Friday, 21 October 2011

Go on, be a good sport...

There are debates about injustice, and there are debates about injustice in sport.

While few would question that legal debates in the Supreme Court are of greater significance to the lot of mankind than the rulings of the IRB or any other sporting body, which ones tend to linger longer in the collective psyche?

It is a peculiar fact that sporting controversy often outlives political and social controversy. That is testament to the way in which sport can seize – some might say possess – the mind.

The question of whether Sam Warburton should have been red-carded and banned for his tackle on Vincent Clerc might not be of greater legal significance than whether travellers should be Taser-ed while being evicted from a farm, but I know which one I'll recall with greater vivacity in a decade or two's time.

Similarly, there were all manner of civil rights issues being thrashed out in the mid-1960s. But when I say 'England, 1966' to you, what do you think? Moreover, ask a German about whether the ball crossed the English line after hitting the crossbar and you will receive chapter and verse. And then some.

It is a truism that sporting events can escalate into diplomatic incidents. The other side of the coin is that sporting events can sometimes defuse political problems. What, after all, is the Olympics if not a quasi-utopian portrayal of a world at peace with itself, however fleetingly?

The power of sport is that we can rehearse to ourselves all sorts of emotions and virtues. Phrases like "Gascoigne redeemed himself..." or "Pietersen atoned for his dropped catch..." or "England fans forgave Robson..." come all too easy to the fan and the journalist, because in the safe world of bat and ball we can experience mock-dramas that prepare us for the proper emotional demands of real life.

The danger of sport is that it can also poison the well of emotional response. It's now a commonplace to hear of parents behaving like apes on the touchlines of under-10 football matches, baying at the ref in a way that should land them before the Bench. That's because they take their lead from peevish footballers and managers whose stock response is rage.

All notion of stoicism, deference and emotional restraint is long dead in football. Lest I be accused of being anti- football, it came close to dying on the golf course too when the American Ryder Cup team trampled over Jose Maria Olazabal's line in 1999.

And that, tortuously, brings me back to captain Warburton. Although obviously devastated at the sending off that cost his country a place in a World Cup final, there were no tantrums or histrionics for the cameras. And didn't you find that just a little reassuring?

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