By Jonathan Wilson
Is this, at last, the end of it? Eleven months ago in a league game between Chelsea and QPR, as part of a dispute that began with one grown man insulting another by telling him that his breath smelled, John Terry uttered three highly contentious words to Anton Ferdinand.
Since then the affair has cost England a manager and a captain, prompted another senior international to retweet abuse of another earning him a fine, and generally sullied English football.
And now, after Terry was cleared by a magistrates court of committing a racially aggravated public order offence, he has been found guilty by an Independent Regulatory Committee of "using abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards ... Ferdinand ... which included a reference to colour and/or race." He has been banned for four games and fined £220,000.
Nobody disputes what was said - "f***ing black c***" - but what was disputed was the context. Terry claimed he was sarcastically repeating back to Ferdinand an insult Ferdinand thought he'd heard Terry using and that defence was enough for the verdict in Westminster magistrates court in July to be not guilty. Terry, predictably, referred to that verdict after being found guilty on Thursday. "Mr Terry," said a statement from his management company, "is disappointed that the FA Regulatory Commission has reached a different conclusion to the clear not guilty verdict of a court of law." He will examine the written reasons given for the verdict before deciding whether to appeal.
Yet the verdict reached by Howard Riddle, the chief magistrate, was not "clear". In fact, it could hardly have been more ambiguous. In his 13-page report explaining his findings in that initial criminal hearing, Howard Riddle, the chief magistrate, acknowledged that terry's explanation "is, certainly under the cold light of forensic examination, unlikely" but concluded that "there being a doubt, the only verdict the court can record is one of not guilty."
The issue then becomes the burden of proof. In a magistrates court guilt must be proved "beyond reasonable doubt" or the only possible verdict is not guilty. In an FA hearing, guilt is determined by balance of probability. It was on those grounds that Luis Suarez was convicted of racially abusing Patrice Evra last December and it is only fair that Terry's case should have been examined in a similar way. There would be something very odd if players similarly accused in the future sought to have their cases heard in criminal courts on the grounds that conviction (and a maximum £2500 fine) was less likely.
Whether it is right at all that something as serious as racism should be determined by balance of probability is another matter.
Predictably discussion of the affair on Twitter and message-boards rapidly descended into partisan points-scoring, with a number of Liverpool fans apparently outraged at the supposed inconsistency in Terry's sentencing. Luis Suarez, of course, was convicted of racially abusing Patrice Evra in a match last October and given an eight-game ban. So why is Terry's sentence half of that? The report of the inquiry into Suarez is quite clear on this: "Given the number of times that Mr Suarez used the word 'negro', his conduct is significantly more serious... than a one-off use of a racially offensive term and amounts to an aggravating factor."
You can argue whether the regulation is correct or not, and you can argue whether Suarez actually said what he was convicted of having said (although as anybody who's actually read the report into the Suarez verdict can tell you the debate over the exact meaning of "negro" in Latin American Spanish is specious), but given the verdicts and given the regulations there is an internal consistency to the sentences. The written explanation of the decision will presumably discuss the issue further.
Then, from the Chelsea side, there are the likes of David Mellor, once a Conservative minister. Before the reasons for the verdict had been revealed, he pronounced the hearing "a kangaroo court", a bizarre reaction for a senior barrister. If he really had problems with the system he might have been wiser to reveal them when he headed the Football Task Force, rather than now, after a decision has gone against a player from the club he supports. Besides which, Terry was allowed to remain in the England team - although stripped of the captaincy - pending the hearing; in almost any other profession, an employee accused of racial abusing a rival would be suspended until the investigation was concluded.
His retirement from international football on Monday announced because the FA had, he said, made his position "untenable" was hard to fathom; if he was so aggrieved to be charged, why wait till the day the hearing began?
And there remains, of course, the intriguing question of how Chelsea will respond: they have a "zero tolerance" policy towards racism and last season banned a fan found to have racially abused Didier Drogba for life.
But the most depressing aspect of the whole affair has been the tribalism. This isn't arguing over a disputed offside call: this is racism, something so much more significant that club rivalries that it seems ludicrous even to have to point it out. It's an evil that, perhaps naively, we thought had been all but eradicated from the English game and it turns out it still lurks behind the polished veneer of the Premier League. It's not just what players have said to other players on the pitch, it's the horrendous abuse meted out on Twitter. And it's not just been directed at Evra and Ferdinand: see, for instance, the racial nature of much of the onslaught directed at Mikel John Obi after his mistake had cost Chelsea a goal against Juventus last week.
To cry conspiracy, or dismiss the FA as incompetent or inconsistent, is not merely absurd - why on earth would the FA want to ban England's first-choice centre-back? - but dangerous for it adds fuel to the partisan flames. The verdict can be contested - and Terry may well do so with an appeal - but to attack the process is to undermine all efforts to keep the game free of racism and other ills. You can't just decide you don't like the system because the system reached a decision you don't like.
Racism is far more important than club affiliation.