Why does sport welcome violent men?

A picture of a street with a football stand backing onto it, with "Cobbold Stand" and "Ipswich Town Football Club" on the sides, and shops fronting onto the street. Another stand is to the left with turnstiles below.It’s not often that I write about sport here, mainly because I pay so little attention to it. I’ve watched only one football match in person (Ipswich v Oxford at Portman Road in 1991 I think; Ipswich won 1-0), and I don’t think I’ve ever watched one end to end on TV. I’ve long been disturbed by how much money is spent on it, how much the players in the top divisions earn for very little activity, and how much public inconvenience is tolerated for major sporting events. It’s great entertainment, but that’s all it is at the end of the day, and it isn’t an achievable life goal for most people. Recently, the news has been full of controversy about whether two men convicted of serious acts of violence should be allowed to compete again: Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner convicted of killing his girlfriend, and Ched Evans, convicted of rape in 2012 and now training again for Sheffield United FC in England, having served less than half his five-year sentence.

In the first case, the International Paralympic Committee decided that he cannot compete until his sentence elapses, even if he is released after ten months as is possible under South African law, although it is also possible that his sentence or conviction could be increased on appeal. During the period between his conviction and sentencing when two (male) members of the Committee suggested that he might compete again, Lisa Egan wrote this about how different oppressed groups don’t often support each other, even when they can both be murdered for existing. This past week there has been a huge amount of protest about the decision of Sheffield United to allow their former striker to train again; their shirt sponsor, a local logistics company, has threatened to remove its sponsorship if they sign him to play, and the Olympic runner Jessica Ennis-Hill has asked for her name to be taken off a stand at their ground if this happens (and received rape threats over Twitter for her stance). Evans still protests his innocence, and his supporters have harassed both the victim and her family, and anyone (particularly women) who speaks out against Evans’s return to the game. A group of feminists held a demonstration in Sheffield in which they chanted “kick rapists out of football” and “Sheffield loves football, not rapists!”. Last night the club (who are currently fifth in League One, or the third division, meaning they have a chance of promotion to the Championship if they keep up present form, so are doing well enough without Evans) decided not to re-sign Evans and (months too late) condemned the abuse issued to critics of Evans’s return by their fans.

Our sport culture is different from that in the USA; an incident like Steubenville could not happen here, because schools and colleges do not rely on sports for income and therefore sportsmen are not considered indispensible either for the school’s finances or its reputation. (Our legal system is also different; we have very few individually elected posts and no district attorneys, so decisions about prosecutions for serious crimes are not made locally.) The conviction of Ched Evans itself shows that being rich and famous is no bar to being held accountable (indeed, it may make it more likely as the papers will be more interested in a story about a rapist if he was a footballer than if he was a bricklayer). However, violence surrounding games is often commensurate with the inherent violence of the game. The entire football family of games is inherently violent; they may involve kicking balls with some force at other players, who are expected to deflect it with their heads or bodies if necessary; some of them feature tackles which involve throwing people to the ground which can cause serious injury (rugby in particular has a long record of spinal-cord injuries) and the rules of the games raise the pitch of excitement among spectators, even those watching on TV, such that a small setback for one’s team an provoke a disproportionate response. It is known, for example, that rates of domestic violence peak during major football tournaments, whether the team of the country in question wins or loses. One might excuse the inherent violence of the game by saying that professional players are consenting adults, but boys forced to play these games at school are not. Schools should not, in my opinion, foster or indulge football; they should tolerate it only inasmuch as it does not interfere with other children’s right to play or enjoy themselves in peace. There are better ways of keeping boys fit.

At school it was always the bigger boys (I cannot speak for girls here, as I was in genuinely mixed schools for very little of my school years) who were best at sport, especially football, and I made a half-hearted attempt to show an interest in the 1986 World Cup, but couldn’t disguise the fact that I hated having to actually play it, because I did not like having a ball kicked at me and avoided it instead of trying to deflect it. Worse, boys who were violent to other boys off the pitch (and sometimes even on it) found that was no bar to being praised for their sporting achievements. The result is that, in many of these places which are meant to be there to educate, children who are late developers physically who are weak at sport are at the bottom of the pile, regardless of how well they do in their school work. Sports in general do not shut out people for offensive behaviour away from the game, only on it, e.g. doping, cheating, match-fixing, arguing with a referee or violent fouls (and sometimes it takes years to prove, as with Lance Armstrong, during which time a cheat can shove many an honest sportsman out of the way). This means that someone with a well-known record for petty violence off the pitch, for getting into fights in pubs, for drink-driving, or for beating his wife or girlfriend, can still prosper and be respected as a sportsman (look at Paul Gascoigne or George Best). This is perhaps because we regard football as a low-class game, a way out of poverty for men from poor backgrounds who aren’t very bright, so we do not expect particularly high standards of behaviour from them.

I think we would have less violence surrounding sport and less of these controversies about players who are criminals if sport had an ethos that being a sportsman (or woman) entails being of good character. This does not mean they should go through people’s lifestyles with a fine-tooth comb, but it does mean that if someone has convictions for serious violent crimes, or crimes which are likely to affect their behaviour on the pitch (e.g. fraud), or if they have a long record of minor violent crimes, reckless use of guns where they are legal, or drink-driving, they should not be allowed to play, and teams should not be allowed to pay them either, much as any firm is entitled to fire a person who is convicted of a criminal offence, however minor. This should start in school; someone who is known to be a bully, for example, should not be picked to play for their school or house, no matter their sporting prowess. This is because sporting ability is in itself inconsequential, besides the money it can raise, mostly for the player and his team, but the same abilities can be used to harm others, and there is no virtue in being able to score goals or outrun a bunch of other people if you cannot control your temper, or you have no respect for other people. Such people are not fit to be held up as role models, especially for young men who are themselves in danger of falling into such behaviour. There should be no question that these men should be banned from competing, and not just after they have been released from prison or their sentences have ended, but potentially for life.

Image source: Wikipedia; author is Solipsist, released under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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