Does anyone feel genuine outrage any more when sportsmen spend their down-time misbehaving? The person who posted pictures on a student website of Gary Ballance relaxing after a long, hard Test match by getting drunk and taking his shirt off in a Nottingham bar called Pandora’s Box obviously thought there was mileage in outing the England cricketer as a first-class idiot.
As did the fellow reveller who snapped Ballance’s footballing counterpart Jack Wilshere having a drag on a post-World Cup cigarette in a swimming pool on holiday.
I’m no apologist for tobacco, but while alcohol has destroyed careers, there’s no evidence that cigarettes have wreaked similar damage. Wilshere is in good company – Socrates was a 40-a-day man, Bobby Charlton famously sparked up at half-time during the World Cup final, and even Stanley Matthews, albeit for endorsement purposes, attributed the silkiness of his ball control to the smoothness of Craven A. And better cricketers than Ballance have hit the bottle with no visible deterioration in performance levels.
Still, let’s be clear: professional athletes getting publicly drunk, or consorting with call girls, or having affairs, are morons who deserve everything they get. Even if nobody gives a damn anymore, why risk opprobrium and cancelled endorsement deals for a crafty fag or a bit on the side?
But do we really think Ballance on the booze and Wilshere on the Woodbines is going to corrupt public morals and ruin our children? I’d say it’s onfield behaviour we should be looking at. I’m not thinking so much of Luis Suarez and his penalty-box dietary habits – did onfield biting in children’s football spike on any of the three occasions he got his teeth into his opponents? I doubt it.
It's the dishonesty of the likes of diving supremo Arjen Robben we have more to worry about – what kind of message is he sending to the youth of today? That it’s morally acceptable to cheat? That dishonesty’s the best policy? That offends me a great deal more than Ballance’s drinking or Wilshere’s smoking.
Should we even be looking to sportsmen and women for guidance on how to live our lives? The former basketball star Charles Barkley got it right when he was asked about the influence he wielded. “I’m not paid to be a role model,” he said. “Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids. Parents should be role models.”
Parents, yes, and politicians, and captains of industry, activists who want to make the world a better place: they should be the ones to inspire our children – and ourselves – to be better people. Those paid to win trophies and medals by any means necessary should not be the figures we look up to. When we have the likes of Malala Yousafzai and Aung San Suu Kyi, who needs Gary Ballance or Jack Wilshere to be on their best behaviour?