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. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What Olympic Legacy?

It is now over a week since Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony washed away a good deal of my Olympic cynicism. Regardless of my personal animus towards the inherent hypocrisy of the Olympic message and how the games operate – essentially taking public money and placing it into private (corporate) hands – Boyle’s tribute to our industrial heritage, the National Health Service, and a host of our nation’s idiosyncrasies hit the right mark regarding British identity. However, it has taken the games themselves to highlight the inequalities of wealth and opportunity in Britain.

Despite the state-educated success of Bradley Wiggins, it would appear that London 2012 is to repeat the statistical bias witnessed in Beijing, where more than 50 per cent of gold medals were won by privately educated athletes. Private education (which only caters for seven per cent of British children), and the increasing disparities in the distribution of wealth, as Channel 4 News have highlighted, has resulted in those representing the UK being ‘more likely to come from the affluent, less socially disadvantaged areas of the country’.

As the media and politicians fret over what the actual legacy of the games will be, and where the no doubt reduced funding will be allocated, school sport is rightly identified as the foundation of any future successes. Numerous figures from Rupert Murdoch to Lord Coe, Baroness Campbell and Lord Moynihan have ‘put their oar in’, and Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has been roundly criticised for dismantling ‘the Physical Education and School Sport programme in English schools, and especially the School Sport Partnerships’; one of the very few national policies to successfully break down barriers to participation of state-school pupils. The on-going sale of school playing fields only serves to exacerbate the issue. 

Gove’s behaviour is nothing new as the well-known cricket lover and ex-Prime Minister John Major had overseen the sale of school playing fields under Margaret Thatcher (over 5,000 had been sold by 1994), only to vainly attempt redemption with ‘the personally launched initiative, entitled Raising the Game’. Raising the Game only served to highlight the issues surrounding how sport – within or outside of schools – should be funded, and how much influence government should have over this. The advent of the lottery and millions of pounds available to sport, and other cultural activities, may well be moving public money from those who purchase lottery tickets (generally the poorer in society) to those in elite sports programmes, who are statistically more likely to have already benefitted from private education and the facilities and coaching therein.

Other sports have long displayed the class-based traits under discussion, with English Rugby Union and Cricket similarly dominated by privately educated players. In cricket, the clubs with the best facilities, with skilled volunteers prepared to fill in the application forms, are most likely to obtain lottery funding. Indeed the ECB’s ‘Clubmark’ programme is only available to clubs who have their own ground – immediately ostracising poorer clubs (frequently made up of ethnic minorities), from benefits and any route for the better players to progress. This brings the issue full circle: Once again, public money, largely generated from the poor, appears to be re-directed to those less in need.

If British sport is to truly represent the egalitarian and multi-cultural Britain portrayed in Boyle’s opening ceremony in future, fundamental changes to school sport and sport funding at grass-roots and elite levels are required. Sadly, even if the political will existed, an age of austerity appears to be the wrong time to attempt such changes. 

In Defence of British Cycling

The US Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to charge seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong with using performance-enhancing drugs the day before this year’s Tour de France began was as pertinent as it was sardonic. Although never having been conclusively caught doping – despite being one of the most, if not the most, tested athletes in history – there has always been a cloud over Armstrong’s ultra-successful career, particularly in France. Armstrong remains innocent until proven guilty, but any exceptional performance in the sport today leads to questions as to the ‘cleanliness’ of the cyclist in question: accusations that Bradley Wiggins, current leader of the Tour, is now only too aware.

The French media, and a number of outspoken journalists from other countries, particularly the Irishman Paul Kimmage, who’s award winning book Rough Ride lifted the lid on the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) simply to finish elite professional cycle races, openly accused Armstrong of doping. Unlike Kimmage, who had his own experience of drug use as a professional to refer to, many who made such accusations, without definitive evidence, were at least prepared to put their names to such claims. Today, as many celebrities in other realms of the public arena are aware, such accusations may be made anonymously via the ‘Twittersphere’. 

Wiggins responded this week to accusations on Twitter that it was impossible to win the Tour without taking PEDs with a deliciously British: "I'd say they are just fucking wankers." But Wiggins was not finished, and said before storming out of the press conference: "I can't be dealing with people like that, it justifies their own bone idleness. Rather than getting off their arses and doing something with their lives it's easier for them to sit underneath a pseudonym on Twitter and write that sort of shit..."

