Sport and Morality

Why our enjoyment of sport is dependent on the stars we support behaving fairly

It was the first Test in the latest five match series between England and Australia last week. We’re talking cricket and, more specifically, The Ashes by way.

Don’t be put off though if cricket isn’t your thing. That’s simply the backdrop to a few thoughts about the role of morality within sport.

For those of you who don’t know, during the first Test last week, the England player Stuart Broad was given ‘not out’ despite clearly having hit the ball straight to a fielder who caught it cleanly. The umpire completely missed it and Australia couldn’t ask for a television review to correct the decision as they’d already used up—well, wasted—their two allocated reviews. So, even though every one knew he should be out, he was able to carry on batting and help England to go on and win the match.

What’s the big deal? Well lots of people think Broad should have ‘walked’. That’s to say, since he clearly knew himself he was out, he should have take responsibility himself to just walk off the field, essentially giving himself out.

He didn’t. And there was—mostly amongst sports journalists rather than fellow cricketers—uproar. Some went so far as to call him a cheat.

I found myself torn, not knowing quite what to think. I think calling him a cheat is extreme, but hearing people defend it on the basis that ‘the Aussies would do the same’ didn’t sit comfortably with me either.

And then this from Matthew Syed in today’s Times really hit home:

For far too long, the mantra of “it is up to the umpire to determine if I nicked it” has reigned in cricket. As a moral position, it is clearly suspect. It is not terribly dissimilar to “it is up to the umpire to determine if I have tampered with the ball” or “it is up to the authorities to determine if I have taken drugs”. We cannot abrogate all responsibility for our actions; we cannot justify deceit by claiming that it was up to the umpire to spot it.

The truth is, though I’m delighted England won the cricket, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy it. The Broad incident left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

I want to win. But the way we win is important to me too. It’s like when I’m watching my football team, Arsenal: I want us to score goals, but a goal that comes via a penalty where one of our players dives never feels as good.

My enjoyment of sport—it seems—is connected to the morality of people playing the sport. I want to win, but I want that winning to happen fairly. If England had won the first Test against Australia without Stuart Broad pretending he hadn’t hit a ball he clearly had, I would have enjoyed that victory much more.

I don’t think you can call Broad a cheat when he didn’t break any rules. But if our sports stars are only going to follow the literal letter of the rules and not embrace the unwritten rules of fairness, playing in the right spirit, and honesty, then we will find our enjoyment of watching sport diminishing.

Winning unfairly always results in diminished levels of enjoyment.

I truly hope that, even though his teammates and management are defending Broad publicly, they will have had a quiet word in his ear and tell him, “That’s not how we do things—we’re better than that.”

And, unless others in the team are total hypocrites, they really won’t have liked what Broad did. Several of them have gone of the record previously speaking out against players in other teams who have behaved similarly to Broad in previous matches. I don’t expect them to go on the record about Broad, but I’d be disappointed if they haven’t reprimanded him privately.

In essence, if we want sport to remain enjoyable, then I think we need to expect and demand morality from the stars we watch. Sure, our desire to win can conflict with our desire to do what’s right and our value of fairness. But maximum enjoyment can only happen when they are in harmony. Winning unfairly always results in diminished levels of enjoyment. And I don’t want that.


Science Versus/And Religion