Race rows have plagued football in recent months. From the John Terry incident to the Luiz Suarez and Patrice Evra episode, concerns about racism in the game are seemingly never out of the headlines.
Bearing in mind the sensitivity of the subject, some have asked whether there should be an enhanced duty of care provided to the accused by the investigators and reporters of such incidents, given the potential impact of a false or even unproven allegation on the individual accused. Often accusations of racism alone are enough to damage the reputation of an individual, even if they are later proven to be innocent.
As the Luiz Suarez and Patrice Evra affair comes to a close, non- league Nuneaton, Of Blue Square Bet North, have had their own problems to contend with. Three Nuneaton players where charged by Birmingham County Council FA following racist comments alleged to have been made to players of Chasetown during a youth cup game in September 2011. Two players have been suspended and a third player has had his contract terminated with immediate effect.
An investigation now surrounds one of the accused, who it appears may have fallen victim to a case of mistaken identity. This particular young player has endured significant distress and upset as the accusation, not only because his name has been broadcast on television sports channels and on social media for the world to see, but also due to the likely blight the story will have on his name and potentially his future career prospects.
Finding a balance between protecting the rights of the accused (until proven guilty) and the potential victim is never going to be easy. On the one hand, victims of racial abuse should in no way be discouraged from making such complaints. However, one can quite rightly argue that upon the accusation being made in such a high profile and public arena as professional sport, an industry where often one can stand or fall upon ones reputation, the accusation alone can be enough for the damage to be inflicted, regardless as to later findings of fact. Mud sticks in this game.
Given the injurious effects that racism has on society, it is imperative that any complaints advanced and disclosure of such allegations must be made with absolute certainty; there cannot be loose allegations.
Some have suggested that sanctions be imposed for those complainants who do get it wrong; we saw this proposal advanced recently in Liverpool Football Club's defence of Luiz Suarez. But could this actually work in practice and could such sanctions have the desired impact? Or would they simply act as a barrier and discourage those bringing claims and seeking justice?
Perhaps the answer is to grant anonymity to the accused. This should avoid the discouragement of complaints, limit the impact on the wrongly accused and support what is, innocent until proven guilty. Whether this could be policed in an age of intense media interest and speculation is another question.
If you have any concerns about reputation management and would like legal advice on defamation, please do not hesitate to get in touch.