LEADING ARTICLE:Number 1: Cantonanism ismism New concepts for the Nineties

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Indy Lifestyle Online
This afternoon, the House of Commons will debate the merits and otherwise of football in a motion brought by Kate Hoey MP. The chamber will witness an outbreak of Cantonanism - equal parts sanctimonious flannel and auto-erotic self-righteousness a bout sport. Where has it come from?

Once there was Sportsmanship: the belief, based on a simple confusion of categories, that a superior skill in competitive physical activity implies the possession of a comparable moral superiority; and, by extension, the belief that sporting excellence is dependent upon moral excellence - that people win games because they are good people.

Derived from Greek athletics and the Olympian ideal, Sportsmanship took root in English culture by way of Matthew Arnold, Baden-Powell, Sir Henry Newbolt, Kipling, etc. Its examplars this century - Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright, Bobby Charlton, Henry Cooper - merely by exhibiting professional competence without apparent strain or undue show of emotion suggested to British commentators the moral rigour of Arthurian knights.

An awkward counter-tendency was apparent early on - the "bodyline" bowlers of the late Twenties, for instance, seemed prepared to risk killing opponents by bowling straight at the heart - but was viewed as an aberration. In the late 20th century the tendency is everywhere, from arguing with the umpire and substance abuse to violence on and off the pitch: George Best, John McEnroe, Vinnie Jones, Paul Gascoigne, Alex Higgins, Ian Botham, Tonya Harding, Diego Maradona, Tony Adams, Paul Merson, OJ Simpson ...An anthropologist could see that homo sportiens has evolved into a self-interested warrior to whom rules are an obstacle and moral absolutes an irrelevance; any empiricist could tell that the fancied connection between being good at games and being goodwas fatally flawed.

But British commentators clung to the threadbare heresy of Sportsmanship. Their idolatry of Eric Cantona was a displacement activity - he did not care for the rules, true, but he was a "Renaissance man", a "philosopher" who talked about the beauty of goals, quoted Rimbaud, admired Brando and came on like Isaiah Berlin ("I value truth, honesty, respect for one another, compassion and understanding"). When he socked an insulting fan and reverted to type - the sportsman as blindly violent self-seeker - their revenge was terrible. No amount of footballing prowess, roared the tabloids, can excuse him. Kick him out. Ban him for life. He is not what we had in mind at all.

Thus Cantonanism: the specious and hypocritical frenzy of moral outrage, displayed by spectators of a violent contact sport on learning that its finest practitioners have no more moral sense than themselves.

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