Around the time when football hooliganism was shockingly commonplace, one of my college lecturers arrived at class after the weekend to decry the latest outbreak of violence, saying how disgraceful it was that men would drink alcohol to excess and then go out looking for a fight. He was a rugby player and a little while later, with not a trace of irony, he filled us in on his own sporting exploits. "Terrific game," he said. "Almighty punch-up, but it was all forgotten later, and we got absolutely p*****."
I was recalling this glorious example of double standards at the weekend when Martin Johnson, the manager of England's Rugby World Cup squad, was defending his players after their lively visit to a dwarf-racing bar, not hitherto recognised as one of the ways top professional sportsmen prepare for the pinnacle of international competition. (I did enjoy how one of the players explained the outing: "We weren't doing anything out of the ordinary. There were dwarfs there, yes... but we didn't bring the dwarfs with us.")
The thrust of Johnson's argument was that rugby players have to let off steam, and a dozen or so shots followed by a little dwarf-racing and some fraternisation with the locals is how they achieve this. He didn't want rugby to become more like football, he said, with all the media attention on the players' extra-curricular activities. The basic undertow of such comments is, I believe, this: look, we may get a bit lairy, but we are middle-class boys and we know how to behave, unlike those horrible oiks who play and watch football. It's a class thing, you see. High spirits, old boy.
Johnson, however, will not succeed in holding back the tide. His sport has been professionalised, players have lucrative sponsorship deals and the TV rights to the World Cup are worth millions. The reverse side of this coin is that media attention is heightened. And if your captain – a man often to be found, in the rugger bugger's vernacular, "slippered" – has recently married a member of the Royal Family, a camera or mobile phone is never far away. So there you have it: a badly-behaved, highly-paid sportsman with a celebrity wife who's always in the tabloids. How different from those common footballers!Reuse content