Morality and sport

by Chris Riordan

Morality in Sport is a very broad, interesting and controversial topic.

Fine Cotton. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Recent Euro soccer and tennis betting scandals. All palpably deceitful.

But it’s not always so clear.

The “gentleman’s game” has had its problems. Trevor Chappell was within the rules (and following orders) when he rolled McKechnie. Gilly was condemned for “walking”. Warnie and Junior were only giving information to John the Bookie, whereas Hansie betrayed the game.

Even in AFL there are dilemmas. Did Tomahawk really not see the ball graze the post? And surely SOS must have touched Longy’s conversion from his “long run” in 93 to have so demonstratively reacted.

But who can cast the first stone? Think of all those dodgy tennis line calls of our youths? What four year old hasn’t peeped playing “pin the tail on the donkey”? Who hasn’t eavesdropped a trivia answer?

Topically, I was talking with Ian Syson recently on the relative qualities of various sports.

Golf, I declared, was a game of high honour and with a code that required integrity and honesty. Though it is easy to cheat, it is utterly unacceptable. It is not “clever” nor “part of the game”. Learners might use the foot-wedge or take mulligans, but if you can’t add your score and declare an “airy” you’ll soon be derided, even despised, by fellow golfers. Pros can be forever tainted. Take Vijay Singh for example, whose glittering career is shadowed by tales of a scorecard altered to make a cut in a minor event in 1985. ”Cheat”, they point.

Soccer, by contrast, I argued, is inherently dishonest. Watch the ball go out of play. Both sides will claim the throw. The thrower will then poach yards. See how ground is routinely pinched at free-kicks, how ten yards is never observed by the wall and injury dramas are accepted as time-wasting measures. “Diving” is the most obvious blight on the game but defenders are far from innocent in their interpretations of the rules. Thierry Henry’s goal is just a natural extension of the ethos of the world game as, pathetically, is the accompanying outrage.

Sport is often presented as “character building”, capable of installing into a community some worthwhile values. Maybe, though, what it really does is reflect the society in which it flourishes.


  1. Just found this to further inflame discussion…

  2. Crio,

    I’m in London at the minute and the papers are still full of thought pieces re the ‘Hand of Henry’. Read The Times, Guardian , Independent etc.

    Read the Sun if you want to find out about Katie Price aka Jordan.

    Henry is copping a caning for consoling the ref at the end of the game and is copping it even more for ‘nearly’ retiring from international football. It will be interesting to see how he plays tonight against Inter Milan.

    Football can be the cruellest of games.

    The debate re technology has intensified.
    Watch this space.

  3. Pamela Sherpa says

    Crio- I agree with you re soccer. I’ve given it go- when I coached and managed son’s soccer team. After the Henry incident I thought – “Do we really want more of this?” I also dislike the sledging that goes on in cricket. Calling it gamesmanship is a cop out if you ask me. Sport is supposed to be a healthy pursuit and encouraging kids to play it fairly is essential in my view. When they see that cheating is acceptable at the highest level(of any sport) what hope have we got?

  4. Pamela,
    I actually like soccer, though I’m finding the A-League standard pretty variable and not making for good TV. And I love cricket.I’m even partial to the gallops so I’m not judging anyone!
    I guess I found it interesting how different sports have different cultures and the Henry hand came a few days after my conversation on this with Ian.

  5. Money, money, money- what we will and won’t do to get it.

    As you point out Crio, golf is about the only notable exception (but they get paid a lot regardless).

    But it’s more than just money. As you rightly point out, it’s in our nature and, therefore, in our society.

    Technology will be a poor answer to human nature, but we’ll pursue it because it seems an easier option than the root cause.

    We always like to look at the stars whilst we (sometimes) live in the gutters.

  6. A defender holding onto Chris Judd in a pack knows he is breaking the rules but hopes to get away with it. Some as Henry’s handball – “if the ref/ump doesn’t see it, its his mistake”

  7. Pamela Sherpa says

    Mark, ‘If the ump doesn’t see it it’s o.k to get away with it” is the crux of the problem. What has happened to knowing how to play fairly? Why is competing honestly too much to ask for?

    Money is the root of all evil they say – it shouldn’t mean that anything goes.

    Call me old fashioned and naive if you like, but sport isn’t sport unless it’s played fairly in my view.

    Crio- I find the different ‘cultures’ of sport interesting. The thing that put me off soccer was the negativity of the whole game. I reckon Aussie rules is a fabulous attacking game and hence supporters have a positive attitude to the action.

  8. No one would argue with you Pamela.

    When I coached junior cricketers I tried to espouse the same values.

    But when I think of all the teams I played in, if we only kept the saintly we wouldn’t have even been left with someone to toss the coin.

  9. Pamela
    I agree – I was obviously being too ironic! Yes the attitude to compete honestly has been lost in most sports with, as Crio has pointed out, golf being the honourable exception.
    In AFL, the rule makers are constantly trying to catch up with the rule benders – the 50m penalty came in because players were instructed by coaches to exploit the 25m penalty. And there are numerous other examples.
    Its interesting to see kids play self-organised sport. They generally are able to abide by the rules and self-umpire without too many problems. Its only when adults get involved does the whole culture start to change.
    Now that I mention this, I recall that Ultimate Frisbee is umpired by the players so it’s another sport to retain its integrity.

  10. Pamela Sherpa says

    Mark, what worries me about coaches and players at the top level exploiting the rules is that the example filters all the way down the system..Being competitive and breaking the rules often get confused. There is a difference in my opinion.I went to a brilliant lecture by David Parkin years ago when I was at college. He talked about the point you mention above -Kids are fine until adults interfere. I often wonder what would happen if we had an AFL game of footy without umps. What do you reckon would happen? Would it disintegrate into a riot or just be a good old fashioned honest contest. Keeping the rules simple and clear is the go I reckon.Too many creates too much confusion.

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