CAMBRIDGE: “This house believes that money has ruined sport” . . . was the motion this week before the Cambridge Union writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
It’s an argument contested with increased vehemence after every succeeding click of the price value ratchet for televised sport and sponsorship whether for domestic football or the World Cup or the Olympic Games.
Hence the debate in Cambridge. Proposing the motion (in order of address) were sports psychologist Dr Joanne Hudson, double gold medal-winning Paralympic archer Danielle Brown and former Scotland winger turned football analyst Pat Nevin.
Opposing were Dan Jones (Deloitte), this writer and Prof. Mike McNamee (sports ethics specialist).
This writer stated the following case in opposition:
I am opposed, fundamentally, to the motion. I hold it to be a populist fantasy.
I would have no problem with the contention that there are rotten apples in sport: I’ve have met enough of them in world football and the Olympic movement since covering my first World Cup back in 1966.
I would have no problem with the contention that there is a serious imbalance in the distribution of the huge sums which come into sport
Sport is no more immune than any other human activity to what – ironically – the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, calls “the little devils of society”. In fact, it deals with its new-found wealth a great deal better than most.
As a young reporter I was taught that I had to make myself comprehensible to a visiting man from Mars or a man on the Clapham omnibus. If either character checked in on social media, heard the radio, watched TV, picked up the papers, he or she or it might think that sport is all about the Premier League.
Do not make the basic error here of thinking of “sport” as a synonym for only the Premier League.
Last year some 15m people in this country participated regularly in active sport. If you add to that total the number who totter down to the local gym, the active sport population is probably way over 20m. Yet the Premier League comprises only 700 to 800 professional players: which represents 0.004pc of that 20m. Not even a significant minority. Not even a minority. An infinitesimy.
Sport is far, far more important to society in general than the Premier League – though don’t tell Sky TV or Rupert Murdoch(!).
Power of ethic
But, in truth, sport is fundamentally more honest than most sectors. That’s the very reason why it is targeted by matchfixers and dope cheats – because of the power of sporting ethic in competition.
Sport has been growing not only more wealthy, but more honest, year by year.
Look at cricket. It’s almost forgotten nowadays but for years amateurs and professionals in the same county teams had different pavilions and walked out to play from different gates. Finally, in 1962, English cricket abolished the wall of hypocrisy between ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’. Crash!
Take tennis: for years players who won the grand slam tournaments then went off to cash in with the touring professional outfits. Fred Perry in the 1930s; Pancho Gonzales and Lew Hoad in the 1950s; Ken Rosewall and the great Rod Laver in the 1960s.
Finally, in 1968, Wimbledon shattered the hypocrisy of the tennis establishment. It went open, allowing professionals to compete with the so-called amateurs. Its lead was followed swiftly by the rest of the world. Another wall – crash!
Football, too: in 1974 English football abolished the distinction between amateurs and professionals and ended the decades-long deceit of illicit ‘boot money’ in amateur football. Another wall down.
That was the reason Great Britain stopped entering the Olympic football tournament. It could no longer satisfy the Olympic rules on amateurism.
Of course the Olympic movement was guilty of its own deceit because it embraced the so-called state amateurs of the communist world. It took the advent of the pragmatist president Juan Antonio Samaranch before the Olympics got real.
A few years ago I attended a conference at which a senior sports administrator lectured us about the evils of professionalism. How amateurs, such as him, had possessed a moral superiority.
That man was Hein Verbruggen, who was president of the international cycling union. It’s since emerged that the UCI, under his presidency, commanded the dope-domination years of Lance Armstrong – to the extent that it’s been alleged (and denied) the UCI once set aside his positive dope test in return for a sizeable financial donation.
Now Verbruggen has gone and cycling and sport is better off for it.
New money has improved access to sport for both participants and couch potatoes. Not a vicious circie but a virtuous circle. Without all the television money and sponsorship investment, we wouldn’t all be able to enjoy so much sport.
When I was a boy there was half an hour of fuzzy recorded football on a Saturday night, the FA Cup Final live and an occasional international match live – but not very often. Test matches, some tennis — nothing else. Rugby you never saw – or hockey, curling, gymnastics, handball, basketball, underwater archery – all those sports which have benefited from the promotion and visibility of money in sport today.
Facilities are safer and healthier than ever they were for both spectators and participants thanks to society waking up to the value of investment in sport’s popularity and importance.
Top footballers come in for the most extreme criticism over their wealth. But today’s players give back in a way which was never known or – more important – never possible in the old days. So do the clubs. Manchester Unted, Man City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and others invest many millions each in charity foundations which support local and national charities, community work, sport for disabled etc.
Not only football. Chance To Shine has taken cricket into thousands of inner-city schools and deprived areas; tennis had a “Rally For Bally” event already scheduled for next month to raise money for cancer research – and it will go ahead with Andy Murray, Tim Henman and Martina Navratilova after this week’s sad death of Elena Baltacha.
In conclusion . . .
A couple of weeks ago, when David Moyes was sacked by Manchester United, I was asked to comment in a BBC TV news programme. Another guest said she was surprised by all the fuss. I said it was perfectly simple and I will tell you what I told her: All the great themes of society – politics, race, religion – are vertical. But sport, as one of the great benign forces, is horizontal and it cuts right across all those pillars – and provides a haven of contact for the most antagonistic of people.
Could sport do that if it were broken? No.
Could sport do that if it were ruined?
No, it could not. On that basis, I urge this house to vote against the motion.
The debate was supported with lively interventions from the chamber, both for and against, before the vote in which the motion was defeated (19 in favour, 46 opposed, 17 abstentions) . . . but certainly, and healthily, not removed from the ongoing sporting agenda.