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It might be legal, but it is not right

20 July 2012

OK, I will come clean. I'm a Chelsea fan. Blue till I die, and all that stuff. I know all the songs, and have had team photos on my wall ever since I was in bunk-beds.

The fact that my son supports Manchester United is due to the entirely unhelpful intervention of my friend Paul Vallely, who, now that he is away on holiday and not filling the lower columns of this page, I can admit I am still looking to revenge myself upon. The fact that I now have to cuddle up on the sofa with a young boy in a Rooney top is an indignity too far. One day, Vallely, one day. . .

But I digress. We have to talk about John Terry. Because Mr Terry's recent brush with the law over racist remarks - or, should I say, allegedly racist remarks, to keep the lawyers happy - raises the question of the extent to which legal exoneration is the same thing as moral exoneration.

The answer is that it is not. For Mr Terry's strutting defiance of moral values cannot hide behind the simple fact that he got off. What he said (I won't bother to repeat it here: I'd need too many asterisks) was plain wrong.

Taking this bad behaviour as a given, it irks me that a consequence of this legal ruling will be that black footballers are likely to be far less keen to come forward when they have been racially abused on the pitch, or elsewhere.

I remember the campaign that Newcastle United ran back in the 1980s, using the strapline: "Geordies are black and white." But so many years later, racism still plagues football.

The other troubling consequence of this case is that it feels as though the same rules do not apply to the people with money as they do to the rest of us. Take the Libor fixing scandal: had poor people fiddled the system for their own gain they would, without doubt, have been had up for all manner of misdemeanours. But it seems that there is some question whether those who cheated their way to huge bonuses actually broke the law.

If what they did was legal, then the law is, indeed, an ass. But it's not just about the law. Morality is not the same as legality. It says something about our diminished sense of public ethics that too many are able to claim that they did nothing wrong because what they did was not illegal. This is rubbish.

Mr Terry, you are a great footballer, but you have acted immorally. You ought to be ashamed. Doing the right thing would begin with an apology.

But I won't hold my breath. The lawyers won't let you.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark

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