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Only A Game

Foul Play: What’s Wrong with Sport, by Joe Humphreys, Icon Books, 208 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1840468908

In February 1980 England played Wales at Twickenham in the Five Nations (as it then was) Championship. Wales went into the match chasing a fifth consecutive Grand Slam, while England lined up facing the prospect of running up their longest losing sequence against Wales since suffering five defeats on the bounce between 1899 and 1903. Wales scored two tries but – a tediously familiar story this – the England fullback Dusty Hare kicked three penalties (the third one in the final minute of game) and England won 9-8, going on to win their first Grand Slam in twenty-three years.

The game itself, as the scoreline suggests, was not a particularly distinguished one, or rather it was distinguished for the wrong reasons. The Rugby Union internationals of that era were less refined and law-abiding affairs than those of our highly scrutinised and endlessly replayed professional era; to use a period euphemism (given currency, I believe, by BBC commentator Bill McClaren) they were “not for the faint-hearted”. (Joe Humphreys cites former Irish international and Lions scrum-half John Robbie’s view that rugby today “is cleaner than it has ever been by a factor of about a million”.)

But even by the more robust standards of its time the 1980 England-Wales game was a bit of a shocker. There had been a good deal of needle in the run-up and the game kicked off in a rancid atmosphere. Ferocious opening play by both packs culminated in Irish referee David Burnett sending off Welsh loose forward Paul Ringer, leaving Wales to play for over an hour with 14 men. What followed wasn’t pretty and could only ever have had one result, although Wales, outnumbered and outgunned but not always outfought, were only finally battered into submission in the last minute.

The Welsh supporters massed on the terraces of the old North Stand gibbered and capered and ululated throughout the match while a suited and bespectacled Englishman seated above them watched silently and impassively, the very type of the stiff upper lip Brit. When late in the game Elgan Rees (these days better known in Ireland as Simon Easterby’s father-in-law) scored a try that looked to have given Wales an improbable victory the gibbering, capering and ululating on the terraces rose to a crescendo. The Englishman remained seated, silent and apparently unmoved until the eightieth minute, when Hare kicked the penalty that gave England the game – then he rose from his seat, carefully removed his glasses and leaned over the terrace below (holding his glasses in one hand – a slightly fussy, almost dainty action) and, in a finely modulated RP accent, loudly and clearly enjoined the stilled mass of Welsh fans thus: “SING NOW YOU BASTARDS, SING NOW.”

Joe Humphreys does not mention the 1980 England-Wales game in Foul Play, which is a pity as it would have provided him with an excellent example of most of what he sees as being wrong with sport. Not that he lacks such examples. Sport, Humphreys argues, “has an uncanny ability to make us lose perspective” and so to distort our sense of what is important and what is not, and even of right and wrong. It is not beneficial or even harmless. Indulgence in sport, as either participant or spectator, he warns, will leave you unhappy (sporting highs, like those of drugs, are artificial paradises), poorer (intellectually and financially), is practically guaranteed to put you in touch with your inner gurrier and may well land you in the nearest accident and emergency unit or the dock. Foul Play presents a wide-ranging, if perhaps not always entirely consistent and coherent, case against sport. For the most part Humphreys goes about his work with relish and to good effect and lands some telling blows. He is not, of course, always right (which is to say that I don’t always agree with him) and he occasionally strays offside or plays and misses and there is the odd high or late tackle. However, as an old offender in these respects I am inclined to be indulgent and am prepared to overlook the bumping as long as there is not too much boring.

“Lying, either to oneself or else to others,” Humphreys asserts “has become ingrained in the behaviour of sporting folks – be they journalists, administrators, athletes, promoters or fans.” This culture of lying, and particularly what he terms the “meta-lies” (the big lies – or one could call them myths – that underpin and structure sport), are his primary target. Perhaps the first and biggest of these “meta-lies” is that sport is good for you: good for you physically, mentally, morally (even spiritually). Humphreys makes a convincing case that sport fails on all these counts.

Exercise, non-competitive exercise, is beneficial but sport is not, indeed it can be positively harmful and even fatal. This is obvious in the case of extreme (or “X-treme”) sports such as buttboarding, “which involves propelling oneself, while lying flat on a skateboard, down steep hills that are populated by moving motor cars and other such hazards” at speeds of more than 60 miles per hour (the world record stands at 65.24 mph), or parkour, in which the idea seems to be to move from point A to point B in a straight line regardless of such obstacles as high buildings or deep holes. There is, of course, the counterargument that X-treme sports reduce the number of X-treme sportistas in the gene pool and so are beneficial to the species, however unfortunate their impact on individuals. I would also say that buttboarding, although it has world records and an international association (there may for all I know even be buttboarding “blazers”), is not a sport. It belongs, as do synchronised swimming and ice-dancing, to a class of activities that requires high levels of fitness, strength, coordination, courage and skill (and no doubt gives great pleasure to millions of performers and spectators) but are not sports. What one would call them, in polite company at any rate, I do not know, but they are not sports. Yes, I do realise that synchronised swimming and ice-dancing are classified as Olympic sports. However, it would be difficult to imagine something that did not have the potential be classified as an Olympic sport.

