Tuesday, 27 September 2016

‘Playing within the rules’ – Power, the sporting superstar and the culture of sport

British sport is imbued with a strong ethic of ‘fair play’. The concept of amateurism promoted ‘pure’ sport, played for its own sake, unadulterated by commercial influences. But for all their amateur bluster British sport was frequently tainted with class prejudice, racism and jingoistic fervor.

British fair play has always, therefore, required a contrast and there is an implicit suggestion that while we Brits play with a ‘straight bat’, foreigners cheat. The outcry over Maradona’s 'Hand of God' or Lance Armstrong’s doping contrasts starkly with the hyperbolic coverage of the Brownlee brothers recent display of sportsmanship – even though it appeared to break the rules. But what of Michael Owen’s diving, Rugby Union’s 'bloodgate' scandal or, most recently Bradley Wiggins use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs)?

Unlike Armstrong, a case has been made that Bradley Wiggins use of powerful performance enhancing drugs under the guise of TUEs is acceptable – fair even – because it was an approved prescription sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) itself. As Team Sky supremo David Brailsford claimed; his team had complied with the rules at all times and stayed "the right side of the line". Indeed they had, and there’s the rub.

Like Apple, Vodafone, Amazon or Starbucks who legally avoid billions in corporation tax, Team Sky’s actions are, according to the rules in place, justified. But their actions, like those of the multinational corporations, look extremely unethical; especially in light of Team Sky’s previous claims of cleanliness.

That Apple and Team Sky remain within the rules means the condemnatory finger has to be pointed towards the people who control the organizations that make up these ‘laws’. If societies want equitable tax structures, or sporting contests that are in any way genuine, they must change, but cultures of doping, corruption, racism, sexism and homophobia persist because of their actions or, more commonly, inaction. Governing bodies had no qualms in banning athletes for life in the past for the most trivial offences, but there appears to be no genuine will to stamp out doping or other controversial issues in sport.

Only this week we have witnessed FIFA’s lamentable decision to abolish its anti-racism taskforce. Claims that its work was completed before Russia, a country with a serious problem of racism, hosts the 2018 World Cup have raised many a cynical eyebrow, even if no other country (as with doping) is blameless. But why are such counterintuitive decisions repeatedly made? And why don’t sports journalists question what they see, or are told, more often?

Cynical or not the answer is, of course, money. Who pays the piper calls the tune, and the decisions made by those at the very top of sport are seldom designed to benefit anyone but themselves or other interested parties. But while political expediency used to dominate (the provision of a UK passport to Zola Budd, or particular governments or governing bodies decision to join or ignore Olympic boycotts for instance), the basis for the majority of decisions today is economic.

Multi-millionaire sportsmen and women may benefit from this administrative leniency, but they are mere pawns in a much larger game where the governing bodies and corporate sponsors benefit most. Team Sky’s financial value to cycling, like US Postal before it, or Manchester United to the Premier League, affords them a certain amount of leverage with their sport’s governing bodies, for their success directly impacts upon their own revenue streams.

Individually, Tiger Woods receiving a two-shot penalty, instead of disqualification, for an illegal drop at the halfway stage of the 2013 US Masters is a case in point. Golf’s biggest global ‘superstar’ at the time, this decision benefitted the US PGA, the broadcaster and the sponsors far more. For as Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, explained: "When Tiger Woods enters a tournament and when he is in contention in the final round, we see a 30 to 50 per-cent increase over what is the 'normal' rating”.

But even when a scandal breaks, the corporations such as Nike still win by claiming to have taken a moral high ground in dropping tainted athletes such as Woods or Armstrong, although they appear to have made an exception regarding Maria Sharapova.

The media are not invulnerable to riding this financial gravy train of course, and many journalists, including The Times Matthew Syed, have been accused of getting too close to Team Sky or other sporting bodies. However, there is a fine line to be tread between blatant sycophancy and hard-nosed investigative journalism. Without access there is little or no story, and journalists who ask hard questions rarely get interviews, and football managers, including Sir Alex Ferguson, have banned journalists who do not toe the line.

