Sam Kerr’s racially aggravated harassment charge puts Football Australia in a tricky place

Kerr is a fan favourite.

Kerr is a fan favourite. Photo: AAP

Football Australia has been engulfed in a crisis it never saw coming.

Global football superstar Sam Kerr – captain of the hugely popular Matildas national women’s team – has been charged in England with the racially aggravated harassment of a police officer. She stands accused of using insulting, threatening or abusive words that caused alarm or distress to the officer, who was responding to a taxi dispute in London in January 2023.

Kerr has pleaded not guilty, with Judge Judith Elaine Coello quoted as saying to the player’s barrister:

I understand that the defence is that she didn’t intend to cause alarm, harassment or distress to the officer, [her behaviour] did not amount to it and it was not racially aggravated.

If found guilty, the public order act she has been charged under carries a prison sentence of up two years and/or a substantial fine, given the racially aggravated nature of the allegations.

Short of waiting for next February’s criminal hearing to be determined, what can – or will – Football Australia do now as the sport’s governing body?

Kerr (right) has pleaded not guilty to the charge. Photo: AAP

Immediate challenges for Football Australia

Kerr’s decision not to inform her employers of the criminal charge against her is questionable. While individuals are entitled to privacy, the celebrity status of athletes blurs that line, particularly when behaviour outside of the sport itself impacts on it.

The Matildas team has built its reputation on inclusion – and Kerr. They are proud, vocal advocates for football’s zero tolerance to racism or discrimination of any kind. Against such a backdrop the shock news of Kerr’s criminal charge was even more pronounced.

Football Australia CEO James Johnson and Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson have both admitted to not knowing anything about the charge until media reporting of it. It soon became evident they had as many questions as the journalists who were peppering them for answers.

Until the criminal trial reaches its conclusion, with a four-day hearing set down for February 2025, the case will hang over Kerr who is currently out of action for club and country as she recovers from ACL reconstruction.

While Kerr is entitled to the presumption of innocence as she prepares for her trial almost a year away, Football Australia’s challenges are more immediate, as it decides how to navigate a serious event involving the captain of its most adored team.

No one other than the involved parties know the full extent of what happened that night in January 2023, when police were called to a dispute over a taxi fare in Twickenham and the alleged racial harassment occurred. What is known, however, is that the employer of Sam Kerr – one of the world’s most recognised athletes – appears not to have been made aware of the incident.

Professional athletes are aware of the heightened responsibility they shoulder given their public profile and their role model status. Kerr is revered by the Australian public. Her name is a key driver that has seen Matildas merchandise currently outselling that of the Socceroos two to one.

Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson said he didn’t know about the charge Kerr faces until media reported it. Photo: AAP

Difficult questions

For many of Kerr’s fans, it is the presumption of innocence that trumps all other considerations.

But for a sports governing body, there is not just the accused’s personal reputation at stake. There’s also a sport’s image and integrity carefully crafted over many years, seemingly so easily pierced.

The National Rugby League (NRL) has a controversial “no-fault standdown” policy, allowing the rugby league to suspend a player facing serious criminal charges until the legal case is finalised.

Take the case of NRL player Jack de Belin, who was stood down while he fought charges (he was not convicted). This case shows why the policy has been questioned, given an athlete cannot get back the time lost during a period of suspension, nor, it can be argued, their reputation when charges are dropped or they are found to be not guilty.

Football Australia’s national code of conduct and ethics says the organisation can issue a “no-fault interim suspension” in any circumstance where,

in the reasonable opinion of Football Australia, the reputation of Football Australia or football generally would be damaged if the Constituent was not suspended on an interim basis.

But will they?

Football Australia must consider difficult questions like:

  • how do they balance supporting their player’s welfare and respecting the victim of the alleged racially aggravated harassment?
  • is it suitable for a team built around a zero-tolerance policy on racism to have as its captain a player charged with racial abuse?
  • although Kerr is injured and unlikely to play at the Olympics in Paris this year, should she still be welcomed to play a role motivating the team?
  • when Kerr has recovered from her injury, should she automatically resume her captaincy – or be considered for selection – if the trial has not yet reached its verdict?
  • what will be the impact on sponsorship and support of the Matildas brand if Kerr remains as captain prior to the trial?
  • what ramifications will there be if Kerr is stood down, as the policy allows, and she is later found not guilty of the charges?

A matter of trust

At a pre-scheduled press conference to announce details of a two-match pre-Olympics series against China (which was ambushed by the Kerr news), Johnson said:

We’ve got our own questions that we’d like to know, we’ve got to find out what actually happened.

That he doesn’t know means Johnson has two problems when it comes to Kerr: One a matter of law, and the other a matter of trust.

The court will decide one. Football Australia must decide the other. The Conversation

Tracey Holmes, Professorial Fellow in Sport, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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