For Humphreys, however, buttboarding in terms of risk is not an anomaly or aberration. The risks involved in sport range from sudden and violent death to shin splints, tennis elbow and jogger’s nipple, and the supposed benefits to health are seldom commensurate with them. All sports involve a degree of risk and, as Humphreys observes, “sports fans are poor risk assessors”. In some sports (for example boxing, motor racing, national hunt racing) the risk is high profile and, one might say, budgeted for, but serious risk is by no means confined to these or to adult or professional sports. Research carried out in South Africa “found that boys who participated in schools rugby suffered intellectually, mainly – it was postulated – as a result of repeated concussions”. (Factor in the advent of Red Bull and Bacardi Breezers and all that follows from that and there may well be a case for reclassifying schools rugby as an X-treme sport). In the United States “close to 29,000 girls and 21,000 boys in … high school soccer teams suffer concussion each year”, while cheerleading is “the most dangerous sport for women … responsible for a higher number of serious injuries, including paralysis, than any other sport”. Add to this the injuries sustained in amateur and “fun” events (pub football, beer-side rugby, sponsored runs, skiing holidays etc) and the knock-on effect of the river of alcohol that flows through or alongside many sporting occasions and it becomes impossible to maintain that sport makes us individually or collectively healthier.

The Latin tag mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a health body) is culled from Juvenal’s Satire X. Juvenal’s point, if I understand him correctly, was that we should not make exorbitant demands in our prayers, that a healthy mind and a healthy body are blessings enough and we should not ask for more. Wrenched from its context and pressed into service as an educational maxim by English public schools in the nineteenth century, the tag came to mean that in some mysterious way a healthy mind was predicated on a healthy body. In that context mens sana in corpore sano was probably a fancy way of saying – or more to the point not saying – that if boys spent long enough each day playing rugby or cricket they would be too knackered to get up to those things that they shouldn’t get up to after lights out. By all accounts it didn’t work. Nonetheless, the tag came to be used to assert a larger claim: that sport was an essential part of the moral education of the young. The lessons learned on the cricket field or the rugby pitch (“play hard but fair”, “take your knocks and don’t complain” etc) are also lessons for life. In a once popular and highly influential poem by Sir Henry Newbolt, an idealised version of the public school games ethos (“Play up, Play up! And play the game!”) is hymned as the vitae lampada (the light or torch of life).

Humphreys terms this the “muscular Christian” approach to sport and will have none of it. For him the playing fields of Eton and other public schools were the training grounds on which future empire builders acquired the arts of bullying, expropriation and exploitation. There is actually a good deal of common ground between Humphreys and George Orwell on the one hand and Newbolt and the muscular Christian school on the other – they differ on the nature and value of the imperial enterprise rather than on sport’s relation to it. Quoting Orwell, Humphreys reformulates the public school ethos:

Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people – in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.

A looser construction of the doctrine of mens sana in corpore sano that detaches it from the ideology of English elite education while continuing to maintain the moral efficacy of sport is given equally short shrift in Foul Play. Sport, for Humphreys, brings out not the best but the worst in people, and it does so not because of contingent or contextual factors or because it is in some way misused but because of its essential nature. Research by two American psychologists, Brenda Jo Bredemeier and David L Shields, concluded that “participation in competitive sport ‘created lower level moral reasoning in both sport and life’”. This happens because those who engage in sport, at almost every level, are, according to sociologist Jay Coakley, “systematically encouraged to over-conform to a unique set of norms embodied in what might be called a ‘sport ethic’”. Actually these norms turn out not to be so unique – they are all but identical to the public school ethos as Orwell describes it. Thus sport can, at the very least, be seen as encouraging and condoning behaviour that would normally be considered unacceptable or even criminal. PG Wodehouse’s description of a rugby match exaggerates, but not by much: “each side is allowed to … do things to its fellow-man which, if done elsewhere, would result in fourteen days without the option, coupled with some strong remarks from the Bench”.