The result is that most of the biggest stories, such as the FIFA corruption scandal, or the slavery conditions of those building the stadiums for the 2020 Qatar World Cup, are now broken by journalists who do not specialize in sports reporting. The media, and indeed academics, have a crucial role to play in holding those who govern sport to account. Some media outlets, most obviously Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owns a significant stake in BSkyB and recently purchased TalkSPORT radio, clearly have vested interests in the Premier League but it is incumbent on others to report objectively and challenge the actions of those in charge much more than any individual athlete (granted the Armstrong case is exceptional).

We may think what we like of Team Sky and Wiggins behavior but if the rules allow athletes to gain a competitive advantage they are going to take it. However, the sporting public, and the athletes themselves, deserve greater clarity.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Euro 2016: Why British football fans ought to support French strikers

Following the terrorist atrocities in Paris on the 13th November 2015 I quickly resolved to attend the European Championships as planned (many thanks Matt and Pierre). I realise there is an element of risk in doing so but, rather than superimposing a tricolour over my Facebook picture, I thought this was a tangible method of demonstrating both my solidarity with the French people and my disdain towards the terrorists and their misguided agendas.

For the last three months however, the French people have been facing up to another foe – their own government and the multinationals behind the TTIP AgreementProposed changes to the maximum working week of 35 hours have grabbed the headlines, but other changes, that make it easier for larger employers to make workers redundant for instance, are included. It is for the French to resolve but, just days before the tournament kicks-off, it is clear that large protests and threatened strikes by railway workers and airline pilots have the potential to effect some of those attending the Tournament.

I, for one, will accept such a fate should it happen. For while the reforms may not mean “a surrender to wicked, Anglo-saxon, ultra-liberal capitalism”, they do represent the thin end of a wedge very familiar to British families over the last thirty-five years. A wedge that has led to the ‘illegal’ employment practices of Mike Ashley. And the tax-dodging / ‘carpet-bagging’ antics of Philip Green being rewarded by a government post and a knighthood.

Such practices have repercussions’, and wealth distribution in the UK is now the joint sixth most unequal globally (France is fourteenth). Compounded by a steep decline in social mobility, these unsustainable trends represent the end game of Thatcherite policies that required the assistance of a militarised police force to dismantle Trade Unions termed 'the enemy within', before making targeted attacks upon other elements of ‘working-class’ culture.

The Wapping dispute and the Miners’ Strike, which led to the Battle of Orgreave, are two examples of the state’s attack on collective bargaining and working class communities nationwide. The Battle of Beanfield, which led to the largest mass arrest of civilians since the Second World War, attacked New Age Travellers and green politics, while acid house parties were also targeted. And, of course, there was the sustained attack upon football, regarded by ‘decent folk’ at the time as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums, and increasingly watched by slum people who deter decent folk from turning up”. This attack upon the ‘people’s game’ involved the caging of supporters, the introduction of now omnipresent CCTV systems, a proposed national ID Card Scheme and even electrified fences at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground. But this campaign reached its nadir with the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent cover-up by South Yorkshire Police.

Although calls are being made for another inquiry into Orgreave, Hillsborough represents a solitary victory for those who were targeted by the state at that time. But it came too late. Football, as coherently argued in Hillsborough survivor Adrian Tempany’s book And the Sun Shines Now, was transformed, on the basis of the Sun's accusations of hooliganism, to appeal to the middle classes. So successful was this transformation that many of the working-class fans, whose predecessors’ had sustained football for more than 100 years, can no longer afford to attend matches or – deep irony alert – pay Rupert Murdoch’s satellite TV subscriptions.

In industry those initial, but highly significant, victories opened the door to ever more changes and amendments designed to undermine Trade Union powers and hard-won employment protections increasingly shored up by the European Union (EU Law had its own footballing cause célèbre in Jean-Marc Bosman of course) but, as the current referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union demonstrates, divide and rule politics, aided by a predominantly right-wing media, is thriving. The creation of the all too obvious, but effective, schism between ‘private’ and ‘public’ sector workers over pensions and the like, is simply the next step in alienating the working classes from each other.

