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.


  1. Update, 17/6/2013: Six youths, all aged under 18, found guilty of manslaughter after a trial.

    The father of one of the boys was also convicted and sentenced to six years.