One of Britain’s previous yellow jersey holders, Chris Boardman, was one of many to jump to Wiggins defence. Speaking on ITV4 after the time trial on Monday, in which Wiggins extended his lead to 1m 53sec over the Australian Cadel Evans, Boardman said: “The journalist wasn’t going to take any responsibility for that question, and if he wanted to poke Bradley, Bradley was going to poke him right back. ... It was an emotional response, and frankly that’s what people want to see. They want to see real, not what’s laid out and written down by the press department.”

Emotional responses to doping have been Wiggins forte, and, like Paula Radcliffe’s outspoken stance in athletics, scathing. Wiggins’ disappointment at being ‘withdrawn’ from the Tour in 2007, after a Cofidis teammate was caught doping, was summed up when asked what the answer was to the doping issue: "Get more British cyclists". And it is here that the sociological and cultural differences in the history of cycling between Britain and mainland Europe manifest themselves.

Although British cyclists such as David Millar, and most famously Tommy “If it takes ten to kill you, I’ll have nine” Simpson, have been caught and died through drug use, the hangover of Victorian amateurism remains with us in Britain today – witness the BOA’s ludicrous attempts to exclude Dwain Chambers, as if the Olympics was some paragon of athletic and moral purity. The commercial sponsorship by L’Auto of the Tour in 1903, meant the event soon became professionalised, and as James McGurn notes: “The Bicycle Union [of Britain] ... took issue with the Union Vélocipèdique de France over the French body's willingness to allows its "amateurs" to compete for prizes of up to 2,000 francs, the equivalent of about sixteen months' pay for a French manual worker.”

The die was thus cast and Britain reverted to track racing and time trialling, while the rest of Europe partook in incredibly hard stage racing (stages were up to 300 miles long, on virtually unpaved roads with bikes that had no gears). So hard were these events, that stopping off for a stiffening brandy or even a hit of cocaine, “the natural stimulant,” was not unheard of in the early years of the Tour. The lure of financial and social rewards, along with the extreme nature of stage racing, meant that professionalised endurance events in Europe went hand-in-hand with ‘doping’.

Cycling in Britain was different. Although time trialling was hard, as an amateur sport, without any large financial prizes at stake, the taking of PED’s was never a significant aspect of British cycling culture. A point largely misunderstood on the continent. Despite some high-profile dopers, the history of British cycling is full of names who have reached the pinnacle of cycling without resorting to drugs, or even being a professional. Graeme Obree, possibly one of this nation’s most unsung sporting heroes, not only broke the hour record as an amateur on a homemade bike twice, but when he turned professional he walked out of his new French based team having heard he was expected to ‘chip-in’ for “supplementary medicine” costs. Such principled behaviour, as Mike McNamee, founding Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association, notes: “is a British phenomenon, we are imbued with Victorian values of playing the game 'fairly'.”

Playing fair, or choosing to gain a competitive advantage, was a largely moral question, and testing remained rare until after the infamous Olympic 100m final of 1988. The authorities appeal to an athlete’s better nature remained until Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which formed a part of the wider ‘War on Drugs’. Crucially, the issue of drugs in sport was no longer a moral question, but a legal one.

The rewards for winning the Tour, or a gold medal in London this summer are such that many are prepared to break these laws in order to attain them. Since ‘criminalisation’ cycling supporters, who previously accepted (begrudgingly or not) doping as a part of the sport, now, with the press leading the way, question the integrity of their sporting heroes. Team Sky supremo Dave Brailsford has thus invited the anonymous doubters to a seminar at Manchester at the end of year. It will be interesting to see who takes him up on the offer. However, until one of our current leading cyclists is caught, our cycling heritage dictates that the benefit of doubt must remain with Wiggins. 

‘Woygate’: the tip of an insidious iceberg.

The widespread outrage over the front page of The Sun (2/5/2012), which ‘poked fun’ at the new England manager Roy Hodgson’s mispronunciation of his Rs emanated from those within and outside of football. Only a day after The Sun’s proprietor Rupert Murdoch was described by MPs as “not a fit person” to run a major company, the headline was ample evidence (were further evidence needed) that the Labour endorsed part of the report into phone hacking is correct. The headline does however, point to wider themes regarding the Murdoch press’ self-righteous assumptions over its level of influence in all aspects of British culture and an editorial stance that can only be described as anti-intellectual and xenophobic.

