MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Michael Moynihan column: Not every sports star is role model material

Anto Finnegan leaves the field  with his daughter Ava after Ulster Allstars XV played Dublin 2013 in the #GameForAnto at Ravenhill. Picture: Oliver McVeigh

The Ched Evans controversy in Britain has provided plenty of talking points in the last couple of weeks.

If you’ve missed out on the story, Evans is the Welsh soccer international who served two and a half years of a five-year stretch for rape.

On his release, Sheffield United agreed to a Professional Footballers Association request to allow him to train with them, and the response has been negative, to put it mildly.

Trustees of the club have resigned, Olympic star Jessica Ennis-HIll has asked for her name to be removed from a stand at the club grounds, the British Deputy Prime Minister has weighed in against Evans joining Sheffield United, and so on.

Other related issues have spun out from the central narrative.

With grim 21st-century inevitability, Ennis-Hill was in turn threatened with rape by Twitter knuckle-draggers since speaking out against Evans’s association with Sheffield United.

Then there’s Evans’s co-accused, Clayton McDonald, who was found innocent in court but feels he’s being punished by association, according to an interview he gave to the tabloids, as he is now playing non-league football and will have to get a second job to supplement his wages. This certainly appears to be one of the less urgent aspects of this matter.

There are wider contexts, though. Oddly enough, it was Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, who made a salient point about the Evans case.

“I am an employer. I have 100 in my organisation and I would not have someone who served time for rape. But that is easy for me to say,” he said in a BBC interview.

“On the other hand, I do believe in the rehabilitation of offenders. You might say that is hypocritical but clearly offenders do have to come back to work. But I think it would be very difficult to have that employee in our organisation.”

Scudamore synthesised two strands of thought neatly there: the argument that someone who goes to prison and serves their time is entitled to a second chance, and the less theoretical question that arises as a result of that argument. As in, who would want to work with such a person? Something else that caught my attention in the last week was a line from Jessica Ennis-Hill.

“I believe being a role model to young people is a huge honour,” she said. “And those in positions of influence in communities should respect the role they play in young people’s lives and set a good example.”

I think Ennis-Hill is on the wrong track here: while she clearly takes her position as a role model seriously, the same isn’t true of every sports person. If you doubt that, think of your least favourite sports star and imagine that person lecturing a class of kids on how to behave. But the basic point is this: we shouldn’t expect our sports people to be powerful forces for good in the community. Their expertise is in sport — in their reflexes, their hand-eye co-ordination, their stamina, their competitive attitude.

Not in their moral compasses.

Everyone has their pet example from their own favourite sports, of people who combine the outlook of St Francis with the athleticism of Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix. The thing is, it’s only the latter part of that equation that’s necessary. The first part isn’t.

As we never tire of quoting, the late Stephen Jay Gould made that case eloquently in one of his essays — notionally about evolutionary biology, they ranged far wider — when discussing athletic prowess: he made a strong case for accepting an athlete’s fitness to be a role model as a lucky bonus, not a basic requirement.

‘The Canon’ had some track record

Saturday was a little colder and a little darker on Leeside with news filtering out about the death of Archdeacon Michael O’Brien.

There can hardly have been an ecclesiastical promotion less acknowledged in the history of the Catholic Church, though, as he was remembered and referred to everywhere as ‘The Canon’.

His legacy as a hurling coach was impressive, and perhaps holds a lesson for future intercounty coaches, tracing a path from colleges through minor and universities to senior intercounty success.

Some track record: he won All-Irelands with Farranferris, All-Irelands with minor teams and All-Irelands with the Cork seniors in 1984 and 1990. The last victory in that sequence was the first leg of the Double which Cork won that year.

Maybe it was at an intermediate level of competition that O’Brien really established himself, though. With him in charge University College Cork ruled third level hurling, collecting 10 Fitzgibbon Cup titles in 11 years.

Some years ago when this writer was finishing a book about the GAA in Cork it was significant O’Brien’s powers of motivation were a recurring theme. Those with long memories may remember the “donkeys don’t win derbies” line used by Tipperary manager Michael ‘Babs’ Keating ahead of the 1990 Munster final, a line generally felt to have been used by O’Brien to good effect in the Leeside dressing-room.

Not at all, said one player, stressing the Canon was far too subtle for that.

Mind you, he was laughing when he said so.

If playing the ghost haunts you, why not write a different tale?

A pal got in touch during the week, referring to a recent rash of pieces by ghost writers about the negative side of helping a sports person to write their life story.

If you missed them, they dealt with the lack of recognition, lack of fulfilment and lack of money involved in such enterprises (to cannibalise an old Woody Allen, those were the comedies).

Each to their own, of course. Your hell on earth is my paradise, and vice versa.

My mate made an incontrovertible point, though: if ghosting some athlete’s autobiography is such hell on earth, why not just say no and go off to write the book you always wanted to write instead?

Wading into a tongue-twister away from the sporting arena

For an entry under Nobody Asked Me, But... I have to revisit last week’s humiliation for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

A quick refresher: Google Translate was used to translate English into Irish on a Government website promoting the 1916 commemorations, and a Department spokesperson said the mistake happened because the Department sent the English text to an external company which was contracted to design the website, and that company had then decided to use Google Translate to get a draft...

I know. You’d lose the will to live, wouldn’t you? Just in case you’re having a flashback to the time your mate gave you a tablet there a few years ago in Ibiza “for a laugh”, your eyes do not deceive you.

That’s the Department of the Gaeltacht sending off stuff to be written in Irish to somewhere else entirely.

When I was in the civil service, there was a great story about some disgruntled Gaeilgeoir ringing up Garda stations in the Gaeltacht and reporting the officers who didn’t answer the telephone as Gaeilge.

Back then, we thought it was hyper-sensitivity on behalf of the Irish language lobby when it came to State services being provided in the State’s first official tongue.

Turns out they had a point after all.


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