A sentence that doesn't make sense

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The Independent Online
THE WAY things are going, O J Simpson could get a lighter sentence than Eric Cantona. Ridiculous as it may be to compare what happened to Cantona on a common assault charge at Croydon Magistrates' Court with the double murder rap being faced by Simpson in Los Angeles, there is a question raised by both events - can justice avoid being distorted when a sporting superstar is involved?

Many in the United States are convinced that Simpson's idol status will protect him even if the evidence doesn't. In Croydon, how- ever, the precise opposite appears to apply. Cantona was sent down to the cells for two weeks because of who he is rather than what he did. He was told by the chairman of the bench: "You are a high-profile public figure with undoubted gifts, and as such you are looked up to by many young people. For this reason, the only sentence that is appropriate for this offence is two weeks' imprisonment forthwith."

If you take this reasoning just a little down the road towards absurdity, the same magistrate could say to another footballer convicted of a similar offence: "You are a low-profile Third Division full-back with highly doubtful gifts and as such you are shunned by many young people. For this reason the only appropriate sentence is an absolute discharge and I award you £50 out of public funds to get your warts fixed."

I gather there was a time long passed when a gentleman would receive harsher punishment than a labourer on the grounds he should know better, and no doubt a person's means are taken into account when assessing a fine, but the modern principle that all are equal under the law is the very reason that many of us were content to see Cantona prosecuted. He should face the same music as anyone who commits an assault, we argued. We didn't realise that, in his case, the volume would be turned up so high.

Another grating aspect of the magistrates' decision is the implication, depressingly familiar, that when it comes to public figures those of a sporting bent are expected to be answerable to a higher level of moral rectitude. Pop musicians, film stars, TV personalities, soap stars and all other icons to the nation's impressionable youth can carry on lives of abandon and debauchery without ever being accused of failing as role models. I accept that sport represents much of what is clean and wholesome about life but why should those who play it professionally have to conduct themselves in a manner over and above that demanded by the laws of the game and the land?

There's also the little matter of Cantona being French. I can't imagine what makes us entitled to expect a citizen of a country we have spent 1,000 years snarling at to act as a shining beacon to British youth on our behalf. We offer leniency to paratroopers convicted of far more harmful violence. I know they might come in handy one day but there is a strange contradiction here. The fabric of decency is being torn to shreds by all manner of high-placed and influential Britons and here is a Justice of the Peace castigating a Frenchman who is known to have as much control over his temper as the Prime Minister has concerning the Chancellor.

If you are going to lecture a foreigner on his moral duties, perhaps some word of admonishment should be offered to the club responsible for his presence among us. If he was a dog who had attacked someone, his owner would have been up before the beaks. It takes nothing away from the bizarre nature of this business that his owner, if we can describe Manchester United's manager Alex Ferguson thus, was at Buckingham Palace receiving the insignia of the CBE at the same time Cantona was in court.

If the magistrates had merely passed the sentence without the accompanying moralising I would have been more ready to accept it. Undoubtedly it would have been harsh, but it was a straightforward offence witnessed by by millions and I was not impressed by the mitigation that Cantona was provoked beyond the point of restraint. I have little sympathy for the man he attacked or the sentiments he rushed to express, but Cantona would have faced insults as bad if not worse almost every time he played.

Distressingly, it is part of the game and not only in football. They're very adept at it in cricket and rugby league, and in rugby union they even have newspaper columns so they can insult their opponents the following day. The first discipline a pro learns is not to be provoked and is often a hard lesson. Indeed, if Cantona had connected with a similar kick on an opponent he might be looking at a sine die suspension and not two weeks' gardening at an open prison.

Since a sport like football makes its living from selling two hours of emotional involvement to hopelessly prejudiced supporters, I'm surprised that players are surprised at the intensity of the feelings they engender. Neither is it a new phenomenon. I was taken to watch Cardiff City as a toddler and I was 10 years old before I realised that "Englishbastards" was not the name of the country most opposing teams came from.

This is part of the game's language which goes much too far at times, although it rarely reaches the venom of what policemen, traffic wardens, income tax inspectors or DHS clerks have to contend with in the course of earning livings that fall well short of a footballer's wage.

Any participant with any sense regards the divide between crowd and pitch as an invisible wall separating the contrived drama of the event from the reality of the outside world. To cross it in anger is akin to a film star jumping out of the screen to attack someone in the one-and-nines. You become a mortal and deserve to be treated as one, no more no less. What happened in Croydon on Thursday was a totally unsatisfactory development in a saga from which no one is likely to emerge with credit.

FOOTBALL pools have been complaining about how much business they are losing to the lottery. But any sympathy for them would not have been strengthened by the experience of two brothers who have been clients of Vernons for many years. Recently their perm came up with a winning line but their expectations of a big dividend were dashed because Vernons had reserved the right to carry forward money to build up the following week's jackpot.

Instead of receiving £77,000, the brothers were paid just over £1,000. It was all above board but I understand Vernons are ceasing the practice and quite right, too. Big jackpots are all very well but many punters still prefer the pools and the greater chance of a smaller pay-out and they would be foolish to antagonise this loyal band.

The Tote jackpot, swollen at Cheltenham, reached £2m at Exeter on Wednesday and was, happily, shared between 800 punters, all of whom would have been grateful to Pongo Waring, who won the last race. I was shocked that none of my colleagues knew who Pongo was. He was a centre-forward for England and Aston Villa - for whom he still holds the goalscoring record of 49 goals in the 1930-31 season - and would have been delighted at the adulation his name received from people who thought he was merely a horse.