FA’s burden of proof over racism may need a higher standard | Louise Taylor

Travel may broaden the mind but some trips are definitely not for the faint-hearted. A navigation of the area of the Football Association’s website containing the reasons behind its disciplinary judgments in racism cases opens a window on to an unedifying world and is possibly best left to intrepid explorers.

On second thoughts, perhaps everyone should make the journey. Maybe all fans need to study the arguments, sometimes complex, exposing the fine details behind Jonjo Shelvey’s five-game ban and £100,000 fine for racially abusing Romain Saïss of Wolves in 2016 and Sophie Jones’s similar suspension for making monkey noises at Renée Hector last spring.

The time seems right to initiate a debate as to whether the FA’s burden of proof – currently the civil standard of “on balance of probabilities” rather than the criminal “beyond reasonable doubt” – remains appropriate.

At a time when racism is on the rise the FA does much laudable work in increasing tolerance, with part of that role quite properly involving zero tolerance of abuse underscored by severe sanctions for offenders. It is imperative victims are taken seriously and justice is seen to be done.

Yet in a highly sensitive sphere when the damaging repercussions for the guilty can be personally and professionally far-reaching and cases are often extremely confusing and contradictory, nagging fears about the present proof-level linger.

With Shelvey and Jones adamant their convictions were wrongful, might the ruling body’s justice system gain greater credibility by adopting the hybrid “comfortable satisfaction of guilt” standard used by the court of arbitration for sport in doping cases?

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Angus Kinnear, Leeds United’s managing director, would prefer “beyond reasonable doubt”. His club’s goalkeeper, Kiko Casilla, is shortly scheduled to face an FA independent commission tasked with deciding whether to uphold the charge that he racially abused Charlton’s Jonathan Leko. Should the panel find him guilty of an offence Casilla denies, he can expect to be banned for between six and 12 matches, potentially jeopardising Leeds’s promotion hopes.

“We fully support such a serious allegation being subjected to disciplinary process,” Kinnear says. “Our concern is that the burden of proof for an FA hearing is not ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. We believe that, in cases of this seriousness, the higher standard of proof is more appropriate; one man’s reputation is at stake.”

He could have a point. Newcastle’s Shelvey was accused of calling Saïss – a French midfielder of Moroccan heritage – “an Arab or Moroccan prick or cunt”. Jones, a former Sheffield United Ladies striker, was said to have made monkey noises at the mixed-race Hector. In both instances the lack of corroborative evidence dictated that the Crown Prosecution Service would have been unlikely to consider initiating criminal proceedings.

Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey was suspended after being found guilty of abusing Romain Saïss. He denied using racist language.

Newcastle’s Jonjo Shelvey was suspended after being found guilty of abusing Romain Saïss. He denied using racist language. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters

That does not necessarily mean the commission’s decisions were wrong but they look less than watertight. After repeatedly reading the written reasons it does not seem impossible Jones might have made spiteful, childish, non-monkey noises simply to mock Hector’s weight as she jumped for a header.

Shelvey’s defence that he had instead, charmingly, called Saïss “a smelly breathed prick” seemed complicated by the non-English speaking Wolves midfielder having heard nothing. The complaint was made by opposition players who had earlier listened to Shelvey calling them peasants as he emphasised his significantly fatter wage packet by, in football’s vernacular, “cashing off”. “I didn’t say it but that stain will be always be there,” Shelvey has said. “I have to live with people calling me racist.”

Jones has given up football and has been similarly critical. “It was a kangaroo court,” she said. “I have no confidence in the FA.”

Admittedly kangaroo is a term the lawyers and former players and managers comprising the independent regulatory panels that assess evidence and hear witnesses cross-examined by the respective parties’ QC’s would balk at. Footballers-turned-lawyers Udo Onwere, Stuart Ripley and Gareth Farrelly often feature on experienced and diverse three-person panels alongside former pros such as Marvin Robinson and Tony Agana. Female representatives include the barrister Arshia Hashmi.

If Casilla could soon demand their attention, so too will Mark Sampson. Shortly after Stevenage’s first-team coach was promoted, temporarily, to caretaker manager in September the FA received a complaint from a newly sacked member of the ousted manager, Dino Maamria’s, staff. They alleged Sampson counselled against signing a defender because he was Nigerian. The former England women’s manager denies a resultant FA charge he maintains is malicious and was exonerated by Stevenage’s own investigation.

Given Sampson’s past – namely, the discriminatory remarks he was found to have directed at Eni Aluko and Drew Spence – a guilty verdict could seriously harm his career. That places huge responsibility on a disciplinary panel, arguably increasing the case for adopting a Cas style hybrid as the required proof in FA racism cases.

Advocates of “beyond reasonable doubt” should consider Fernando Forestieri’s alleged abuse of Krystian Pearce. In March the Sheffield Wednesday forward was found not guilty of racially harassing the Mansfield defender by a criminal court, but in July he received a guilty FA misconduct verdict and six-match ban.

The ruling body justified this glaring divergence by citing the trial judge’s comment that a lack of supporting evidence meant he had to accept it was possible, although in his judgment, unlikely that Pearce misheard, thereby prefacing the not guilty verdict. In law, as in life, perfection is frequently elusive but “comfortable satisfaction of guilt” seems a pretty fair compromise.


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