Following the loss of what were higher wages in the private sector, good public sector pensions are an easy target, but the omnipresent demands of employers for ever more ‘flexible’ workforces, and the use of zero hours contracts effect all realms of work in the UK today. In football parlance; ‘we was robbed’. The UK is, therefore, an apposite example of what may be ahead for French workers should they surrender too much ground. From the outside it appears that workers in all sectors are united in this struggle and I will stand in solidarity with the French on this and terrorism – even if it means missing a much anticipated football match or two. 

Monday, 9 March 2015

A new low for English cricket? Naah, it’s just history repeating itself.

Deservedly, Bangladesh will be credited with ‘knocking-out’ a dismal England side from the 2015 Cricket World Cup. But, as is the way with tournament sport, it was England’s inability to add to a solitary victory, against Scotland, which has seen England eliminated with one game still left to play. How, when we consider population size and the number of professional cricketers at the disposal of England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), may we account for this ignominious performance?

Well it is not difficult, for we have been here before. The foundations of this epic failure lie in the continued self-interest among those who have run much of British sport for the last 150 years – the vast majority of that time under strictly enforced amateurism. Professionalism – in terms of coordinated organisation, world-class facilities and serious training – following the ploughing of lottery millions into a variety of British sports, is something we assume runs through all British sports today, but some sports are more ‘professional’ than others. As the humiliating performance in the World Cup suggests, cricket, which remains tied to the elitist ideologies and an anachronistic structure of the Victorian era, is not one of them.

In a society increasingly riven with class distinctions, the development of British sport from the 1870s was inevitably influenced by such prejudices. As Tony Collins’ seminal work Rugby’s Great Split demonstrates, one sport was even divided (in England at least) upon class-lines (the regionalism involved a lesser, but related, factor). The hypocrisy among middle-class men who controlled the Rugby Football Union in denying predominantly northern working class players’ ‘broken-time’ payments for lost wages, while they were allowed ‘out of pocket’ expenses was shared among those who controlled the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Professionalism in cricket, almost universally a working class phenomenon, was too well established however and, in an increasingly popular and commercialised sport, late-Victorian professionals, such as George Lohmann of Surrey, became some of the very first working class heroes.[1]  

This was problematic enough for the elites, but the presence of ever larger numbers of working class support at grounds, led some of the cricket elites to not only propose the abolition of the County Championship, or the establishment of an ‘all-amateur’ competition,[2] others sought a prohibitive rise in entrance fees,[3] in order to eradicate any working class presence on or off the field.

These reactionary proposals notwithstanding, some, including the cricket author H. V. Dorey, argued that professionals were still necessary as coaches and ground bowlers (indentured servants) to the counties and affluent members of elite clubs. It was these ‘subscribers’ – the members of clubs such as the MCC – men who he regarded as the ‘backbone of cricket, as in everything else’, for whom the game was run.[4] Robert Morris has called such associations subscriber democracies, but there was little democratic about associations which controlled (all-male) membership via personal recommendations, expensive membership (a form of financial apartheid) and, in the case of professionalism, increasingly humiliating distinctions between amateurs and professionals until 1963.[5]

First-class cricket has never been a democracy. Unlike the community-centric meritocracy of the Midland and the Northern leagues, which the MCC and its mouthpiece Wisden reviled, so-called ‘first-class’ cricket in England has never been run for the benefit of the supporters.[6] As it was in 1890, the game is run for a tiny minority of demographically narrow (white, male and over 40) supporters who still pay their membership to the eighteen ‘professional’ counties. Unfortunately, the county clubs still hold the balance of power within the ECB, and turkeys’ seldom vote for Christmas!

In his scorching analysis of English Cricket, Pommies:  England Cricket Through an Australian Lens, William Buckland reveals the way forward. In short, Buckland compares the Australian grade system with the bloated English County Championship (ECC) and comes to a very simple conclusion: There are too many nonviable county clubs employing too many mediocre professionals. The game, he argues, must be trimmed, and less, but more competitive and meaningful cricket played. Player talent would be concentrated, rather than diluted, and the injuries that come with an overly long County Championship avoided.

