In the escalating battle for our attention, and the chance to caress our credit cards, sports broadcasting has become a hard-fought battleground. In nine days Ireland and France open the Six Nations in Paris, but for the first time since a try was worth just three points, RTÉ will not be our television conduit to Stade de France.
TV3 has paid a reported €4.25m a year for the games, putting the series well beyond the reach of RTÉ. To justify this investment, and the spectacular rewards some sportspeople feel entitled to, the spectacle must become ever more dogged, ever more gladiatorial. Values that once made sports a platform for our better instincts are now, almost universally, adventures in cynicism. Where once sportsmanship helped shape better people and enhance society, now professional sports are a threat and push the idea of honesty even further from the public square.
Of the 200 or so players who will be involved , a number will weigh something north of 127kg — 20 stone in old money. It would be wonderful to imagine that this bulk was, in every case, achieved naturally, but it would also be stupid. This is not just an issue for international rugby. Unfortunately, the IRFU and Munster gave, whether they like it or not, tacit approval to doping when they signed South African drug cheat Gerbrandt Grobler.
Rugby is not the only sport to champion one set of values but tolerate another. Just this week, the GAA’s outgoing director general Páraic Duffy expressed frustration that the organisation has not challenged payments to team managers.
Raising that issue may seem trivial six months before the soccer World Cup opens in Russia — an event that symbolises corruption in sport. Even by the standards of today’s sport, even by the non-standards of cycling that venerated Lance Armstrong for so long, the World Cup already smells rancid.
In a little over two weeks, the Winter Olympics will open in Pyeongchang and there will be some magnificent performances but every single one, every twist and pirouette on snow or ice, will, tragically, fall under a cloud of suspicion.
No matter how spectacular a performer the Olympics might throw up, it is unlikely that competitor would be awarded gold should they test positive for cocaine three times during the games. Yet, that is the situation in Irish greyhound racing where Clonbrien Hero, the Irish Laurels winner, tested positive for cocaine on three occasions. Other dogs tested positive for other drugs during the same period. The champion dog was suspended but has returned to racing after being tested and cleared twice. Amazingly, this incredibly tolerant, lax sport/industry gets about €16m a year from taxpayer funds.
It is difficult to see how these issues might be resolved. There is too much money involved. However, the same was said of social media, but today more and more people are reclaiming their lives by curtailing online social activity. Some sports, especially soccer, are so tarnished that once loyal fans turn away, rejecting the consequences of the huge investments made to get their attention. It is still possible, just, to hope that older, more noble values might in time prevail. And they must, because this is about much more than sport.