D J Taylor: We all love a sporting bad boy

On paper, at any rate, professional sport is still a matter of more or less gentlemanly behavioural codes
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The Independent Online

Yesterday's accounts of the passing of the former world snooker champion, Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, from throat cancer at the age of 61 offered a neat little parable of the early 21st century's attitude to sport. Certainly, much was made of Higgins's achievements, his 15-red clearances and his two world titles – the first achieved at the tender age of 22, the second in the nail-rending 18-15 defeat of Ray Reardon in 1982. Yet lurking all the while in the margin was the memory of such extracurricular exploits as punching a referee, head-butting another official and, in a two-decade career spent at the sport's upper level, the getting (and the spending) of a fortune estimated at £3m.

Throughout these breathless résumés of a life lived out in both the front and back ends of the red-top newspapers clanged the tocsin of mitigation. As Steve Davis, who played several hotly-contested matches against Higgins in the 1980s, put it: "To people in the game he was a constant source of argument, he was a rebel. But to the wider public he was a breath of fresh air that drew them into the game."

It is what might be called the McEnroe phenomenon, in which people who had previously taken no interest in the noble game of tennis were instantly seduced by the sight of a stroppy adolescent with overly long hair giving some hapless official who had misjudged a line call a piece of his mind.

All this gestures at a much more salient paradox, which is the gap between the atmosphere that most spectators theoretically want to prevail in a sport, and the conditions in which they prefer it to operate in practice. On paper, at any rate, professional sport is still a matter of more or less gentlemanly behavioural codes. Naturally, anyone who so much as glances at a newspaper sports page knows that international cricket is a wasteland of sledging, ball-tampering and batsmen declining to walk, and professional rugby union a kind of licensed thuggery in which socks on the jaw are routinely excused by the reminder that "it's a man's game, don't you know".

At the same time, most Premiership managers would be genuinely shocked if you suggested to them that the environment in which their games get played is morally corrupt, or that there was something faintly disgusting in the sight of the Uruguayan defender, whose handball in the World Cup quarter-final prevented a certain goal, being treated as a national hero back home.

To set against these ancient principles, on the other hand, is that pervasive love of the "bad boy" – the rogue defender filmed surreptitiously doing the cake-walk on somebody's ankle; the darts champion barging his opponent out of the way as he lumbers to the oche – whose antics are glossed over in exchange for his team's success. Thus Roy Keane, a footballer happy to put another player out of the game if he could settle a score, was always excused on the grounds of his prodigious talent. Even Vinnie Jones, a more workaday performer, who once tried to bite off a sports reporter's nose, has somehow managed to re-invent himself as loveable TV talk-show wide-boy.

The curious thing about this example of Orwellian double-think is that it affects large numbers of fans whose moral compass is in other respects wholly unexceptionable. My late father, for example, was one of the most morally salubrious men who ever lived. When it came to professional sport, alternatively, an infallible formula kicked in. "What do think of Linford Christie, dad?" I would enquire. Back would wing the response: "He's a yob (pause) ... but you'd like to have him on your relay squad." "And what about Ian Botham, dad?' "He's a yob (pause) ... but you'd like to have him opening the bowling." I never got round to asking him what he thought of Hurricane Higgins, but I'm pretty sure the answer would have been something to do with liking to have your money on him for the next world championship.

DJ Taylor is author of 'On the Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport' (2006)