County cricket survives in England because of the public’s interest in the national side, and yet changes to the game’s structure that ought to bring about their desire for a consistently competitive England team are ignored. Unlike football, where the success of individual clubs in lucrative (and therefore more ‘prestigious’) league or cup competitions such as the Premier League and Champions League takes precedent, the ECC is a cartel kept afloat by Rupert Murdoch’s money. One could examine the serious damage that the ECB’s acceptance of this money has done in terms of public access (a fraction of the 7.4m viewers who watched the 2005 ashes watch Sky's coverage) in more detail, but the point here is that cricket is being run by the wrong people, for the wrong people (themselves). On-field success, as long as the money from Murdoch (or charlatans like Allen Stanford) keeps rolling in, is almost incidental.

The future ascension of Colin Graves to the Chairmanship of the ECB might provide an opportunity for reform. Although Geoffrey Boycott appeared reticent at the end of the Bangladesh match to provide ‘on-air’ solutions to the current malaise, he did reveal that he wished to have a chat with Graves. I’d suggest Graves also talks to Bob Willis and the other members of the Cricket Reform Group, whose sound-headed proposals were assiduously ignored by the ECB in 2003.

The game is at a genuine crossroads. Successive generations of supporters, and indeed players, have been let down by the game’s ‘custodians’. Under their watch cricket’s status as the national game was lost and English cricket’s genuine supporters have had to ‘enjoy’ cyclical success at best, rather than the sustained, planned, success of the Australians. Furthermore, it has become increasingly out of the financial reach of the less well-off who would like to support in person or watch on their televisions. The inspirational effects that followed the ‘free-to-air’ coverage in 2005 now lost, the youth required to maintain the lower levels of the game are absent in the numbers required.

Unless root and branch changes are made, it will not simply be embarrassing international failures that the cricket authorities will have presided over. There is a real possibility – if the current trajectory is maintained – that cricket will have become the boutique pastime that Dorey and his ilk always wanted.

[1] Cricket, 29/12/1892, 508.
[2] Woking News, 23/8/1895.
[3] Cricket, 25/11/1894, 444.
[4] Thompson and Long, Club Cricketers’ Official Handbook, 1913, 12.
[5] Morris “Clubs, societies and associations”, 412-413.
[6] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, 214.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Death of Phillip Hughes: Cricket’s ‘Diana’ moment?

I remember the day Diana, Princess of Wales, died very, very clearly. The day began with a phone call from a mate I’d been out drinking with the previous night: “Guess who’s dead?!” he excitedly shrieked. “Errr … Frank Sinatra?” I mumbled, slowly regaining my senses. “NOOO!” was the reply. “Who’s the most famous woman in the world?” he prompted. “Ummm … the queen?”. “NOOO!”. “The queen mother?” I stumbled, really wracking my addled brain. “NOOO!! More famous than that!!” “Sorry” I said, not being able to process the fact that it could be a young person who had died, “I’m lost mate”. “DIANA! Princess Diana is dead!”

I was more flummoxed than shocked (in my old job as a police photographer I used to deal with the death of old and young regularly). The only detail (details at this early stage were scant) that bothered me was how it had happened?

A few days later, once the basic details had emerged, my mate and the rest of my gang went on holiday for a week or so. I forget – as an enthusiastic participant in ‘lad’s holidays’ – why I did not go, but not sunning myself in Spain left me to face the nation's disproportionate and inescapable outpouring of ‘grief’. The lads had returned, all suntanned and white-shirted, in time for us all to re-convene down the pub for England's World Cup qualifier with Moldova. As Elton John's 'Candle in the Wind' was played, yet again, I recall loudly uttering something along the lines of “can’t we just get on with our lives – please?”, only for the mate who had called that fateful morning to snarl in my face: “You’re out of order! She was the people’s princess!” Diana had truly become the outstanding symbol of emotional grandstanding.

This, it has to be said, was quite a departure from the emotional norms of British society (my mate is a sound and highly intelligent man). The normally reserved and carefully measured response to similar events obviously would not suffice in this case and countless bouquets of flowers, candles, signatures in books of remembrance and tears manifested from all sections of society. Blair’s canny aphorism; ‘the people’s princess’ (the spot Blair made the speech even has a plaque recording the event) worked so well, because it was – for the most part – true. 

