Suarez.
Nor, going by the outpouring of anger on Twitter, does it sit comfortably with many black players that a magistrate was willing to accept what they believed to be a risible defence that stretched the bounds of credulity to breaking point. Terry admitted that he directed a racially charged profanity at Anton Ferdinand and the lack of sanction is in danger of turning the clock back.
Nor was the insight into the way our footballers conduct themselves particularly edifying. We all expect what’s euphemistically called “industrial language”, but the desperately pedestrian tenor of the expletive-ridden “banter”, most of which would have been better-suited to the school playground, was still enough to make a grown man weep. The paucity of the superstars’ vocabulary wasn’t shocking, but their utter, deadening lack of wit was.
It’s not as if Terry is hard to lampoon or bait. His endless past misdemeanours are legion, and they are not just confined to the sexual dalliance with a friend’s wife which precipitated his spat with Ferdinand, or the words which landed him in court last week. This is, after all, the man who was fined for taunting American tourists in a bar just after 9/11; the man who was charged with assaulting a nightclub bouncer; who was fined for parking his Bentley in a disabled bay; who was investigated by his club for giving paid private tours of Chelsea’s training ground.
Yet the legacy of a retirement this week in a completely different sport provides some hope that Terry’s crassness will one day yield a bitter harvest. Cricketer Mark Boucher was forced to call it a day in midweek through injury, and as we look back on his stellar career, the South African should be one of the most feted men in the sport given that he holds the record for most dismissals by a wicketkeeper in the history of the game. Yet that is not what he will be remembered for.
Not only was Boucher a remarkable wicketkeeper, he was also a vituperative sledger, whose verbal assault on Zimbabwe’s Tatenda Taibu was captured on camera and microphone and has been played endlessly on Youtube. Sledging can be funny (who can forget Glenn McGrath’s epic confrontation with chubby Zimbabwean tailender Eddo Brandes, where the oversensitive Aussie superstar said: “Eddo, why are you so fat?” to which Brandes replied, to McGrath’s fury: “Because your wife gives me a biscuit every time I f**k her”), but this wasn’t. Boucher’s attempt to verbally humiliate a weak opponent is the thing that most cricket fans I know will remember him for, and they don’t judge him kindly for it. For better or for worse, for some of us it will always be the first thing we think of when we think of Boucher.
From Douglas Jardine’s Bodyline disgrace to Stan Collymore’s public beating of Ulrika Jonsson, sportsmen have long found that they are defined by the mistakes they make long after the glory of winning the Ashes or of scoring the winning goal in a 4-3 win over Newcastle in front of the Kop have begun to fade. There are those who err but who then display humility – cyclist David Millar for doping, or David Beckham after being vilified for being sent off against Argentina – and they are forgiven. Indeed, they come to be defined by the strength of character they showed in coming back from self-inflicted adversity.
But John Terry does not come into that category. The sort of hubris which he displayed this week will catch up with him. One day, and given that he’ll be 32 later this year, it won’t be too far from now, no-one much will remember his lion-hearted displays for Chelsea or England, much less care that he has a nice Bentley and the flashest mock Tudor manor in Essex.
No matter that Terry was found innocent of racially abusing Ferdinand this week, no matter that he still protests he didn’t sleep with Wayne Bridge’s wife, no matter that half of his teammates were willing to attest to his good character, much of that will be lost on many members of the public.
Instead, they will remember a man who they perceived treated people with disdain – and they will return that last compliment, because no matter what happened in that London courtroom this week, what goes around comes around.
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