Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Violence in Sport

Martin Samuel writes an excellent article in today's Times. Not only does it take a large swipe at the Times' own silly, self-seeking campaign to prevent diving, but it also raises the question of how violence should be treated in sport.

As Samuel himself points out:

Witness the quick capsule review of Arsenal’s match against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, published in Monday’s Times and written as if diving were the sole deadly sin. “Ugly, like a Peter Kay belly-flop. Players from both sides went to ground too easily.”

Notice anything missing? For two potentially leg-breaking tackles, see halfway down page six, dismissed in half a sentence, the culprits not even named or shamed.

The problem, of course, lies in the word "potentially". Neither of the two players on the receiving end of the unpleasant challenges were seriously hurt. Had they been, there would have been a huge outcry. Yet if people are lucky enough to emerge unscathed, the fact that an opponent tried to maim them is dismissed with barely an afterthought.

I remember watching a rugby match a few years ago where a lineout jumper was taken out in mid-air. The referee saw the incident, but saw it fit only for a yellow card. His reasoning was incredible - "if he'd been hurt, you'd have been sent off". That is something that makes a mockery of the law. The intent to hurt was there; it is only by good fortune that the player didn't land on his neck with a serious injury.

The real criteria most referees use in deciding punishment for acts which are part of the game (kicking, punching and so on tend to be more clear-cut) depends on how badly hurt the victim is. What, then, is the purpose of outlawing a two-footed tackle? Can we really expect to kick it out of the game of football unless our attitudes to reckless play change?

The rules of any sport make it quite clear what is and isn't allowed in the run of normal play. It is even more obvious to spot when the foul play described requires unnatural movements. In football, as Martin Samuel points out, you have to make an effort to slide in with two feet both showing studs. In rugby, it takes a real movement of the body to knock someone's legs from under them. These offences are not difficult to spot.

And yet, if a player gets away without injury, more often than not the perpetrator of the crime gets away with no personal punishment (normally a penalty or free kick is awarded, admittedly). Unnecessary violence is the real scourge of sport.