COMMENTARY: The perfect product for the television age

THE CANTONA AFFAIR: The language of sport today is triumph, tragedy, sh ock and shame with a brandished fist its most persistent image
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The Independent Online
Eric Cantona is no callow youth caught up in the perplexity of stardom. Hostage to his genes maybe, temperamental certainly, he is an experienced international with sophisticated tastes.

Thus when Cantona scandalously launched himself into the audience at Crystal Palace after his fifth dismissal in Manchester United's colours, a violent occurrence without precedent in the modern history of first-class British football was seen to have wider implications.

Not everything is wrong with that theory. If the Frenchman's highly volatile nature always had him at no better than even money to avoid an utterly disgraceful eruption, even perhaps a premature termination of his controversial career, current trends didnot help.

The medium is the message. And the message that filters frequently through the medium of television and popular newspapers is all too clear.

The essence of sport today can be found in its language. Triumph. Tragedy. Shock. Shame. A brandished fist is the most persistent image. When people talk about pride, character, emotion and momentum all the time it begins to dawn on us that perhaps we are dealing with confused minds.

Each of us brings our own sensibility to sporting experience, enabling us to find whatever we want, from fun and games to hero and scapegoat.

Vince Lombardi said of grid-iron football: "This is a game for madmen" and Muhammad Ali said: "There sure is a lot of crazy people in this world" and maybe that is all you need to know. But it cannot be left at that.

The effect of drummed-up expectation and commercial demands can be seen in behaviour anathema to an older generation. Television's pernicious influence abounds in the footballer's choreographed triumphalism and the bizarre rituals and preening indulged in by the boxer Chris Eubank.

Nobody in sport is compelled to come across as a defender of the faith and the notion that games build citizen-type character is Orwellian.

The idea of grown men and women hero-worshipping the players of children's games may be enough to make eyebrows quiver with fear for the decline of civilisation, but it will go on happening.

The trouble is that the authorities are as subordinate to modern business techniques as the sports they are appointed to administer.

Unable or unwilling to invoke the power invested in them, they permit unseemly practices to continue. Even allowing for the Football Association's swiftness in dealing with Cantona, leniency has become something of a vice.

Anyone old enough to read this has lived long enough to have witnessed an explosion in the popularity of sport, especially football. This was good to see, but the view held here is that it could have been better handled.

Sponsors do not ask their clients to tolerate loutish behaviour, but the people who run clubs and put on tournaments do not have to be told who is picking up the tab. Pragmatism prevails at the expense of trusted values.

Having tried every device imaginable, and some unimaginable, to stoke hotter and hotter fires in their players, managers and coaches become extravagantly involved on the touchline, their elation and despair constantly featured on television. Along with other related activity it might be great showbiz but in time it could undermine the product.

There was a time when true football fans saw their heroes as respected, clean-living, fair-minded, team-spirited, young men who typified the way they felt men should live and behave. If this is no longer the case then who is responsible? If, in presentation and response, the difference between true sport and specious impersonation is barely discernible, what can be done about it?

Cantona's outburst ought not to be seen as indicative of attitudes generally, but it touched upon an aspect of sport that is increasingly worrying.

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