A boys' night out in London traditionally leads to blood-red eyes and a splitting headache the morning after. But for footballers John Terry, Jody Morris and Desmond Byrne, the fallout from a Jan. 3 booze-up has been far more enduring than a hangover: after a disturbance in a London club that included an alleged attack on its doorman, the three players were arrested and charged with affray and assault causing actual bodily harm. Last Wednesday, after pleading not guilty to the charges in a London magistrate's court, they were remanded on bail to face committal proceedings next month.
Media attention has focused on Terry, 21, and Morris, 23, not least because they play for the high-profile London club Chelsea (Byrne turns out for lowly Wimbledon) and have previously broken club rules that attempt to restrict the players' drinking and behavior. do you want to be a drunk or a footballer? screamed the Mirror. Indeed, a series of negative headlines involving footballers over recent months including the retrial of Leeds United stars Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, in which Woodgate was found guilty of affray suggests a disturbing trend of players behaving badly. It also questions the ability of the game's authorities to control some of the world's best-paid athletes.
English football is no stranger to errant behavior, but much of it has traditionally come from fans, rather than players. For decades the game has been dogged by the dark shadow of hooliganism, a plague so closely associated with the game's founding country that it is known as the English disease. (An ugly reminder of that malady came on Jan. 6, when police fought fans after a match between Cardiff City and Leeds United; 12 arrests have thus far ensued.) Aggression is such a part of the game that the Football League was recently obliged to consider a code of conduct for club mascots, after a series of altercations involving people clad in woolly animal suits.
Now, sports and social commentators say, it's the players who are getting out of hand. Many see a direct connection between their off-field antics and their ballooning salaries; even Terry and Morris each make a reported $22,000 a week. "As pay rates have reached rock-'n'-roll levels," says Rogan Taylor, head of the Football Research Unit at the University of Liverpool, "we should be surprised that there isn't more rock-'n'-roll- type behavior." It doesn't help that the game's authorities the clubs and the Football Association take contradictory stances when trouble arises. The clubs, perhaps because of the vast commercial considerations in modern football, tend to be lenient.
Since Chelsea club rules prohibit players from going out drinking within a 48-hour period before a match, Terry and Morris were each fined two weeks' wages the maximum permitted in a standard player contract. This was not the first time the players had violated club rules: Terry and Morris were fined after a drinking spree near Heathrow Airport on Sept. 12, during which they were accused of offending American tourists stranded in the wake of the previous day's terrorist attacks. In the program notes for a game after last Wednesday's court hearing, Chelsea chairman Ken Bates encouraged Terry to "ask himself if he wants to follow the path which is littered with drunks and wrecks of former players or emerge from this episode stronger and better for it." But the boss's moralizing didn't stop Chelsea coach Claudio Ranieri from including both players in his starting lineup for the game. Many coaches in England's Premier League have been criticized for defending players when they misbehave on the field; commentators say this breeds an aggressive nature that spills over into off-pitch conduct.
The F.A. takes a harder line. For most of the past two years, while Bowyer and Woodgate were facing charges in connection with a melee outside a Leeds nightclub that left a young male student scarred for life, the F.A. decreed both players ineligible to represent England; Leeds, however, continued to play them, arguing that they were innocent until proved guilty.
Early this week, the F.A. will announce whether Terry can represent England while legal proceedings against him are under way. The F.A. is also expected, along with the Professional Footballers' Association, to review whether the maximum two-week fine in a standard contract should be raised. "It is time for a much tougher approach to the problems which are dragging the game down," says Gordon Taylor, the boss of the footballers' union, the PFA. Terry and Morris aren't expected to return to court until Feb. 20, but football is already on trial.