Why sport and sham morality go so well together

When the profits of multinational corporations depend on an aura of Corinthian virtue, expect moral contortions

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

27 June 2015

9:00 AM

Wimbledon next week. Like the tournament dress code, all sports want their heroes white. In terms of virtue rather than skin colour. Sport demands the appearance of righteousness. Its default position is to pride itself on the moral lessons it teaches the rest of us.

All of which makes sport one of the great hypocrisy opportunities of modern times, lagging behind only religion and politics. A sports star who wants to make serious money must set himself up as a ‘role model’.

So when the great tennis player Andre Agassi was a boy in ‘hot lava’ shorts, he set himself up as a lovable ‘rebel’ who embraced Christian virtues. He spoke of his pride at being a role model. He played under a long-haired fright wig, sometimes terrified that it would fall off at match point, and developed a taste for crystal meth. He knew despair.

Then he rebelled against hypocrisy. He shaved what was left of his hair and made a comeback from 141st in the world. He later released a ghosted autobiography — Open — that told the truth. And sport was appalled. Not because of the bad behaviour and the despair, but because he told us about it. He broke the code of hypocrisy.

Sport is hooked on self-righteousness. This is because modern sport is a living contradiction. It was founded and codified as a tool to teach morality: but it is now a global business. This has created the extraordinary situation in which money-making is intimately connected with the appearance of morality.

Sport was supposed to teach the virtues of sacrificing self to a cause and obedience to authority. It offered fun and taught virtue. That principle remains fossilised in the sports industry. You need the appearance of virtue to make the tills of multinationals ring. This is a standing invitation to hypocrites.

Sepp Blatter set himself up as the apostle of righteous. His line was that a man with a mission for world peace must expect setbacks — and when they came, they made him not angry but sad. Blatter made it clear that opposing Blatter was morally wrong. His enemies by definition operated out of envy, spite, racism, neocolonialism and vindictiveness. ‘Football is one of the few universal tools mankind can use to bridge gaps between nations and people and to symbolise what unites our planet over what divides it.’ Amen.

‘Fifa has to set an example for others to follow,’ Blatter said, and no doubt it has. Hypocrisy is the key — and perhaps the most profound of its pleasures. Not just power and success and money, but at the same time playing all the world for a fool.

It’s a pattern you can find across sport. Juan Antonio Samaranch was for 21 years president of the International Olympic Committee. It’s been suggested that his former Falangista affiliations gave him the opportunity to take lessons in power from Franco.

‘We pursue an ideal, that of bringing people together in peace, irrespective of race, religion and political convictions, for the benefit of mankind,’ Samaranch said. That ideal led to the scandal of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games, in which Fifa-esque corruption was exposed. Reform had to come in its wake.

One of sport’s great attractions for older people is that it offers power over the young, and the moral front is a traditional part of it. That’s why today we hold to the absurd belief that top performers in sport have an obligation to be ‘role models’: to act as moral examples. In short, to bring up our children.

We don’t ask that of pop stars, another group traditionally imitated by the young, but a sports star who wishes to maximise his earning potential must be a person of conspicuous virtue — and that makes sport irresistible to a certain kind of hypocrite.

Perhaps the greatest of them all is Lance Armstrong. Read his book It’s Not About the Bike. Armstrong becomes a great cyclist by overcoming adversity, is struck down by testicular cancer, rises again and once more rules the world of sport. He won the Tour de France seven times. Inspiring stuff.

The implication throughout is that he did it by sheer strength of character. Read the book and you want to be like him. You could buy a silicone bracelet bearing the words ‘LIVE STRONG’; it showed your support for the Lance Armstrong Foundation (now the Livestrong Foundation) which supports cancer sufferers. It showed the world you were tough but virtuous.

‘Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honourable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough.’

That’s from Armstrong’s book. He was later revealed as the most successful drugs cheat in sporting history. It wasn’t enough to recover from cancer, it wasn’t enough to be a great athlete, it wasn’t even enough to be a great cheat. He had to make himself a saint as well. That’s what sport can do for people.

Then there is Tiger Woods. He had all the great sponsors because he played the part of role model with such élan. ‘If you are given a chance to be a role model, I think you should always take it because you can influence a person’s life in a positive light, and that’s what I want to do. That’s what it’s all about.’ And all the while he was covering waitresses, of the cocktail and the pancake kind, as fast as they could pull them from underneath him.

