Jordan Henderson is one of the good ones. The Liverpool captain has been a strong advocate of the rainbow laces campaign in support of LGBTQ+ people in sport, and he was one of the driving forces behind Premier League players taking a knee for racial justice before every kickoff in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
He has also been outspoken about the need to take any and all accusations of racial abuse in football seriously, and believe the victims when they make such accusations. Unfortunately, this stance was put to the test recently after Arsenal’s Gabriel Magalhães accused Henderson of racially abusing him in a match last month.
As details leaked out about the alleged racial abuse following full-time, many Liverpool fans were stunned to hear that Henderson, of all people, was at the center of such a scandal. It was challenging to sit by and wait for any sort of clarity or details about what may have happened during a very tight-lipped investigation by the Football Association.
In the end, the FA determined there was no evidence Henderson truly had abused Gabriel, but they released no details about the incident. There are rumblings online that Henderson repeatedly called the Brazilian a “fucking idiot” and it was mistaken for a Portuguese racial slur, but there is no official, publicly available account of what happened.
In the end, all parties involved kept quiet during the investigation in an effort to make sure nobody was damaged by the fallout in case no racial abuse was found, and they have all accepted the decision and moved on.
Henderson finally spoke about the incident when asked about it during an interview with the Daily Mail, but he handled a difficult topic with all of the grace and nuance one would expect. He refused to provide any details and made it clear he would prefer to not speak about the situation at all.
“I understand why I have to be asked about this,” said Henderson, “but what I tried to do was respect the process. I have spoken before about black players being brave enough to speak out about discrimination so I couldn’t then change my stance. I still feel I need to show respect now, even though it’s been dealt with.
“I’ve let the FA do what they needed to do and I still feel it wouldn’t be right for me to speak about it. It is just as important to respect the process afterwards as it is during the case. I could speak to you all day about how I was feeling but I have to accept what happened and move on. By the way, that wasn’t easy.”
Of course it wasn’t easy to stay silent in the face of a serious accusation like this, but Henderson wasn’t thinking about himself. He didn’t want to do anything that might discourage others from coming forward with their own accusations of racial abuse, so he kept quiet.
“There were a million and one things I wanted to say — emotional things — but I think it would have been wrong. It has not changed my mind that people must be empowered to come forward if they feel they have been wronged. It has changed my thoughts a little bit about the person who has been accused but if people feel they have been discriminated against, they must come forward.”
While it must have been difficult for the man who felt falsely accused of something so abhorrent, Henderson didn’t want to make the story about how tough it was for him. Because, while he was dealing with a tough situation, on the other side was a man dealing with believing a peer had screamed racial insults at him. No matter how hard it was for Liverpool’s captain, it was harder for Gabriel, even if the entire thing ended up being a misunderstanding.
“It would not be right for me to sit here and say how hard it was for me, because there is another person involved as well. It has been dealt with and it was another learning experience in my life.”
It says a lot about the character of Jordan Henderson that even in the face of being accused of something he didn’t do and dealing with the fallout of that accusation, he still refused to make it about himself. Every decision he has made has been with concern for not putting undue stress on Gabriel or discouraging future victims from coming forward.
In that vein, this feels like a good time to point out something I’ve seen in response to the FA saying they would take no disciplinary action in this case. There are calls from some corners for Gabriel to face discipline for “making a false accusation.”
It should be obvious that this is not something that should even be entertained. Barring a clear case of knowingly making a false accusation, no accuser should ever be disciplined for coming forward. All that does is discourage future victims from doing so out of fear that they’ll be the ones punished if their charges can’t be proven.
Is it unfortunate that Henderson had to deal with an accusation that can be chalked up to a misunderstanding? Absolutely. But, if even the man accused can say “It’s done so let’s move on,” because he doesn’t want to discourage people from coming forward in similar situations then surely the rest of us can accept that it was just misunderstanding and not call for punitive action against Gabriel.