Rugby Union: Double standards of our moral guardians

England's rugby union captain resigned his job after a tabloid investigation, but his greatest crime may only be foolishness.
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The Independent Online
SOONER OR later, this country is going to have to decide what it wants to be. Until it does, sports stars will continue to be used as convenient targets for unscrupulous media operators, in the guise of a moral crusade. And people like Lawrence Dallaglio will be held up to public ridicule, their careers made victims in the war of circulation figures between media conglomerates.

The Rugby Football Union faced a excruciating dilemma last night. No decision they might make could possibly satisfy every reasonable requirement. Casting Dallaglio into outer darkness might have satisfied the demand for exemplary punishment, a principle on which societies have existed since the beginning of time, but it would have offended those who believe that his alleged weaknesses of the flesh are shared by a large percentage of the population.

Showing forgiveness, on the other hand, would have demonstrated an affinity with shifts in society's attitudes towards misbehaviour, while upsetting those who, perhaps unrealistically, are trying to bring up children according to traditional moral precepts.

A compromise - traditionally known in this context as a "fudge" - was the solution, and quite rightly so. Dallaglio has been accused of misbehaviour by a newspaper, the News of the World, which has the moral compass of a stoat. He has been convicted of nothing. He has apparently denied the substance of the charges laid against him, and should be given the chance, if he so wishes, to defend himself properly - preferably in the presence of those who entrapped him, assuming they have the guts to sustain the moral outrage that one is invited to assume impelled their actions.

And yet, and yet. Experience suggests in some respect or another Dallaglio has behaved foolishly. When he accepted the captaincy of the England team from his friend Clive Woodward, he must have known that he was also accepting a more general leadership role. He was assuming the function of a figurehead, with a particular kind of stature in the wider community. If he did not want those trappings, and the responsibilities they entailed, then he should never have taken the job.

His public behaviour since becoming captain has been exemplary. No England rugby captain could have done more by word and deed to enhance the standing of the game, at a extremely difficult time in its history. After the turbulent end to the era of Will Carling and Jack Rowell, and in the midst of the turmoil created among the clubs by the move to professionalism, the RFU must have thought with relief that the England captaincy, at least, represented a beacon of stability, even when the results and the performances on the field fell some way short of the desired quality.

But now Lawrence Dallaglio is no longer the England captain. He has lost his job, and will not even be embarking with the squad on their summer tour tomorrow. He may yet rejoin his team-mates in Australia, depending on the outcome of the investigations into the newspaper allegations, although if they are to be serious then they will also take time.

We shall learn more in this respect in his personal press conference today, but perhaps he will be able to convince the inquiry that all his sins were far enough back in the past to make them irrelevant to a judgement on his present and future. He may claim that, even if they were accurate, his remarks to the News of the World's reporter were somehow not intended seriously, or at least to be taken literally, or were exaggerated for some other reason.

That would be the happiest outcome, but it is too early to say whether it is a reasonable proposition. In the meantime we are left to ponder on the latest in the lengthening sequence of newspaper stories exposing sportsmen to moral disapproval. Ian Botham, Mike Gatting, Alan Lamb and (in a different register) Michael Atherton have been among the prominent cricketers subjected to this treatment. Paul Merson, Tony Adams, Paul Gascoigne and Stan Collymore have been among the footballers. Some have brought it upon themselves, some have managed - with great personal courage - to battle their way at least partially out of the moral maze.

By the standards of a society that allows porn to be beamed nightly into every cabled-up suburban home, and that largely turns a blind eye to recreational drug use, the charges against Dallaglio do not represent capital crimes. But RFU's representatives have a broader responsibility, which few will envy them this morning.