Other societies react to death very differently. We have witnessed, largely thanks to our viewing the custom on TV coverage of Spanish or Italian football, British supporters increasingly adopt a minute’s applause in preference to the customary silence (rudely interrupted or not). In other countries, and this may well be true for ‘younger’ societies that lack a long history of stoicism such as the UK, emotion is dealt with differently.

Australia, and the cricket community globally, are mourning the death of the 25 year old international cricketer Phillip Hughes. His tragic demise from the impact of a cricket ball during a match at the SCG is cause for great sorrow, but has this tragedy – like Diana’s death – been overdone? Hughes appears to have been the ideal of Australian masculinity: ruggedly good-looking, a country boy made good, seemingly indestructible, and a thoroughly decent ‘bloke’. He was undoubtedly a talented cricketer but, statistically speaking, he was unlikely to ever become one of the game’s genuine ‘greats’ (I wish of course he was alive to prove me wrong). This has not stopped a Diana-like outpouring of emotion – seemingly stirred up by some sections of the media (four out of five of Australia’s free-to-air channels broadcast the funeral live) and, most disturbingly, by Cricket Australia themselves. Only a miniscule minority who are currently grieving ever met the man, let alone knew him well. While we have witnessed genuine grief amongst the cricket fraternity who did know him well, we are being confronted by Twitter campaigns by those who did not. I.e. #putyourbatsout and #63notout (the latter, which encourages the performance of a good deed, and may at least provide a minor legacy of some sort), and even the suggestion by Sky correspondent David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd that any score of 63 be applauded in Hughes' memory.

As the distasteful politicisation of wearing a poppy also ‘inspires’, I do not wish to feel obliged to publicly acknowledge the death of a soldier or a sportsman or woman. These are highly personal and what should, for the most part, remain private thoughts. Hedley Verity, the Yorkshire and England cricketer, who died of his wounds in the Second World War did not receive such tributes (he does however have a pub named after him), nor the more recent and, to my mind, more shocking sporting death of Ayrton Senna. And yet they are remembered and rightfully revered, but that a relatively unestablished cricketer is thought to warrant extreme ceremonies of public remembrance (potentially in any future innings) reveals a good deal about modern sport and society.

It has been suggested in the excellent blog by David Rowe, which exposes the public’s complicity ‘in the damage sportspeople can do to each other and to themselves’, that cricket’s primacy within Australian culture, in-part, explains the current outpourings of emotion. This may be so but, having witnessed a similarly disproportionate response within the Australian media (but, interestingly, not the public) to the premature death of the actor Heath Ledger, something else must be at play. I’m uncertain exactly what that is, but I have my suspicions, although Australia may be a special case, that our societal obsession with ‘celebrities’, and their role in sustaining an increasingly trivialised media, does play a significant role. Sport is, after all, a highly trivial phenomena.  

Today, celebrity culture is omnipresent, but how we choose to react to tragic events such as this, or the anniversaries of tragedies of the past, appears to be dictated by the media (and sports clubs or administrative organisations) - this unaccountable accident does not compare, either in scale or in media reaction, to the Hillsborough tragedy. In this case the tragic (criminal even?) death of 'ordinary' football supporters led to their public vilification. 

What do these ‘celebrities’ represent, and do they ‘belong’ to us 'ordinary' folk? Hughes may well have represented one future of Australian cricket, and his death, one hopes, may result in more measured forms of competitiveness in future, but does the fact someone is in the public eye provide us with the excuse to gawp at their death behind a veil of crocodile tears? The internet search engine Bing recently revealed that 2014's top internet search was Peaches Geldof who had done little of note prior to dying of a heroin overdose. Then of course there was the very public life and death of Jade Goody, blisteringly satirised by Charlie Brooker. Whether genuine or not, unless we knew the departed personally, there will always be an element of voyeurism involved in our ‘mourning’ of such celebrities. The media, as it is beginning to recognise in relation to mental health, need to reign-in the emotion and report events such as this in more measured tones.

