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.