It was not Roy Hodgson, but the straight talking, media friendly Tottenham manager, Harry Redknapp who was The Sun’s (among a number of newspapers) first and only choice for the role.  Following Hodgson’s appointment The Sun spoke of him being "sensationally spurned" in favour of Hodgson. But this time round the FA’s admirable objectivity and due process meant it was not ‘The Sun Wot (sic) Influenced It’.

The BBC’s Mark Lawrenson and other football pundit’s surprise that Redknapp was not even interviewed notwithstanding, The Sun’s annoyance was clear for all to see. Who actually manages or coaches the England team is important to many, but undue influence because of large circulation figures over the Football Association does not unduly affect, or harm, people’s lives. Influence over government is another matter, but this point has received significant coverage elsewhere.

What concerns this football fan (and here I have to declare an interest as a West Bromwich Albion supporter) is the pervasive anti-intellectualism and xenophobia within almost all aspects of ‘popular’ culture in Britain, which is, if not wholly driven, then (no doubt unintentionally) perpetuated by various branches of the press.

At the risk of straying into issues of class, which considering Rupert Murdoch’s anti-establishmentism may also be a factor in this case, the late Jade Goody provides a pertinent example. Goody famously thought Cambridge was in London and racially abused the Indian actress Shilpa Shetty, and yet she was scarcely absent from the pages of the tabloids, even before her tragic, and very public, death from cervical cancer in 2009.

It should go without saying I am not, in making the following analogy, implying Harry Redknapp (a man I admire as an expert in his field) is in any way racist. However, a comparison of Redknapp and Hodgson proves, if not conclusive, illuminating.

Henry Winter’s statement in the The Daily Telegraph that Roy Hodgson is a "broadsheet man in a tabloid world", was as astute as it was obvious to anyone who has followed Hodgson’s career. Hodgson, who has developed an international reputation having played and managed in a number of countries, speaks fluent Norwegian, Swedish, German and Italian, as well as some Danish, French and the notoriously difficult Finnish. He is also a fan of the authors Sebastian Faulks, John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Hodgson has even likened his international career to the Russian expressionist artist Wassily Kandinsky, stating: "It [my career] has gone sideways, backwards, and then upwards again."

Redknapp, the The Sun’s archetypal English ‘everyman’, writes a regular column for the tabloid, and it must therefore be regarded as highly ironic that Redknapp while being cross-examined in a recent court case stated: "I write like a two-year-old and I can't spell". The case also heard Redknapp (via a recording) also state: "I can't work a computer, I don't know what an email is, I have never sent a fax and I've never even sent a text message”. He does however, according to Hodgson, know how to leave a voicemail.

It is of course as abhorrent to mock a person’s poor literary and IT skills as it is their speech impediments. To maintain the comparison: As broad as Hodgson’s horizons have been, Redknapp’s, despite a three-year spell as player-assistant manager of North American Soccer League side Seattle Sounders between 1976 to 1979, have remained comparatively narrow in recent years. The tabloid press’ editorial suspicion of intellectuals’ and foreigners’, in the guise of ‘comedy’ – witness not only the ‘Bwing on the Euwos!’ headline but The Sun’s ‘Germans Wurst at Penalties’ and The Daily Mirror’s barrel scraping ‘Achtung! Surrender’ – or in this case the mocking of a well-travelled, multi-lingual, thoughtful and cultured man, does not simply appeal to similar suspicions within its readership, it feeds them.

The tabloid mania that the next England manager ‘had’ to be English reflects, in a world of increasing political extremes based upon issues of race and immigration, the wider social issues that face the multi-cultural United Kingdom today. Implicitly, in the regretful absence of representative numbers of black managers, this meant a white Englishman.

The Sun’s obvious disappointment that Hodgson "wasn't the nation's choice”, demonstrates the inherent arrogance within the Murdoch empire’s assumption that it speaks for us all, and consequently it has the right to dictate the terms and personnel of our political and cultural future. As if to confirm that Hodgson represents the wrong kind of Englishman, and The Sun’s position as one of this country’s most significant sources of xenophobia, the paper continued: “... we can't blame him for not being 'Arry". Quite.