Phillip Hughes deserves to be remembered, but as a son, a brother, and yes (for the rest of us), as a cricketer who died doing what he loved. Not as the poster boy of mass hysteria engineered to elevate the moral standing of cricket, nor boost circulation or viewing figures. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

‘Another “Bombshell” Fails to Explode at the BBC’

That it now looks as if the BBC will be allowing Jeremy Clarkson, his co-presenters, and Top Gear producer Andy Wilman, to remain within their employment is hard to accept following their latest debacle in Argentina.
Clarkson, a professional ‘troll’, who has previously been disciplined for making jokes about murdered women (who happened to work as prostitutes), Indians and Mexicans, and for using the ‘N’ word, was found guilty this year of making racist comments by Ofcom. Since then, Clarkson has been reportedly “drinking in the last chance saloon” having been, yet again, reprimanded by BBC chiefs.
The lack of any direct action from the BBC following the number plate controversy, which referenced the date of the Falklands War is troubling enough, but Clarkson’s accusation that the Argentinian government ‘orchestrated’ the protests, in which he claimed "lives were at stake", only adds fuel to the fire. It also suggests an element of desperation on Clarkson’s behalf.
I cannot speak for the BBC Trust's Board of Governors, but the BBC’s reply to my complaint, that the programme makers: “would like to assure viewers that this was an unfortunate coincidence and the cars were neither chosen for their registration plates, nor were new registration plates substituted for the originals” does not wash. I, for one, was not born yesterday, and I prescribe to the Argentinian view that the events were not "an unfortunate coincidence".
If it were just the number plates it might have been possible to have given the show's producers/presenters the benefit of the doubt, but one aspect of the controversy has been overlooked: the specific choice of a Porsche 928 (Clarkson's mode of transport in Argentina, and the vehicle which displayed the number plate H982 FLK).
In the film Risky Business (1983), a Porsche 928 is accidentally sunk in a river, and following its retrieval and delivery to a garage, Tom Cruise's character ‘Joel’ and his friends are asked by the garage owner "who's the U-Boat commander?" See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bodVVtqmbZE 
Clarkson et al know their popular culture very well - especially any films that feature 'snazzy' sports cars - and this is just one coincidence too many for my liking. Although a somewhat obscure ‘in-joke’, if this is not a reference to the British submarine that controversially sank the ARA General Belgrano, I don't know what is.
How am I so sure? There can be no doubt that a great deal of highly detailed planning would have gone into the show (clearly one reason for the show’s success), and such references fit the programmes ‘laddish’ Modus Operandi, and Clarkson’s jingoistic (xenophobic even?) world-view perfectly. I’m pretty certain that Clarkson’s ego would also have relished the thought of cruising around Argentina in a metaphorical ‘submarine’ – even if it was built by ‘ze Germans’.
Clarkson and his colleagues must now be beyond redemption, should the BBC choose to act. But it looks increasingly unlikely that they will, because, akin to the bankers who brought the country to its knees in 2008, Clarkson is the biggest kid in the playground, who scares the teachers and thus never suffers the full consequences of his actions.
As in the City and politics, much of this is related to the Old Boys Network, and it is vividly represented within the Top Gear production office, for the show’s producer, Andy Wilman, went to public school (Repton) with Clarkson. Consequently, Wilman has been eager to protect his old friend and colleague to the hilt, by previously dismissing racism as “light hearted wordplay” . The main reason for the BBC’s lack of action however, is commercial.
The Top Gear franchise is one of the BBC’s biggest money making ventures. But, tellingly, only after the Corporation had to purchase Clarkson’s share of the rights to the show (The BBC paid £8.4m for his 30%, Wilman owned 20%) in 2012. With shows such as Doctor Who and Top Gear making the BBC's commercial arm more than £300m in 2013, can the BBC afford to sack the goose that lays the golden eggs – no matter how problematic?
The commercial basis of the decision to give Clarkson ever more chances is a wider societal problem in microcosm. The rhetoric of Clarkson’s friend, and fellow member of the ‘Chipping Norton Set’, the Prime Minister, that so-called ‘wealth creators’ deserve or warrant tax breaks, or that banks are ‘too big to fail’, is replicated in the BBC’s ineptitude. Just as no high-ranking banker has faced any criminal charges for industry-wide fraud, Clarkson gets away with making racist remarks or carrying out offensive pranks on a public broadcast channel because he generates money. But, beyond his £12m contract over three years, at what cost to the BBC?
As a public broadcaster, funded by the license fee, the BBC should put commercial considerations behind those that ensure that it remains "independent, impartial and honest", or help in "sustaining citizenship and civil society". Repeatedly defending a presenter/producer who has been found guilty of racism can only damage the reputation of the BBC, at a time when it has faced criticisms for political bias and financial profligacy.

