The Football Association regulatory panel that found John Terry guilty of using the words "fucking black cunt" towards Anton Ferdinand may, at least partially, have accepted Terry's defence that he did not use the words as an insult.
It is otherwise difficult to understand the panel's apparently lenient sanction, of banning Terry for four matches, while Liverpool's Luis Suárez was hit with an eight-game ban for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra.
Terry, like Suárez, was charged with a breach of the FA's Rule E3(2) which states that football people should not use "abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour". The rule states that if such abuse includes "reference to a person's ethnic origin, colour or race", the panel can consider doubling the penalty it would have imposed had that "aggravating factor" not been present. The panel in the Suárez case specifically said that a four-game ban "is the entry-point" for breaches of E3(2) and it did double that minimum penalty to "reflect the gravity of the misconduct".
The fact that Terry has been sanctioned with the minimum penalty suggests that the panel in his case, despite finding him guilty, did not find the reference to Ferdinand's colour or race an aggravating factor such that it would double the ban. The apparently more severe fine, £220,000 for Terry, when Suárez was hit for £40,000, is explained by the fact that regulatory panels take into account a player's weekly wage.
To understand how the panel did come to its decision, we must wait for its written reasons, which ran to 113 pages in the Suárez case. The FA emphasises that although the panels of three members chaired by a QC are appointed by the FA, they come to their judgments independently.
The FA itself brings the charge and so is in effect the prosecution in the hearing, with the accused presenting his defence. Terry's was marshalled again, as it was at Westminster magistrates court when he faced a racially aggravated public order criminal charge, by his barrister, George Carter-Stephenson QC.
Terry was acquitted then of having committed a criminal offence, despite having been caught on camera mouthing those words during his altercation with Ferdinand in the Queens Park Rangers penalty area during Chelsea's match at Loftus Road last 23 October. Terry's defence was to claim that he was not calling Ferdinand a "fucking black cunt" but repeating the words to deny Ferdinand's accusation that Terry had said them to him.
The judgment of Howard Riddle, the chief magistrate said: "Mr Terry's explanation is, certainly under the cold light of forensic examination, unlikely."
Yet, after a week of lip-readers, slow‑motion video replays and endless legal rumination of how obscenities were exchanged between two Premier League footballers, Riddle found that Terry's defence was "possible". He said that with "there being a doubt" about whether Terry had used the words as a direct insult to Ferdinand, he had to record a not-guilty verdict.
It should not be forgotten, in the head-scratching about Terry's four-game ban, that the FA was bold to pursue the charge against him. The acquittal gave the FA a rational get-out if it wanted to avoid the difficulties of charging a player of Terry's stature.
The Chelsea captain has referred to the "not-guilty verdict in a court of law" in both his public statements, on Sunday when retiring from international football, and on Thursday, from his agents, in reaction to the panel's finding of guilt.
His agents, Elite, said: "Mr Terry is disappointed that the FA regulatory commission has reached a different conclusion." He will wait for the written reasons before deciding whether to appeal.
The FA's charge rested on the distinction, which can be quite narrow, in the standard of proof necessary for an offence according to its rules, as opposed to a criminal charge that must be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
In the FA's proceedings, as with civil court cases, the proof required is the balance of probabilities – whether it is more probable Terry used "abusive and/ or insulting words and/or behaviour" towards Ferdinand, than that he did not. Once they charged him, the evidence that Terry said the offending words and the doubts over his explanation, meant a guilty verdict was confidently predicted.
However, the leniency of the penalty leaves open the possibility that the panel accepted Terry's explanation that he did not level those words at Ferdinand to racially abuse him. We will not know until the written reasons arrive.
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image: © Andrea Sartorati