What the...? Sport loses its way in a four-letter moral maze

Indignation at Wayne Rooney's on-air outburst highlights confusion about the rights and wrongs of swearing
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It was Saturday afternoon and the first live Sky Sports match of the weekend. The score was West Ham 2, Manchester United 0. As an Arsenal fan, I was warm and happy. Then Wayne Rooney scored and scored and scored: one, two, three. Hat-trick achieved, he ran straight at me, almost crashing through the television screen to let me how he felt – and what he thought of me. I didn't quite get what he was so angry about or what he saying. The word "fuck" was in there somewhere, though, I could tell that.

Foul play! Click here or click the image for famous outbursts in sporting history

I'm something of a heard-it-all of bad language. I've spent a good many Saturday afternoons in football grounds. A crowd chanting in unison at the referee: "Who's the wanker in the black?" Vulgar, clichéd and, to me, one of England's glories. So I wasn't shocked by his language. But I could certainly feel his fury. He was so furious that I almost turned round to see if there was anyone behind me he was shouting at. Then I decided he must be cursing someone standing behind the cameraman. But, no, he was raging at the world.

The presenters apologised. When Sky repeated the clip, they pixellated Rooney's mouth – a hi-tech version of washing it out with soap and water, perhaps. And the FA lumbered into action, charging him with "use of offensive language," etc.

Which, given the official lack of response to Rooney's previous carryings-on, is a bit rich, frankly. In the game against the South African Platinum Stars, he swore at the referee with such richness of vocabulary that World Cup match officials were given a list of English swear words so they could know what Rooney was suggesting they were and what they should do with what and how. It's also not as if the usual atmosphere of a football stadium is not blue with obscenities. Like many a father who has taken a young son to a game, I have suffered the discomfort of the surround sound of swearing and abuse and insults. Has the FA never actually been to a football match?

Come to that, there is something hysterical, hypocritical even, about the media's response. Have Sky Sports presenters never heard such language? I doubt they'd have to walk far from their control room to experience it. They are, of course, being disingenuous. It's a standard operating procedure of journalism: wilful, achieved unworldliness.

Dirty words, bad language, swearing: they are among football's closest companions. As manager of Newcastle United, Joe Kinnear acquired the nickname JFK – Joe Fucking Kinnear. When asked if he had a message for the people of Norway, Paul Gascoigne's considered response was "Fuck off, Norway". Didier Drogba got a multi-match ban for swearing in a game against Barcelona in 2009.

While playing for Real Madrid, David Beckham was banned for swearing at an assistant referee. The only odd or surprising thing about that was that he did it in Spanish. He is thought to have told him that he was a hijo de puta (son of a whore), the Spanish equivalent of Jose Mourinho's favourite, filho da puta. "The word can be abusive if you perceive it to be abusive," Mourinho said in 2007 when explaining why he'd said it to an official. "I say it to myself. I say it to my players, that word which I don't want to repeat."

Swearing and football go together as well and as often as you'd expect of such paired twins of aggression and violence. 'Take that, you ****!' said Roy Keane, notoriously, on 21 April 2001, to the Norwegian player Alf-Inge Haaland, whom he had just tackled into premature retirement. Football referees say that that particular word is the one they most hate having shouted at them. Other sports are not swear-free, either. In 2008, cricketer Mark Ramprakash got a two-match ban for swearing at an umpire. Last month, spinner Graeme Swann was fined 10 per cent of his match fee for swearing at an umpire. Nor is it just the sportsmen themselves. In 1987, cricketer Mike Gatting was informed, by umpire Shakoor Rana, that he was a "fucking cheating ****".

And nor is it a new thing. When Sebastian Coe won the 1500m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics , the first thing he did was run across to the sports reporters and ask them loudly: "Who says I'm fucking finished?" In 1982, Princess Anne told Badminton photographers to "Naff orff". In 1971, fellow showjumper Harvey Smith V-signed the judges.

It goes further back, too. In 2007, a piece of baseball memorabilia came to auction. It was a 1898 document which, at first glance, appeared to be a hoax but turned out to be probably genuine. It was a sheet of "special instructions to players" about their use of "brutal language" on the field. How brutal? Brutal. When a member of the crowd had asked who was pitching, an outfield player replied: "Go fuck yourself." Other examples of players' language given included "You cock-sucking son of a bitch!", "You prick-eating bastard!", "You **** lapping dog!", "Kiss my ass, you son of a bitch!", "A dog must have fucked your mother when she made you!", "I fucked your mother, your sister, your wife!" and "I'll make you suck my ass!"

All of which phrases, of course, have an elaborateness, an eloquence even, that wasn't there in Rooney's outburst. What his swearing did have, though, was a deep, deep, painful anger. Which is, I guess, why even I was taken aback. Swearing is normally just swearing. But Rooney's swearing was something else. It wasn't Rooney's words that counted, it was the thought behind them. It was about what he thinks we think of him. And that thought was thick with violence and anger and hatred.

He opened not just his mouth but his heart to us. And that, we learnt, was not a nice place to be.

Peter Silverton is the author of 'Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing' (Portobello £8.99)