Too ready to deceive in the name of victory

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The Independent Online
If there was a time when sports fans saw their heroes as fair- minded young people who would never dream of trying to hoodwink authority, somebody should tell us when this saintly perspective prevailed.

Certainly, in the minds of more people than would be prepared to admit it, there is today a notion that anything goes. It seems clear enough, yet the chances are that there is more misinformation on this than any other topic in sport.

One of the things worth remembering is that none of us knows what is really going on out there. Another is that any number of sports performers are not above fakery.

Cricketers of otherwise unimpeachable integrity, devoted parents and trusted friends, choose to ignore the patently obvious results of an ill- timed shot until the umpire's finger is raised. When the West Indies opener, Stuart Williams, was given out at The Oval last week, my colleague, Martin Johnson, described it as "ludicrous confirmation of an even more ludicrous appeal". They call it swings and roundabouts. Really.

No incident in football history is recalled more frequently than the goal Diego Maradona punched past Peter Shilton in the 1986 World Cup finals. The incomparable Pele was not above trying to gain free-kicks. Line-outs and mauls are fertile ground for confidence tricks in rugby.

The fact is that sport is no more willing than it has ever been to abandon ploys that infringe spirit as well as law. Insofar as it convinces the players that their mentors are working hard, and therefore contributes to their own peace of mind and concentration, it is largely harmless. The problem is that it contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Some of the fault, it may be said, lies with the stupidity of the law makers, the indescribably muddy prose which conceals the code, and muddle- headed administrators who do not fully understand it.

Bearing this in mind, it seemed significant when Graeme Le Saux of Blackburn Rovers and Roy Keane of Manchester United were cautioned this week for attempting to persuade the referee that they had been unfairly dealt with in the penalty area, Keane being sent off for a second bookable offence.

It raised the possibility that referees have been instructed to come down heavily on a form of cheating that, together with feigning injury, can cause serious animosity in the audience. If so, and as Trevor Francis emphasised on Sky television, the key is consistency.

The essential qualifications for success in sport are what they have always been: talent, physical hardiness, self-reliance, cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and acceptance of bad luck. Those who are not prepared for the hazards have nowhere to turn for sympathy.

Facetiously, it was once suggested that before a game the players of each team draw up in ranks, lift their right hands and solemnly pledge not to - or attempt to - deceive anybody. This would, of course, cause a great deal of embarrassment in dressing-rooms throughout the land.

It does not mean that all card-carrying members of the sporting clan are cut to the pulp fiction pattern - scheming, selfish, dishonest mercenaries devoid of all decent feeling. It is just that they are expected to put victory above all other considerations. When coaches talk about pride, emotion and momentum all the time it begins to dawn on us that the material scales are weighted against honesty. The most honoured of them have invariably been pragmatists. One declared famously that it would be a great personal disappointment if his club did not finish bottom of the Fair Play league instituted by a national newspaper.

We will have to wait and see what effect professionalism will have on the traditions of rugby union. Does it mean that a compromise with ethics is inevitable? Probably playing ball for a living beats opening oysters, but the advantages may not be what they seem especially when it comes to standards of behaviour.

As for cheating, it is an indefensible idiocy that should be dealt with as firmly as it was at Ewood Park last Monday.