Every year in Trinity College Dublin, John Scally, a lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religions, organises a conference on the ethics of sport, writes Paul Rouse.

This year’s conference drew the usual eclectic mix of writers, academics, players, managers, and sports enthusiasts — it was a reminder of the power of sport and of its place in modern life.

Ethical issues around sport usually revolve around the pursuit of success. But when do we ever discuss the meaning of success? When it comes down to it, debate around the idea of winning by whatever means necessary is something that flares into sight, only at the time of controversy, and rarely in a reasoned way.

The capacity of people to excite themselves is particularly acute at those very moments when their team has been the victim of an injustice. On a national level, there is the Thierry Henry handball, on a provincial rugby level there is the remembrance of how Neil Back, the Leicester forward brazenly broke the rules at a scrum and denied Munster the opportunity to win what would then have been their first Heineken Cup in 2002. But it was Neil Back who got to the nub of the matter when he was interviewed, afterwards.

His pithy response was: “I did what I had to do to win the game.”

The response was a reaction that not even ‘Liveline’ could cope with. Now, this outcry was understandable on one level but its credibility is somewhat undercut by the fact that if Neil Back had been wearing a Munster jersey he would most likely have been made a Freeman of Limerick or Cork and celebrated for his native guile.

When it comes down to it, sleights of hand (or acts of random violence) which benefit our own teams are either indulged or excused or willingly accepted as fortune finally shining on the downtrodden who have been too long oppressed but are now standing up for themselves.

The greater point here is that, generally, controversies occur around particular incidents and are driven by that incident. These incidents always obscure any possible debate around the purpose of sport. This too is entirely understandable — when it comes down to it, there is nothing quite as entertaining as a good controversy.

Indeed, central to any understanding of the importance of sport in the modern world is understanding the attraction of controversy — especially when it is absolutely absurd. Witness, Roy Keane, Mick McCarthy, and Saipan in the days before the 2002 World Cup finals. What ensued was an extraordinary spectacle as the public, politicians, and the media convulsed on one side or the other.

Sane and sensible people said and wrote extreme things as they recast the dispute as a battle between a ‘new’ Ireland, unready to accept second-best, out now to beat the world at soccer especially since we have redefined global economics through the Celtic Tiger, and an ‘old’ Ireland, happy merely to be asked along at all to the party and sure if we have to stand in the corner, that’s grand too.

Those who sought to portray the event as some sort of Greek tragedy seemed actually to believe what they were claiming.

Or did they?

How much was sincerely felt, and how much were people simply revelling in the great absurdity of it all?

In general, it was as if having already experienced the pleasures of attending two World Cups, the Irish needed now to find a new passion to make the competition worth the bother. In the process, they once more revealed the national talent for hysteria and melodrama.

But that insistent question remains — what do you win for? There is any number of answers that can be offered here, each of which is peculiar unto the individual.

Is it glory, or fame, or personal satisfaction, or pride? Do you win for your family, your community, your country — or just for yourself? Do you win for money? I want to turn to this last question next — this relationship between amateurism and professionalism. The words amateur and professional are bandied about by players and managers and supporters and journalists — and in this bandying, they are used in ways that seem to me to be entirely flawed.

For example, a man through on goal in a GAA match is pulled down and someone will describe it as a professional foul. A favoured team runs through a less fancied opposition and is described as doing a professional job.

On the other side of the coin, when a professional sports person does something poorly it can be described as amateur hour or amateurish, or — as happened when Irish international soccer player Ciarán Clark failed to cynically foul a Belgian forward at the recent European championships and went on to concede a goal — he is condemned for not doing the professional thing.

Now, the use of these words is something of a reflex response, but this matters because it is a reflex that epitomises a common misunderstanding of just how badly amateurs wish to win.

After all, a professional will ordinarily be paid whether he or she wins or loses, albeit they might be paid less in defeat than in victory. But medals are the wages of amateur sport and to deny the desire of the amateur to win and ignore the willingness of the amateur to do what is necessary to win is to ignore the competitive spirits and instincts that are readily apparent.

Are women more ethical in sport than men? History provides no evidence that women are markedly different to men when it comes to sport.

I temper that by saying that our modern sporting world — created largely between the last decades of the 19th century — was an unwelcoming place for women. The Victorian press was filled with jokes about women and their hockey legs or their incapacity to play.

One Irish paper laughed: “When a woman throws a brickbat, the great problem seems to be not how to hit the target, but how she can avoid knocking her brains out with her elbow.”

Notwithstanding that, women have demonstrated a capacity for conduct which echoes that of the sporting male. Look at violence, for example. The sheriff of Kildare reported from 1782 of a football match near The Curragh. The report noted how a fight after the match between the two teams had drawn in spectators. And during the fight, one man was “brought to the ground by the stroke of a bottle from the wife of a person whom he had just knocked down; and the woman’s feelings for her husband being stimulated by liquor, she cut the head of his opponent to innumerable pieces, and immediately received from one of the combatants a casual blow that fractured her own. There is little prospect of her recovery.”

Or, more recently, what about the drug-taking of women athletes like Marion Jones? What about the generations of female gymnastics coaches whose sweatshops reduce young girls to performing battery hens, in search of Olympic gold?

And for every father such as Earl Woods who produces a Tiger Woods as a sort of parenting project in constructing an elite athlete, there are overbearing mothers such as Betty Chang whose son Michael, a brilliant tennis player, won the French Open at 17.

C

onsider, more locally, the antics of parents at sporting venues all over this country — every day there are children who are being embarrassed and much, much worse by their parents all across Ireland as they seek to live their lives vicariously through their children and in the process pretty much ensure that they such living is impossible.

Where do modern sporting clubs and governing bodies sit in all of this?

The connections that people make in sport can sustain them through life: for some people, sport is what makes school bearable and work possible. But the usage of sports clubs is not inherently benign: sports clubs can be bastions of privilege and can further age-old prejudices.

In sports clubs — and in their governing bodies, nationally and internationally — there are many, many extraordinary people who give their own lives to improving the lives of others through sport. They are beacons of all that is good in modern life.

But there are also others who do not merit that description. The megalomania of certain sports administrators is apparent for all to see.

In terms of soccer, for example, you don’t need to cast your eyes as high as Sepp Blatter to see the evidence for that — indeed, you don’t even have to leave the island.

The packaging of modern sport allows people to imagine that the modern sporting world — for good or ill — is entirely different to that which has gone before. But at its core, it is not so. Instead, modern sport is about people finding new ways to doing the same thing.

And when it comes to ethics — just as with every aspect of sport — there are no golden ages, no time where we can look back into history and say: there is our benchmark, our ethical nirvana.

Ethics take a back seat when winning post is in sight


Lifestyle

Liz O’Brien talks to Niall Breslin about his admiration for frontline staff, bereavement in lockdown, his new podcast, and why it's so important for us all just to slow down.Niall Breslin talks about losing his uncle to coronavirus

Podcasts are often seen as a male domain — see the joke, 'What do you call two white men talking? A podcast'.Podcast corner: Three new podcasts from Irish women that you should listen to

Esther McCarthy previews some of the Fleadh’s Irish and international offerings.How to attend the Galway Film Fleadh from the comfort of your own couch

Whether you’re on staycation or risking a trip away, Marjorie Brennan offers suggestions on novels for a wide variety of tastesThe best fiction books for the beach and beyond this summer

More From The Irish Examiner