Middlesbrough defender Marc Bola wins landmark ruling over offensive tweet sent as a 14 year-old

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The Middlesbrough defender Marc Bola has won a landmark case to have the wording of an offensive tweet he sent as a 14 year-old kept out of the public domain, after he was charged by the Football Association retrospectively for the post.

There was disbelief last year when Bola, now 24, was charged for posting the 10-year-old tweet, which was deleted by the player before it was recirculated for public consumption. His legal team successfully argued that the FA publishing the tweet in its official public judgement could have a detrimental effect on Bola’s mental health.

The tweet was discovered by a member of the public trawling through Bola’s historic Twitter feed and was sent privately to the FA. The governing body said it had no option but to charge the player with misconduct, with an aggravated breach of Rule E3(1), because of the reference to sexual orientation. Bola deleted the tweet before the charge was made public.

There is a debate in the game about the wisdom of the FA charging players over social media posts made when they were children, with more cases being discovered as those who grew up in the social-media age become senior professionals.

The regulatory commission in November noted Bola’s contrition. He immediately accepted responsibility for the tweet, sent 10 years previous when he was at Arsenal’s academy, and acknowledged that it was homophobic. The commission also accepted that he should be judged according to the FA’s rules in 2012, when the tweet was posted. Under current guidelines, he would have been facing a minimum sanction of a six-match ban.

Instead, the 2012 rules left punishment at the discretion of the three-person panel. In November, Bola was given a warning as to his future conduct. He was also ordered to attend an education programme within four months and pay the commission’s full costs.

Last month at a separate hearing, Bola’s legal team successfully argued that the full public account of the hearing published on the FA’s website – the written reasons – should not include the wording of Bola’s now deleted 2012 tweet. The player and his representatives accepted that the content of the tweet was “abhorrent” but argued it did not reflect his current views.

His lawyer, Christina Michalos QC, argued, according to the published written reasons, that publishing the tweet “would result in a social media ‘pile on’”. There were concerns for the “welfare of the player and others connected to him”, were the FA to publish it. 

Bola’s representatives said that there may also be a detrimental effect on community projects which he was supporting. The commission said it heard “others looking in on the player had genuinely expressed their serious concerns for his mental health”, were the tweet to be published.

The commission, chaired by Richard Smith QC, said: “The player had no recollection of posting the tweet or the circumstances in which he decided to do so. He described himself to be ‘shocked’ and ‘disgusted’ when the post was brought to his attention. The tweet was thereafter immediately deleted.”

In 2016, the then Burnley striker Andre Gray, now at Queens Park Rangers, was given a four-match ban for historic homophobic tweets sent four years previously. The Bolton Wanderers and Northern Ireland striker Dion Charles is currently being investigated for racist and homophobic tweets sent when he was a teenager. In cricket, the England international Ollie Robinson has been censured for historic offensive tweets.

In a statement, Middlesbrough said: “The club abhor any form of abuse and Marc is deeply embarrassed about the whole incident. He apologises unreservedly for what he said as a 14-year-old boy.”

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