So it has come to this.
To recap: A month ago, Chelsea football club (already under heavy fire for racial comments made by their players in past days) request an investigation into alleged racial comments made to their players by a respected premier league official during a match.
Far from keeping the request under wraps, though, Chelsea officials (including their communications director and then-manager Roberto Di Matteo) engage in vague discussion about the allegations in subsequent interviews. They then release an unnecessary and inflamatory statement which could serve only to direct public attention to the unproven allegations.
Out of “respect for the process” (their words) they did not provide any details, but it cannot help but be noticed that they made sure they had communications staff available to deflect the questions thus arising, nor that those staff members would not normally be part of a manager’s post match interview. Given the circumstances, such an action is tantamount to poking a hornet’s nest and running.
While the exact nature of the allegations have not been made public, what is known is that certain players advised the club that they believed referee Mark Clattenburg had directed ‘racial language’ at John Obi Mikel during the October 28th match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
The FA duly investigated (in a manner that was compromised by the statements & actions of Chelsea), and last week issued a verdict of “no case to answer” (link) against Clattenburg. In effect, then, the FA found that there were no grounds whatsoever for the complaint and no proof that the incident described occurred.
For his part, Obi Mikel has given evidence that he did not hear the comment but was advised of it by another player (Ramires). Ramires has stated that he was seeking “confirmation” of what he believed he heard Clattenburg say rather than advising Mikel of the statement. Given that Mikel was talking to Clattenburg when the alleged incident occurred and was much closer to the referee than Ramires, both claims strain credulity. It cannot escape notice that both players appear to have backed away from their initial more incendiary claims and positions. Rats do tend to flee a burning ship, of course.
The FA has unsurprisingly taken as neutral a stance as possible on this. Clearly it does not want to be seen to castigate teams for making a claim, nor to discourage those who may have a legitimate claim from coming forward. Nonetheless, the FA have charged Obi Mikel with misconduct relating to his reaction and behavior toward match officials at the end of the fixture. They have thus far stopped short of suggesting Obi Mikel or Ramires lied about the incident.
On November 28th Chelsea issued a carefully worded statement claiming that they “regret” not having given more consideration before issuing their statement; that they ‘regret’ the intense media scrutiny on Clattenburg and family; and that they would have “no issue” with Clattenburg being appointed to officiate Chelsea games in future. They also, graciously, claimed that they felt honor-bound to refer what they believed to be “good faith” allegations to the FA under rules in effect.
With all due respect to the FA’s need to remain impartial, their actions are not nearly strong enough. As a member of PGMOL, Clattenburg cannot reasonably employ the normal legal channels an ordinary citizen might to respond to slander or libel. As such, the FA has a responsibility to address these matters on his behalf.
Players (and a prominent club) have made strong allegations against a match official. Those allegations carry consequences for the official, including the possibility of ending his career. Clattenburg has already missed four weekends of PL work and has had his name unfairly and unreasonably dragged through the mud. Even after being cleared, he will always be subject to suspicion in the minds of some (not just Chelsea fans). It will be interesting to see how his PL and international appointments may be affected in the future, though of course if he is overlooked this will never come with an explanatory note referring to the Chelsea-inspired firestorm.
As lawyers are fond of saying, “You can’t unring a bell”.
The club, despite it’s desperate efforts to wash it’s hands of the claim, are not without blame in this fiasco. Along with their “duty” to pass along allegations of this type, they also carry a hefty responsibility to conduct their own internal investigation to ensure that the claim made is not without merit. Given that they released a public statement indicating that their internal investigation was complete and the matter referred to the FA on the evening of the match, it would seem their process was perfunctory at best.
It is a common practice in any corporation or workplace to conduct “harassment” training for employees. One of the very first things employees learn in these courses is that patently false and/or baseless accusations are themselves an act of harassment punishable under the same schedule as the offense itself. Football cannot treat false allegations any less serious.
Behind Chelsea’s crocodile tears are a few clear and uncomfortable facts: They had a responsibility to investigate the ‘good faith’ claims made by their players. They were not honor bound to report any claim made (particularly those which they found baseless), nor was there any requirement for them to issue a statement of any kind publicly, much less the disgraceful and incendiary missive they rushed out on match-night.
It is possible that the players were adamant that they would stand behind their claim and have now come up with twin cases of embarrassing cowardice. Perhaps that makes Chelsea’s referral of the matter less problematic, but it does nothing to absolve them of the responsibility to prove the claim.
At a minimum, the FA needs to fine the club heavily for it’s public actions. It cannot be argued that the baseless claims brought the game and the EPL as a whole into disrepute. In addition, both Obi Mikel and Ramires need to be heavily reprimanded (including suspension and fines). Had they been as equivocal to Chelsea’s investigators as they were to the FA, this matter would never have left the clubhouse. No-one can be allowed to make or perpetuate a false accusation of racism with impunity.
And for the once-respected football club itself?
Part of issuing a “Mea Culpa” includes actually apologizing. Chelsea Football Club owes the FA, the EPL and it’s sponsors, the referees association (PGMOL), and Clattenburg personally a very public apology. A healthy donation to charity (equivalent to the FA/EPL fine) would help demonstrate the contrition they claim to feel, too.
As the saying goes, are they sorry they “did it” or are they just sorry that they got caught?
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