First we had the Football Association’s “Respect” programme. Now the MCC have launched their “Spirit of Cricket” campaign. The Rugby Football Union has its own “Fair Play and Respect” Guidelines. Rugby League has its own “Fair Play Index”. FIFA’s “Fair Play” concept has been on the go since 1986 when it was set up in response to the infamous “Hand of God”.
When you have so many organisations, each with their own charter, whether it’s called “Fair Play”, “Respect”, “Spirit” or any other name you care to give it, you’re forced to question why attitudes to sportsmanship have changed so much for the worse. Or even if they have at all.
Usually, perceived bad behaviour on the field, especially when children are involved, focusses on the top-down belief that the attitudes of sports stars as shown on television are negatively influencing grass-roots participants.
Interestingly, spectators of professional sport don’t seem to share that belief. UK Sport (a government body) found that 89% of Rugby Union fans, and 88% of Rugby League followers said their players acted in fair and sporting way. In fact, 59% of Rugby League fans questioned thought players attitudes have actually improved in the last ten years. And fans of both rugby codes overwhelmingly agreed that players are good role models for children. Even the first phase of this survey found that 80% of spectators said there was a play-fair approach by sportsmen in football, cricket, tennis and golf. Winfair88
I’ve always found the argument that televised sport is somehow an incitement to bad behaviour in itself spurious. If players are allowed to get away with “unacceptable” behaviour this is the fault of rule enforcement. Dangerous tackles, dissent and other unsportsmanlike activities should be stopped by the referee. If the referee doesn’t see an incident, all the major sports now refer televised indiscretions to disciplinary panels. There’s surely no doubting the message that unfair play is punished and not rewarded. Even outright cheating, whether it be the ludicrously-named “simulation” in football or something else, is always derided by commentators and pundits.
On the other hand we’re regularly presented on television with just the sportsmanlike images the authorities wish to promote. Hand shakes all round before games, hugs and embraces afterwards. To the best of my knowledge the latter has never been extended towards the referee but who knows what the future holds?
There’s more evidence that fair play is understood within the boundaries of what the sport’s own governing body deems acceptable. According to the UK Sport poll, 37% of spectators said it is acceptable to stamp on someone who is deliberately preventing the release of the ball, whilst 18% said that, in certain situations, punching is an acceptable part of the game. You wouldn’t dream of applying these standards to say, football or basketball.
I’m a bit long in the tooth and my playing days are well behind me. But when I played there were always cheats and villains; the reckless and the feckless.
I’m not decrying these campaigns but I do wonder how necessary they are. Those of us interested in sport have grown up with a moral sporting code given to us by parents, teachers and coaches amongst others. We all pass that on to the next generation. Most people prefer to win fair. I don’t think so much has changed.