Rule one of modern sport: if any participant should say anything remotely contentious, truthful or interesting, they shall have their pockets emptied

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The Independent Online
The news that Michael Atherton is in trouble again comes as no surprise. Any captain who scored a total of four as England imploded feebly under his leadership last weekend and then compounded his offence by being caught with his trousers down on the balcony, can hardly expect to escape unscathed. Especially when his boss is Raymond Illingworth, a man of such self-certainty he makes Margaret Thatcher look like Frank Spencer.

But the rap over the knuckles, or whatever part of the anatomy Illingworth favours for punishment, was for neither of these offences. It was for criticising, in a comment for press consumption, the Edgbaston pitch. Now it might be argued that Atherton's excuse-making is as pitiful as some of his team's footwork. The fact of the matter is, however, he was right: though not perhaps as bad as England made it look, the pitch at Edgbaston was a stinker. And to fine the England captain for saying as much would be an absurdity - a response, moreover, that is hardly likely to re-assemble splintered team morale.

But it is a response which follows to the letter rule one of modern sport: if any participant should say anything remotely contentious, truthful or interesting, they shall be bollocked for it and their pockets emptied; they will be punished for "bringing the game into disrepute".

This last year there have been dozens of examples: Joe Kinnear was assailed for haranguing referees in post-match press conferences, as if the Football Association expected us all to be shocked at the discovery managers and referees do not, after all, live lives of perfect harmony. Unable to fine him because theirs is an amateur game, the Rugby Football Union sacked Will Carling, thus immediately confirming he was right to call them a bunch of old farts.

John Fashanu was fined pounds 6,000 for suggesting Eric Cantona was no peacenik, about three months before the Frenchman assaulted a fan. And back in 1989 Paul McGrath, for revealing some of the less lovey-dovey aspects of Alex Ferguson's management technique in his autobiography, was required to sign away pounds 8,500; pounds 3,500 more, incidentally, than Brian Clough was obliged to pay the same month after smacking two supporters.

Of course there are times when fines are necessary. Jeff "Quentin" Tarango, the man who achieved the unlikely feat of making John McEnroe sound like a pillar of the establishment, deserved his record penalty for walking out on Wimbledon. And every time Vinnie Jones opens his mouth (whether to anchor a video about football's foulers or to bite a reporter's nose) he should be required to make financial amends, if only for criminal assault on the English language.

The problem, however, with knee-jerk penalties being handed out willy- Illy whenever someone tells an uncomfortable truth, is that it produces a climate of fear in which no one dares say anything interesting at all. In private, footballers are as opinionated as the next man, but the moment a microphone is switched on they hide behind a vocabulary of bland euphemism, which, even if delivered by David Platt in lilting Italian, sounds uniformly decrepit. Indeed many clubs now coach their young players in media skills, spin doctoring their responses before they are even given, so that everyone will end up talking like Alan Shearer. Or worse, Trevor Brooking, a man now paid a good living as a pundit and, perhaps, possibly, the best example of what happens when a footballer becomes incapable of throwing off the shackles of equivocation. Maybe.

If you think about the most interesting and exciting comments uttered by sportsmen in the last year, they tended to be made while the adrenalin charge of battle was still fresh, before the blanding mechanism, the fear of disrepute, could be engaged. There was Tim Flowers, mad-eyed after Blackburn's win against Newcastle, assailing all those (i.e. Alex Ferguson) who accused his team of being deficient in the bottle department. And there was Brian Moore, absurdly over-antagonistic, charging verbally into the Scots after the Calcutta Cup match only seconds after he had stopped charging into them physically. Both men must have regretted what they said as they saw their comments endlessly repeated, analysed and countered. But who can blame the media? We are ravenous for something interesting to devour.

And in the absence of men like Flowers and Moore, and indeed Andrei Kanchelskis, prepared to say something more printable than the usual run of "with all due respects" we are saddled with old-timers, freed of the constraints of their professional bodies, putting themselves about as mouths-for-hire. There can be no more more persuasive argument against the laws of disrepute than that they keep Tommy Docherty in the papers.

There is one sport, however, in which the participants are rarely fearful of the consequences of their remarks. In motor racing the brakes are off: Schumacher insults Hill, Hill insults Schumacher, Frank Williams insults everyone. It has reached the point where there is barely any repute left. It is also, though, in motor racing that we also find the exception that proves the rule: no matter how much he made public his misgivings - about his engine, his cockpit, his pay packet. Nigel Mansell never sounded interesting.