Given that the “sport ethic” subordinates everything to winning it is unsurprising that sport frequently transgresses its own laws and rules and so further undermines its claims to be a moral beacon to the world. Cheating is endemic and hypocrisy rife (and again it must be stressed that, for Humphreys, this is to be understood as something that arises from the very nature of competitive sport and not from the derelictions of individual athletes). This is clear if we consider the issue of drugs and drug abuse in sport. Foul Play gives a useful account of this matter in general and is particularly good on Ben Johnson (the Canadian sprinter who won a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics and was subsequently disqualified for drug abuse).

Administrators, athletes and journalists all profess themselves utterly opposed to, indeed horrified by, drug abuse in sport. I am sure that most of them are sincere in this, but at the same time they all know that the problem is very widespread indeed and that catching and punishing high profile offenders such as Johnson doesn’t begin to address it. This is an ethical and scientific, or pharmaceutical, grey area. Doping is no longer a matter of introducing some sort of speed or other stimulant (what an old racegoer I used to know referred to as “gee-up mixture”) into the body of the human or equine athlete. These days the distinction between a legal dietary supplement and an illegal drug is often invisible to the eye of the non-specialist. I suspect that for most “drugs cheats” their “sin” was something that happened to them rather than something they deliberately committed (this certainly seems to have been the case with Ben Johnson).

If further evidence were needed of the bankruptcy of sport’s claims to any sort of moral authority then it is provided by the on and off the field behaviour of the players and the reaction of the media and the fans to it. Traditional “sporting” behaviour (in cricket a batsman walking when he knows he is out or bowlers only making genuine appeals or footballers showing respect for the referee’s decisions) is now so rare as to be newsworthy in its own right. When the press do censure such things as showing dissent to the referee it is more often on the grounds that such behaviour is injudicious rather than that it is improper. At the same time the British and Irish press can get up an impressive head of moral indignation over “diving” (when the diver is Italian or Portuguese) or the suspect bowling actions of Pakistani or Sri Lankan cricketers. The off-the-field antics of sportsmen and women are also given wide coverage. However, although tabloid accounts of footballers’ Christmas parties, the love lives of teenage tennis divas and the drunken follies of England cricketers are usually garnished with a few sprigs of ersatz outrage they do not, I think, contribute very much to our understanding of sport as a moral force.

Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, was much taken with ideals of “muscular Christianity” and believed that sport should play an important part in the education of the young (some say he was converted to this view by reading a French translation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays). The International Olympic Movement was intended to embody these ideals and to foster harmony and understanding between nations. Very few would say that it has succeeded. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 (of which Humphreys offers an excellent brief account) has become synonymous with the appropriation of sport for political ends but all Olympic Games have been to a greater or lesser extent politicised (and Beijing 2008 will certainly not be an exception). Many would say that it is George Orwell rather than Baron de Coubertin who has best captured the spirit of modern international sport:

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will ‘lose face.’

Humphreys does not quote this passage (possibly because it has become something of a cliché) but he would, I think, endorse it. He does quote with approval Orwell’s dictum that “sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will” and demonstrates that it is true both internationally and within specific sporting communities and cultures. Sport does not bring people together; it divides them. Sometimes sporting rivalries correspond to, and further vex, existing conflicts and divisions (what Orwell describes as “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige” pervades sport). This is most obvious in international matches and competitions but is also apparent in many domestic rivalries (notably that of Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow). The rivalries between Everton and Liverpool and between Manchester United and Manchester City also have roots in religious differences (the extent to which sectarianism is still a factor in those cases is matter of dispute) but many, including some of the most intense, sporting rivalries are purely sporting. Sport also divides people in terms of class, gender, ethnicity. Schoolboys of my generation in England who passed the 11+ and went to a “rugby school” were taught that rugby was a hooligans’ game for gentlemen and soccer a gentlemen’s game for hooligans (with the addition in the North West that rugby league was a hooligans’ game for hooligans). Such overt snobbery is difficult to get away with these days, but while few sports clubs or associations actually hang out a “no riff-raff” sign there are still strategies of exclusion to ensure that outsiders remain outside.

I am generally a great admirer of George Orwell, and so very clearly is Humphreys, but he is not, in my view, a particularly happy choice for the role of expert witness for the prosecution in the case against sport. His description of “serious sport” as “war minus the shooting” has achieved a wide currency, but the essay from which it is taken, “The Sporting Spirit”, is not one of his best. Orwell neither liked nor understood sport, viewing it through a compound of the public school code of “play the game” (he disapproved of cheering and booing at sporting events) and vulgar Marxism (sport as the “opium of the people”). No doubt as a consequence of this he tended to write dismissively of it, and one of the great strength of Orwell’s writing on popular culture is that he can be critical of such things as boys’ papers and Donald McGill postcards without being dismissive.

