Television sports fans who switched from the Olympic Games to English Premier League soccer may ponder the contrast between the sportsmanship that typifies Olympians and the loutish antics of many footballers, and between the role models they offer young admirers. Olympic athletes take centre stage only for a short time, while the soccer league occupies it most of the year. So young fans are more exposed to the mouthing of foul language, aggressive disputation of referees' decisions, feigning of injury to win a penalty and the like. Such behaviour tarnishes the image of a sport that has bridged all barriers of class and race. Racism, among spectators as well as between the players, is adding a distasteful overtone.
It is up to the game's national and international authorities to safeguard its reputation. This means showing more backbone in dealing with conduct by highly paid stars that brings the game into disrepute. The old-timers' code that what happens on the field stays on the field is no longer enough. A reminder of that is the case in which England star and former captain John Terry faced a criminal charge of racial abuse of an opposition player. The court cleared him because television footage showing him mouthing a racial slur did not prove it criminal beyond reasonable doubt. It is good in this instance that the Football Association pursued him under its own rules, which set a lower standard of proof. He has been suspended for four club games and fined £220,000 (HK$2.75 million).
Terry does not deny using the words, but says he was only reacting to an accusation of racism. He may yet appeal against the decision. Whatever the outcome, the incident will remain a regrettable stain on a fine career. But it is a case of the game being bigger than the man. After all, soccer claims to be the world's game and its stars are often international role models to youth. So it has no room for racism or exceptions to the rule. Zero tolerance is the only effective deterrent. The English FA has shown the way by signalling to players of all ethnicities in the Premier League that it is prepared to protect them.