There is a certain dignity in having to be carried out of Pandora’s Box. In the original Greek myth, after the evil spirits of greed and hatred and deceit and the gratuitous reverse sweep-shot escaped and spread themselves over the earth, it was only Elpis, the Spirit of Hope, who remained inside. And there is much of Elpis to be seen in Gary Ballance, the young left-handed England batsman who raced to a hundred in a flurry of boundaries at Lord’s today, but who had to be toplessly, horizontally removed from Nottingham’s Pandora’s Box nightclub last weekend.
Back when the Greeks mythologised, only spirits could spread themselves to all corners of the earth in an instant. That – as Ballance might have foreseen had the evil spirits of Pandora’s Box not been mixed with Red Bull in such large quantities that night – is no longer the case. And an England cricketer who takes his shirt off and declares himself “absolutely f***ed” in a disco full of smartphone snap-happy students can expect his transgression to scatter itself upon the high winds of WhatsApp and Twitter and Facebook far quicker than he can put the lid – or his top – on.
Nottingham has not been this week’s only amphitheatre of sporting vice. In equally glamorous Las Vegas, England’s World Cup heroes (and they are heroes, at least in an Aristotelian sense, their fatal flaw being a near complete lack of footballing ability) have been drinking, divebombing and in one shocking case, smoking, in the swimming pool of the MGM Grand.
Jack Wilshere in two separate pictures no doubt sold for no small fee by a fellow pool-partyer, first has what appears to be a cigarillo on the go and later a plain old cigarette, held in his mouth by a friend. And Wilshere, who once had the world at his footballing feet which now appear to have been encased in concrete, has been told before.
“I disagree completely with that behaviour,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said in October, when his young star was pictured with a crafty burn in his hand just days before a game. “When you are a football player you are a role model and you don’t do what damages your health.”
Ballance has received a gentle telling-off from his England coach and Wilshere will not be formally punished by Arsenal, but to push the Greek metaphor past the point of acceptability, ours are lives even more futile than the boulder-pushing Sisyphus if we imagine it possible to turbocharge these handsome young men with wealth and fame and adulation beyond all imagination and then expect them to conduct themselves like Franciscan monks.
Sporting life has changed since the days of Gatting and Botham and Bryan Robson, even since a very young John Terry micturated into a pint pot on a Romford dancefloor, and since Freddie Flintoff’s jubilant 2005 stagger along Downing Street. Transgressions are significantly fewer, but they are by turn significantly more likely to become public knowledge, and they should shock and concern us less and less.
Have these young men, on signing their multi-million dollar contracts (at least the footballers), foregone all right to a taste of normal life, to the occasional drunken night out, or the odd puff of a cigarette (as Wilshere’s probably was)?
One didn’t have to look very closely during this World Cup to see one of the countless reasons Germany were so superior to England, a football nation whom they flatter to consider rivals. The players were enjoying themselves.
All right, so it’s not hard to enjoy yourself when you’re winning the World Cup, but when the next “shocking” set of photos of a young man briefly doing what every other young man does every weekend, are made public, who is it who is genuinely shocked?
Gazza’s dentist’s chair celebration after that Euro ’96 goal won him adulation from precisely the same quarters as had earlier vilified him. But it’s not only successful sports stars that have a right to let off steam. Wilshere and the Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart, Wilshere’s fellow divebomber, have just played in a World Cup. Not the most successful one but a World Cup nonetheless. Most people, in their lives, have moments of intense pressure and scrutiny. Would we think it fair to tell students they’ll lose marks off their finals if they go out and get thoroughly shitfaced afterwards?
Pandora let Elpis escape too, in the end, as many an England football fan has also done. But if you’re not quite ready yet to buy Hope a kebab, stick it an unlicensed minicab and send it off into the Nottingham night, we must at least try to like our sporting heroes as much as we want to love and idolise them.