John Yems was given a get-out-of-jail-free card over racism by FA panel
By asking the former Crawley manager if he was ‘consciously racist’ the panel gave him an excuse to double down on denial
Despite being found guilty of 12 charges of discriminatory conduct, but buoyed by the ludicrously outrageous finding that he was “not consciously racist”, John Yems believes that he is the real victim and is owed an apology. For those who believe we live in a culture of victimhood, this is its natural but absurd logical extreme. Truly, we are through the looking glass.
This week, an independent panel commissioned to adjudicate on charges brought by the Football Association against Yems published its reasoned judgment. That judgment catalogued Yems performing a shocking greatest hits of lazy racist tropes: use of the N-word, referring to a player as a “curry muncher”, describing Muslim players as “terrorists” and many more. Despite this grotesque cabaret, most attention has focused on the panel’s finding that, while acknowledging it was an “extremely serious case” that “came across to the victims and others as offensive, racist and Islamaphobic”, Yems was “not consciously racist”. That conclusion was unnecessary, dangerously muddled thinking and does not appear justified by the panel’s other findings.
The panel, it would appear, confused motive with intent. Motive may be entirely personal and subjective. Intent can be direct or indirect and inferred from evidence of behaviour. In law, we can be held liable for the natural consequences of our acts even if we say they were unintended. If I punch you in the nose it is no defence to say I did not mean to break your nose. No one forced Yems to make his comments. He continued to make them after interventions, seemingly acting with reckless disregard for the obviously discriminatory impact of his words. Those appear to be conscious racist acts.
When was the last time you heard someone admit they were consciously racist? Effectively, the panel has asked that question of Yems (when it did not have to as it was not relevant to the question of liability) and then seemingly took account of his answer in mitigating his sentence from the requested minimum two years to an insulting 18 months (which can only discourage future whistleblowers). Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.
I understand the natural human desire not to unnecessarily stigmatise individuals, especially in cases where it is an isolated incident. We live in a society where we are all one slip of the tongue from being cancelled, and branding someone racist carries a huge social stigma. Of course some degree of social stigma is necessary because it signifies society’s moral censure of behaviour that we commonly regard as unacceptable. Equally, none of us would like to be judged by reducing us to the worst mistake we ever made. There must always be avenues for redemption and reconciliation. Those avenues are built on humble acknowledgment of our mistakes. These essential unwritten rules enable society to function.
In that context, accepting subjective motive without examining patterns of behaviour is dangerous because it offers an easy “Get Out of Jail” card without acknowledgment of wrongdoing. The panel in the Peter Beardsley case in 2019 fell down exactly the same rabbit hole. Both Yems and Beardsley were also in positions of authority. In sport coaches have unique influence on career outcomes. With that greater power comes greater responsibility. What Yems did was an outrageous abuse of power. Rather than acknowledging his wrongs, he has doubled down on denial. The panel unnecessarily offered him shelter and predictably he ran for it.
In these cases, the FA acts as investigator and prosecutor with the independent panel acting as judge. The FA appears to be considering an appeal. Beyond that, we need to learn lessons for the future. For the FA that means looking at the overall sanctions framework and reviewing the process for recruitment, selection, training and evaluation of panellists. It is time to refresh the panels with new blood.
To date, 18 months is the longest ban that has been issued for discrimination. We need to see greater willingness to use the existing power to issue longer and lifetime bans. Those should be used sparingly and there should be a sliding scale of sentencing tariffs to reflect relative wrongdoing. Two years ago, a lawyer of similar age to Yems was struck off for lesser breaches. He can earn a living, but not as a lawyer. There are not many cases that would justify a lifetime ban, but Yems’s persistent abuse of power would potentially be such a case.
Clubs also need to reflect. Crawley’s then chief executive and club chaplain both saw red flags in Yems’s behaviour. The chaplain regretted with hindsight not speaking up earlier. The CEO at the time responded to a player calling Yems a racist by ordering him to pipe down because he feared a fan might overhear it. That is a scandalous dereliction of duty. It was a red flag and he failed to act. I would love to be confident that Yems was an isolated case but no one can be confident of that. Clubs need to be sensitive to those early warning signs and reinforce the right culture, values and behaviour.
In all the noise about Yems, the people in danger of being forgotten are the players. These are young ambitious people who, like any other employees, are entitled to be treated with basic dignity and respect at work. The players who came forward showed great courage. Some became depressed, turned to drink or avoided bullying by avoiding work. Many have been supported by the Professional Footballers’ Association and others. I thank the players for their courage in speaking truth to power. Football now needs to show the same courage and use this case as impetus for meaningful change.
Sanjay Bhandari is the chair of Kick It Out