TRADITIONALLY one of the toughest of sporting encounters — the current test cricket series between Australia and South Africa has been getting press for all the wrong reasons.
While the cricket may have been compelling, it had been somewhat overshadowed by the sledging, send-offs, and off-field abuse on the part of both sides; but now it has been absolutely eclipsed by Australia’s shattering ball-tampering admissions.
The scandal not only involved premeditated cheating in order to gain an unfair advantage, but looks also to have involved senior players recruiting a much younger team member, at the beginning of his international career, to carry out the actual tampering.
The link between ‘international sportsperson’ and ‘poor behaviour’ is hardly new, but the level in the current series is such that columnist Richard Hinds has gone so far as to suggest that Australia’s behaviour has failed ‘the pub test’. Sure, international sport should be hard but fair, but what constitutes ‘hard’ seems to be moving in directions with which many of us feel uncomfortable. And now what constitutes ‘fair’ — well, no one, not even the culprits, are trying to suggest that ball-tampering is fair.
The outpouring of disappointment and grief is widespread. There are still plenty of people who think sport should have something to do with sportsmanship. Many parents involve their children in sport in the belief that it will improve their health and provide them with enjoyable recreation, but also help develop their character. While no one expects perfection — who of us is perfect? — it is discouraging when international heroes fall consistently and often spectacularly at this first hurdle.
But where did the perceived connection between sport and good character even come from? Certainly not from the gladiatorial contests of Ancient Rome, nor even the from games of Ancient Greece which could be marred by corruption, bribery and cheating. It seems that the connection — or at least the connection that influences us today — comes from a movement promoted in Nineteenth-Century England by public schools and churches known as ‘muscular Christianity’.
The name may strike us as a little odd these days, and perhaps even conjure up negative images or associations, but the movement originally saw sport as a means for character formation in both individuals and communities. Perhaps the most well-known expression of this philosophy can be found in the classic novel from 1857 Tom Brown’s Schooldays. The story is set at Rugby School and links sport with good character, heroism, and manliness.
Churches helped start up sporting clubs across the country. About a third of the clubs who have played football in the English Premier League were founded by churches — for example, Aston Villa and Everton (Methodist); and Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City (Anglican).
The movement soon found its way to the United States and to Australia where many adopted its essential beliefs and assumptions. Schools saw sport as a means of developing people for leadership roles. Even if people did not consider themselves to be Christian believers, many of the ethical standards associated with biblical teaching still held strong persuasive force.
But as Australian society has become less obviously influenced by Christian beliefs and behaviour, it seems that the link between sport and good character has similarly weakened.
Of course there are many exceptions to this trend — there was poor sportsmanship in the nineteenth century, and numerous examples of exemplary behaviour in more recent years. Consider the widespread approval given when Adam Gilchrist adopted the practice of walking when he knew he was out.
The fact is that recent decades have seen a real mixture of attitudes about what constitutes good or appropriate behaviour on the sporting field. This has certainly been my experience.
I remember, as a teenager, bowling in a representative cricket game and dismissing an opposition batsman. Within seconds I was pointing him towards the pavilion in a manner I’d seen displayed by an international cricketer of the era. One of the umpires, Tom Brooks, a former NSW opening bowler and international umpire, stepped in immediately and indicated to me, and I think anyone else within earshot, in no uncertain terms that this was NOT the way to play the game.
I have never forgotten it, and have since appreciated what he did.
The appeal of good sportsmanship, and the idea of sport as a developer of character remains strong amongst many people, but in our culture it is increasingly disconnected from the underlying beliefs and practices that helped produce it.
If we are to avoid disappointing behaviour from athletes becoming increasingly common, sport needs to be linked to some standard of ethical behaviour, and there has to be a reason or motivation to aspire to that standard — one with which sportspeople of all ages and levels can genuinely engage.
This article first appeared in the Herald Sun.
Dr Stephen Liggins is a former lawyer and first grade cricketer with a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Sydney. He works as a minister, guest lecturer, part-time writer, and is an Honorary Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.