Money didn’t destroy sport. It liberated it

It was only the much maligned professionalisation of sport that allowed the working classes to get involved.

Is professionalism killing sport? That was the question posed by journalist and former cricketer, Ed Smith, on BBC1’s Inside Sport programme this week.

On the face of it, Smith’s question is a curious one. It’s a bit like asking: ‘Is the internet killing porn?’ Porn, as any fool knows, ain’t moribund and neither is sport. On the contrary, sport seems to be in the rudest of health. Positively blooming. Take football, for example. If our national game is on its deathbed it sure has a funny way of showing it. Thirty years ago, armchair football fans lived off scraps. Now there is saturation football coverage on TV. The commercialisation of the game, fuelled by the sale of broadcasting rights in the last two decades, shows no sign of abating. Top flight attendances, which had been in decline since the 1950s, are now back to where they were in the early 1960s. All the vital signs indicate that football is alive and, quite literally, kicking.

Smith, of course, isn’t saying that sport as a business is dying. His argument is that professionalism has taken the fun out of sport. Many of our top sports stars don’t enjoy what they do. ‘I didn’t enjoy playing for England’, former England cricketer Mark Ramprakash admitted on the programme. On Tiger Woods, Smith himself suggests, ‘The pursuit of control and perfection has strangled the joy out of his game and his life’. (And there was I thinking that being caught with his pants down was what did for Tiger). Not only is professional sport not fun but – and this is the most serious charge – Smith argues that over-coaching leads to underperformance. What sport needs, he argues in The Times, is a ‘splash of the amateur spirit’.

Ed Smith’s question is by no means new. It’s a variant of the question ‘Is money ruining football?’ and one that has been posed with monotonous regularity ever since the FA decided to take the Murdoch shilling in the 1990s. Football may be financially wealthy but, its critics argue, it has become spiritually impoverished. Football has sold its soul. It’s no longer the simple jumpers-for-goalposts game we used to know and love. Gone are the halcyon days when professional footballers caught the Number 23 tram to the match and you could leave your front door unlocked.

As I said, Smith’s thesis isn’t new. It’s very old and utterly conservative, as one might expect from an ex-public schoolboy. The argument between professionalism and amateurism has been raging since the nineteenth century. Sports like football, rugby and cricket were, in their modern form, invented by the English public schools and exported to the masses. Sport was seen by its Victorian founders as a moral instrument, a tool for inculcating discipline and forging character. The public schools fiercely resisted professionalism, arguing that the sporting ethos was incompatible with financial gain. What mattered was the taking part – sport for its own sake – not the vulgar win-at-all-costs mentality of professionalism. When the FA legalised professionalism in 1885, the toffs largely abandoned the sport.

Is football poorer for becoming a professional sport? If the game had remained amateur it would have been an elitist sport. Amateurism is a privilege only afforded to the wealthy. Invariably only the ‘leisured classes’ would have had the means to make a career of playing football. Professionalism was and still remains the only way that working-class people can pursue and excel at elite level football. If it wasn’t for professionalism we wouldn’t have had Pele or Maradona – world-class players from poor countries.

Football is not only a more democratic game because it is professional; it is also a better game. The competition to succeed as a professional is so much fiercer in football than in elite sports like rowing or sailing, which can only be enjoyed by an affluent elite. It is inevitable, I’d suggest, that standards are higher in professional sport. It’s no accident that amateurism has, as Smith acknowledged on Inside Sport, ‘become a byword for sloppiness and incompetence’. Professional sportsmen are so much more, well, professional.

Smith, to be fair, isn’t arguing for professionalism to be abolished. His argument is a bit more nuanced. He wants a correction against ‘over-professionalism’. He argues that over-coaching has a detrimental effect on performance. On the face of it, he seems to have a point. If we compare the fearless young Wayne Rooney who destroyed Croatia at Euro 2004 with the jaded 2010 version who was labouring in South Africa, it does appear that something had been lost. Had the freedom to express himself been coached out of him? Had the fear of losing paralysed him? I’ve no quarrel with the argument that elite sports stars should enjoy what they do. But I don’t see that as incompatible with professionalism. If Rooney was performing well then I’ve no doubt he would have been enjoying himself. If Mark Ramprakash hadn’t choked whenever he played for England, maybe he would have been able to express himself.

If footballers are too frightened to express themselves or turn on the style I don’t think the problem lies with professionalism. If players can’t relax it’s the coaches who aren’t doing their jobs properly. One of the secrets of Brian Clough’s remarkable success was the way he prepared his players for the big games. As veteran football writer Brian Glanville explained: ‘He had the gift of suddenly relaxing the pressure on his men before an important game, allowing them to enjoy a few drinks, even once arranging a barbecue on a Portuguese beach.’

So that’s what’s missing. It’s not a ‘splash of the amateur spirit’ that our underperforming footballers need; it’s a Cloughie-style pep talk and a couple of beers.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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