The time has come for those in charge of the BBC to make a decisive stand. Either they sack Clarkson and Wilman, or they publicly state that everyday racism is an acceptable aspect of the Corporation’s activities. Option one is, of course, the only viable course of action, for Clarkson’s ‘last drink’, like the public’s patience, looks like it has run out.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

‘Respect’: Does it mean anything anymore?

The news from Holland this week that a linesman, Richard Nieuwenhuizen, died on Monday (3/12/2012) after an attack by players during an U17 match in Almere (east of Amsterdam), the previous day left me feeling physically sick. How it has traumatised his son, who was playing in the match, we may only contemplate. This undeniably sad and worrying event not only calls into question attitudes on and off football fields, but social values within societies at large. However these ‘children’ may not have reacted in this way had an 'adult' or group of ‘adults’ clearly demonstrated that such behaviour is unacceptable, and this calls into question how parents interact with and discipline their children.

'Mindless' violence, be it by the citizenry or the authorities, is common in many societies throughout the world, and numerous reasons for this have been postulated: binge drinking, violence on TV, film and video games, drugs, boredom and alienation to name just a few. Such issues and their broader societal origins have been discussed in depth elsewhere, and I would therefore like to address the origins of this tragedy in a sporting context.

This unbelievably sad event is, in my humble opinion, the sharp end of what, in the most famous instance, Alex Ferguson instigated at Manchester United (with Roy Keane his principle attack dog). Behaviour, in an ever more lucrative Premier League, that was eagerly emulated by others such as Arsène Wenger, Kenny Dalglish et al and many of their players. Pressurising match officials is not unique to football, and it arguably has a longer history in cricket where the ‘sledge’ is almost elevated to an art-form (W.G. Grace being a very early exponent). More recently the Australian captains Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting developed this concept, and with the mercurial Shane Warne at their disposal the Australians were able to ‘ooh’ and ‘aww’ or appeal off almost every ball until an umpire did not know what was up or down, ‘in’ or ‘out’. This relentless pressure (remember this could last for hours at a time over five days) infamously led to the mental disintegration (and early retirement) of umpire Steve Bucknor during a Test Match against India in 2008.

This ‘poor sportsmanship’ towards officials rather than on-field opponents is the worrying development. West Indian Colin Croft’s shoulder barge of umpire Fred Goodall in New Zealand in 1981and England captain Mike Gatting’s infamous finger-wagging outburst at umpire Shakoor Rana in 1987 apart, cricket, having introduced neutral umpires in 2002, appears to have kept a reasonably tight lid upon such actions towards officials. But as the much touted yet ineffectual ‘Respect’ campaign suggests, football has a much bigger problem. Sadly (having seen it works/provides an advantage), many amateur managers and players have emulated the aggressive and intimidatory actions of those they see on TV; actions that very often fail to attract the disciplinary or legal consequences they deserve. However, influences closer to home must be regarded as more influential, and the actions of parents have been under the spotlight for many years. Ian Stone reported on this issue once again, and the actions being taken by the National Children's Football Alliance, for the BBC only a day before Mr. Nieuwenhuizen was attacked.

In broadening out this issue once again, we need to question the underlying values, attitudes, and norms in behaviour, these ‘young men’ were brought up to believe were acceptable. Children today are seldom ever wrong, often possess an over blown sense of entitlement, and they do not appear to be able to accept a failure to get their own way, or be taught/made aware that sometimes you have to accept defeat or fail a task. I certainly remember learning the hard way that I had no God given right to anything – not even a minute on the basketball court having waited over two hours after school for a team from London to turn up (not good in a sport where rolling substitutes may be used)! The same went for my parents, although my father (a referee in what is now the Ryman League) thought the basketball incident a step too far and I never played basketball for the school again.

