‘Fair play’ is overrated

Teaching children the values of good sportsmanship is a mistake: sport requires ruthlessness.

Duleep Allirajah

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British schools have suffered from chronic mission creep in recent years. Reading, writing and ’rithmetic – that’s what schools ought to be about, or so you might have thought. Not anymore. These days kids get lessons in all sorts of fashionably worthy causes: healthy eating, cancer prevention, eco-awareness, good citizenship. And to this interminable list we can now add classes in good sportsmanship.

This week, the Cricket Foundation and the MCC have teamed up to launch the Spirit of Cricket campaign. Coaches will visit 3,000 schools and deliver lessons in good sporting conduct to 250,000 children. The key messages of the campaign are:

  • the need to respect team mates and respect the opposition;
  • the importance of listening to the captain and not arguing with the officials;
  • the value of shaking hands at the end of the game.

The programme ‘uses cricket to teach key life skills and values like how to win and lose honourably’, explained Wasim Khan, director of operations and development at the Cricket Foundation. ‘The new partnership with MCC will reinforce in schools the message of playing sport in the right spirit. We hope it will help to develop the next generation of good sports.’ (1)

So why, you might ask, do our children need lessons in fair play? Well, apparently we’re becoming a nation of cheats. According to a poll published this week by the Cricket Foundation, more than half of children say they regularly see cheating on the sports field. The survey found evidence that diving, tripping, kicking, name-calling, even pulling at one another’s hair are rife in our schools.

Okay, let’s just pause here for a second. Diving, tripping, kicking, name-calling, and hair-pulling? Wasn’t it ever thus? That’s what children do. Always have done. Admittedly, my school days are an increasingly distant memory, but as I recall, the playground was a nasty, brutish Hobbesian free-for-all.

I’m not convinced that today’s kids are more inclined than we were to employ the dark arts of gamesmanship. It’s a rare thing to see kids playing cricket at all these days, so I’ve no idea whether sledging or ball tampering is on the increase. When I see youngsters play football in our local park they seem to be more interested in copying Cristiano Ronaldo’s stepovers than his injury-feigning theatrics.

The Cricket Foundation’s campaign is not the only one aimed at promoting better conduct in sport. The Football Association (FA) recently launched its own Respect campaign to promote better standards of behaviour in grassroots football (2). One of the biggest culprits targeted by the Respect campaign is the pushy parent who coaches from the touchline, berates his kids, and badmouths referees.

One of the endemic problems with British sporting culture is the disproportionate importance we attach to fair play. Now, I’m not saying that flouting the rules should be celebrated or actively encouraged. But nor should we fetishise sportsmanship. If we bend or break the rules in sport it doesn’t mean that the moral fabric of society will start to unravel as a consequence.

The Victorians believed that sport was a vehicle for inculcating civilised values; an instrument for making a good society. Today, those beliefs are recast in campaigns such as Respect and Spirit of Cricket as well as in the contemporary argument that footballers should act as role models for children; bad behaviour on the field on a Saturday, it is claimed, is copied in the playground on the Monday. Teaching unions, for example, have demanded that football highlights should be broadcast after the 9pm watershed to protect our children from the unedifying spectacle of Wayne Rooney effing and blinding at the referee.

Given the amount of time and effort we are investing in promoting good sportsmanship, anyone would have thought that Britain was a nation of ruthless, ultra-competitive win-at-all-costs Roy Keane clones. Not true, is it? Winning at all costs is not really hardwired into the British sporting psyche. We find it a bit distasteful. Choking, bottling and losing penalty shoot-outs are more our style. Now I’ve no problem with teaching children how to lose, how to take defeat on the chin. It’s part and parcel of instilling a winning mentality. If a youngster doesn’t learn how to cope with losing, he or she will never become a winner. But while helping to equip children with the mental resilience to withstand defeat is one thing, lectures on the etiquette of good sporting conduct are not only unnecessary but arguably counterproductive.

With the 2009 Ashes series nearly upon us, English cricket is at a particularly low ebb. The national team has underperformed ever since the euphoric Ashes victory in 2005. This year saw defeat to the West Indies in the test series, the sacking of coach Peter Moores and captain Kevin Pietersen, and the team slipping to sixth in the ICC test rankings. If you look at the parlous state of English cricket, it’s painfully evident that what we need is winners. Lots of them. Let a thousand Kevin Pietersens bloom. That should be our slogan. The last thing we need is a generation of good losers who are too polite to sledge the Aussies.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) MCC Spirit of Cricket launches in Chance to Shine schools

(2) See Giving competitive dads the red card, by Duleep Allirajah

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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