Sport Comment: The value of free speech

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The Independent Online
FUTURE SPORTS historians who find themselves studying the activities of Western sports administrators of the late 20th century will struggle to comprehend the scale of their subjects' ineptitude. One expects occasional errors of judgement from powers that be; sport's powers that be seem to take positive pride in being consistently wrong.

Rugby union is plagued by cheating and dangerous play. The RFU expresses concern, not about the cheats, but about players who have dared to speak out against cheating. Cricket is undermined by ball- tampering. Again, the players singled out for disciplinary attention are those who have criticised the tampering, not those who have connived at it. In football, one of the most heinous offences a player or manager can commit is 'bringing the game into disrepute': not by committing or encouraging criminal violence on the pitch (the courts can take care of that), but by talking about it. Amateur athletics, meanwhile, is run by a body so reckless of the well-being of athletes that, when they protest that holding the 1997 World Championships in Mexico will endanger the health of competitors unused to altitude (as it did in 1968), it just blithely ignores them.

In each case, the aims of the administrators appear to go directly against the interests of the sportsmen and women they represent. Why? And what can be done about it?

The causes are relatively easy to trace: administrative structures which evolved in a pre-professional age; administrators who owe their position more to their clubability (or to their erstwhile prowess as players) than to their experience of making things happen in the real world; sports which, collectively, have not yet decided whether their main objective is profit or recreation.

Solutions are more problematic. Do we need an injection of ex-players of more recent vintage? Or should we ignore playing experience and look for administrators who have shown that they can make a success of administration? And what about agreeing on collective priorities? How can that be achieved?

The one potential solution that recommends itself unambiguously is a wholesale commitment to freedom of speech. The idea that players are not competent to talk publicly about their sports is absurd: look at the number of top sports journalists who are recent ex-players. Yes, some of them may bring their games into disrepute; that is because their games have disreputable secrets anyway. Exposing the skeletons in a sport's cupboard is doing that sport a favour.

The more the voices of those who actually participate in sports are heard, the harder it will be for sports administrators to remain out of touch, and the easier it will be for each sport to agree upon and progress towards its objectives. As every management consultant knows, collective action is rarely effective without good communication.