That was however, as far as my father was prepared to intervene (a quiet word with me in the car on the way home - a stand up row with the games teacher would have been mortifying, but my father knew it was up to me to stand up for my 14 year old self). However, the behaviour of overly protective parents today: running onto the pitch to berate officials at junior matches, threatening teachers who have the temerity to discipline or attempt to feed their children healthy food at school etc. needs to be addressed, for these Dutch children did not react in this way without some 'adult' either showing them the way, or allowing similarly aggressive behaviour to go unpunished.

In an age of austerity and reduced social mobility, we, and especially the generation at school or university today, are increasingly less likely to get everything we may ‘want’ out of life. It is thus important that we develop or re-discover an ability to not only consider our actions before we act (and the consequences of those actions if we do not), but to have a healthy appreciation that ‘life is not fair’ sometimes. The British (English) have been lampooned in many ways for our stoicism in the past. However, the prescription of a healthy dose of modern day stoicism would not go amiss. I think we are going to need it.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Kevin Pietersen, Racism and Benefit Claimants: more in common than one may think

For those of you who are not aware who Kevin Pietersen (a.k.a. KP) is, he is a world class, South African born, cricketer who has played for England since 2005, and he briefly captained the national side between 2008 and 2009. Recently however he has fallen foul of a hoax Twitter account, which poked fun at his rather large ego, and his employers and team-mates in the England dressing room. This ‘falling out’ is predominantly for the alleged sending of derogatory text messages about some of these team-mates to their current opposition: South Africa. Consequently, he has been dropped for the final Test of the current series at Lord’s.

The Pietersen affair  has highlighted a number of things: The persistent incompetence, or what the ex-West Indian international Michael Holding called 'amateurism', of the game’s administration; The negative affects that the publishing boom in half-baked sporting biographies and social media have in an era of player power; And the implicit racism in certain sections of the British press.

Clearly, as cricket is not an Olympic sport, the positive image of multiculturalism displayed during the opening and closing ceremonies, and within Team GB, does not apply to journalists writing for some of our newspapers. As I have discussed previously regarding the 'Woygate' affair, some of the British media introduce morally dubious sub-plots into what, at face value, look like straightforward ‘news’ stories. The Pietersen affair has brought an all too brief ‘amnesty’ in negative stories, which was replaced by the equally unpalatable boosterism of Team GB’s Olympic success, to an end. Such sub-plots have once again taken centre stage.

Two articles specific to the affair have questioned whether Pietersen, as a South African born cricketer, was ever really suitable, in cultural terms, for the England cricket team? ‘Suitable’ is an interesting implication, for it implies that cultural or racial differences trump ‘eligibility’ – a far more, if you’ll excuse the term, ‘black and white’ issue.

Peter Oborne writing in The Telegraph stated:  ‘Pietersen is the latest white South African to use his selection for the England cricket team to promote his personal ambitions’. He continued: ‘Nationality is not just a matter of convenience. It is a matter of identity. Kevin Pietersen may have chosen to come to Britain. But his attitudes and his cast of mind were formed in South Africa. Ultimately, Pietersen has not much idea of what it means to be British’.

Regardless of what it ‘means’ to be British, this nation’s sport has a long history of sportsmen and women from other countries representing us. These range from the Indian Prince Ranjitsinhji playing cricket for England in the 1890s, the South African born runner Zola Budd in the 1980s, and numerous contemporary examples. While all are deemed acceptable when scoring centuries or winning gold medals, if this stops, or the individual becomes problematic, the journalistic gloves come off. But this is not an issue unique to sport and race, for our whole society is subjected to such judgements.

Comments such as these reveal the nature of certain newspapers and political parties, who define a person’s worthiness, acceptability, or status by their success. Racial issues apart, all is well if a member of our society is a ‘winner’, or thought to be doing noble deeds (such as serving in the Army), but woe betide that member or sections of our society should they be deemed a ‘loser’. Pietersen probably doesn’t realise it, but he has much in common with this country’s benefit claimants right now.