There is one way of getting a good laugh out of the John Terry racial abuse case. Please read the BBC online coverage. The poor BBC has little choice but to report – reluctantly – exactly what was said. Or what was misheard. Deep breath. "Heavens, we're going to have to use the C-word now... Here it comes..."
You can almost smell the horror in their summary. There's even a warning: "Repeated use of very strong language." Hugely enjoyable. Especially if you read it to yourself in a 1940s newsreader accent.
This is, however, the only fun aspect of an unpleasant case which makes no one look good. Boys will be boys. And even grown men can't really be expected to hold their emotions and language in check in the heat of the sporting moment. But setting aside the racial aspect (which is for the court to judge), what's just as disturbing is the list of insults deemed run-of-the-mill on the pitch, according to John Terry.
There are apparently some "no-go areas" for verbal abuse, and racist language is one of them. But sexist stuff – anything on wives, mothers or girlfriends – is fine. Or as the prosecutor Duncan Penny put to Terry in the witness box, "... 'I've shagged yours', that sort of thing?" Terry, in his response, suggested that this indeed would be fair game.
And to some extent, yes, this is fair game. Our cultural life would be greatly impoverished, for example, without random "your mum" insults. There is a whole tradition of "Yo mamma" jokes in the US. "Yo mamma so poor that when I ring the doorbell, she says 'Ding!'" "Yo mamma so old, she was a waitress at the Last Supper." "Yo mamma so fat that when she went to movies, she sat next to everyone". (I didn't say they were good jokes.) These jokes are definitely not confined to men. Tina Fey has the best one. She responded to an internet troll who accused her of being talentless and "not having a funny bone in her body" with the immortal line: "You know who does have a funny bone in her body? Your mom every night for a dollar."
But the big problem with footballers' taunts about mothers, women and children (I'm guessing that children are taboo, although who knows) is that this teasing only works if it's not about something serious or real. Tina Fey would not have made that joke if the internet troll's mother was indeed a dollar-a-time prostitute. I hope.
When John Terry is on the receiving end of abuse about alleged activities with a team-mate's girlfriend, it's not good-natured, imaginative teasing. It's based on the fact that colossal arrogance and casual misogyny have become key skill areas for some footballers. But no one's going to start a court case over that. Because as Terry puts it himself, all that stuff is "just handbags". Exactly as you'd expect a big girl's blouse to say.