Humphreys tells that he has “invested a large part of [his] life in sport”:

I’ve played – with enthusiasm rarely matching skill – games from cricket to golf, and football to squash. I’ve spent some of my formative years in dimly-lit snooker halls, and some of my happiest ones on a river rowing for my college team …

There scarcely seems to be an event of significance in my life that wasn’t somehow related to sport. The first time I left home for any time was for a three-day tennis tournament in the west of Ireland. It was at the same event that I first kissed a girl.

My first holiday with a girlfriend was a camping trip to the Cheltenham Festival in the Cotswolds.

I particularly like the bit about the camping holiday in Cheltenham. However, Foul Play is not a straightforward autobiography or a memoir of the sporting life but a narrative of confession and conversion. Joe Humphreys has seen the error of his ways and has come to realise that sport is in fact “foul play”:

I mean ‘foul play’ here in a very specific sense – as tarnished, or corrupted, play. Such play is far removed from the innocent play of children. It has become detached from the creative play of artists – musical, literary, athletic, or otherwise. And it stands firmly opposed to the questioning, Socratic play of life’s dabblers, not to mention the sort of play Einstein had in mind when he said ‘play is the highest form of research.’

This does not, however, mean that Humphreys is about to hang up his boots, consign his tennis racket to the closet, give his West Ham shirt to the Oxfam shop and bid adieu to Paddy Power. Indeed, far from putting away the things of a child he is planning to revert to them in a big way by embracing play: “I have a dream that one day sport will capture the best aspects of play.” Play is purified and redeemed sport, and if sport can be converted, or reconverted, to play (and this can be done, if I understand Humphreys correctly, by taking sport less seriously) then all will be well: “sport will return to its rightful place at the end of the news … athletes will blush if they win and shrug if they lose, and anyone who uses the word ‘tragedy’ in relation to a sporting contest will be roundly laughed out of it”. The good effects of converting sport to play do not stop at the touch line or boundary but extend far beyond the limits of sport itself. Foul Play ends with a vision of the millennium of play:

I have a dream that one day people will rise from their couches and shed their replica football shirts as though they were school blazers on graduation day. I dream that they will then switch off their television sets, and decide – on reflection – against getting drunk on a Sunday afternoon. I dream that they will collectively proclaim, with heartfelt determination: ‘Actually, the final scores from Wentworth can wait.’ And when it happens, we can join hands – men and women, religious believers and securalists, Arsenal supporters and regular people – and sing in unison: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! 

Shoot me now. Attempting to look past that initial reaction to this vision of the earthly paradise, I do have more cogent objections to it. Once you are no longer a child there is no possibility of going back and becoming a child again – the choice is between being an adult and being childish. Thus all attempts to recover “the innocent play of children” (if there is such a thing) are doomed from the outset. Bookmakers don’t quote odds on school playground hop-scotch (though I suppose they might in the bigger branches if you asked at the counter) but children do take their games seriously (sometimes very seriously indeed). It also seems to me that Humphreys takes play rather seriously and invests it with many of the traditional attributes of sport (including some of the “meta-lies”). It is not sport that captures the best aspects of play, but play that captures the best and worst aspects of sport. Play becomes the “new sport”, promising a modish version of mens sana in corpore sano with a polymorphous soft-core religiosity replacing the old muscular Christianity. If the distinction between sport and play is based on how seriously each is taken then it will become difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish them in practice, and sport and play are unstable as categories and semantically. Are sport and play here ontological or functional categories? It’s probably better to pull up before that fence.

I liked Foul Play, I enjoyed reading it, agreed with some of it and found most of it thought-provoking, but I won’t be joining Joe Humphreys in his New Age playground. I suppose we’d all like to play it high, wide and handsome (as the Australians say but don’t always do) but sometimes you have to play the percentages – win your own ball, kick your touches and make your tackles. That’s sport (it may even be life but let’s not go there). It may not promote sobriety on the Sabbath and communal singing but it gets me out of the scratcher and keeps me out of (or delays my entry into) the boozer, and I am prepared to follow Juvenal’s advice and be moderate in what I ask of my gods. In any case, on the subject of communal singing, I am in agreement with the gentleman in the North Stand at Twickenham.

No offence, but I’ll stick with the sporting devil I know.

Stephen Wilson, who studied at the University of Ulster and Trinity College Dublin, teaches American literature at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He is currently working on a book on Ezra Pound and American history.



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