We don’t have a 21st-century figure in British sport who can rise to the level of those already mentioned, or if we have he hasn’t been exposed yet. The best we can offer is John Terry, leader and legend, former Dad of the Year and the only man sacked twice as captain of the England football team.

He’s a poor thing by Armstrong standards. His status in national life was summed up when he was fined for parking in a disabled space. Terry, owner of one of the most able bodies in England, helped himself to something that might have been useful to a person less fortunately equipped, because — well, he was entitled to it.

Sport’s association with moral virtue comes from ancient times, but it’s alive and flourishing today and it’s an essential aspect of sport as a business. Many people in sport go along with a little humbug just to keep things moving along, but there are always those prepared to take things a little further.

Sport has created a climate in which hypocrites can flourish and the greatest of them all can have the ride of a lifetime — until they are unmasked. Then the world is appalled and joins in a grand chorus of Won’t Get Fooled Again. And we won’t. Not until the next time.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sports writer for the Times; his books include A Book of Heroes: Or a Sporting Half Century.

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Show comments
  • rtj1211

    Has DB been airbrushed from your mind Mr Barnes?? Hoping for billionairedom is old Becks……………

  • Precambrian

    Sport, and much of society, has lost good sportsmanship. Its the victory of the professional and player ‘ethic’ over the amateur and gentleman one.

    In the end, in life, we all lose, because nobody gets out of here alive. But today people act as though they win forever; that losing is alien and only happens to worthless people. And so the neurotic drive to win goes from simply playing well to playing with a crass ruthlessness.

    100 years from now you will be worm food. Play well, but play with humility rather than arrogance, and lose the neurotic fear of losing because we all lose eventually.

    • Faulkner Orkney

      Please accept a single recommendation, but also know I wish that I could register a thousand of them.

      • Precambrian

        That’s very kind of you, thankyou.

  • John Carins

    These sports folk may be hypocrites but what about politicians and religious leaders? Sports people are not in the game of “do as I say and not as I do”.

    • aspeckofboggart

      2nd para.

      • Faulkner Orkney

        Great regiment…

    • St Ignatius

      It’s not hypocritical to have ideals but fail to live up to them. Being a hypocrite is acting a role you know to false. Simplistic equivalences between deliberate drug cheats and politicians who have a naive idealism doesn’t help your argument.

      • John Carins

        Your “cop out” argument is far too generous. The voting public probably and thankfully see it differently.

        • St Ignatius

          No, that’s the definition and root of the word. If you want to twist it then at least be honest about it. No-one is helped by conflating intentional deceit and failed idealism.

          • John Carins

            Who cares about definitions when slippery Dave (a politician) can change the definition of “marriage”.

    • Dominic Stockford

      So its fine to cheat then?

  • davidofkent

    Why does sport produce so many great hypocrites?


    • Faulkner Orkney

      I’d say sport was well below other arenas…politics, Brit-Art, TV presenters, pop-stars, the IMF, Guardian readers…etc

  • Michael H Kenyon

    Sport is about winning above all else, and this invites monomania and moral blindness. It epitomises philistinism, and so you can see why idiots like it, and the cynical encourage it. I’d rather read a book.

  • St Ignatius

    I don’t buy this argument, which oddly relies on co-opting religious language as if it’s self-evidently a bad thing to have ideals. The truth is that the media vicariously engages in sport by not doing it, reporting on it and then inventing a narrative to justify their hanger on status. It’s in their interest to hype it all up, because it is essentially quite boring to just report the facts from a distance (such and such a team won again by doing this, that and the next thing, let’s all go home). This leads to all kinds of hand-wringing and inflated claims when in reality real people go to watch real sport simply to be entertained, talk to their friends, share and experience and that’s pretty much it. It’s the narcissistic Barneses of this world who think we are interested in their backstory, linkages and opining.

  • trace9

    S.P.Q.R. – t.

    Jist wanted to see what it looked like, Suppose They weren’t so perfik either, & now modern sport itself is an empire – of money, sleaze & liars..

  • jim

    Surely the hypocrisy is demanded by the sponsors.It’s true of most modern celebrities.There are fewer bohemian actorsrockers because they all want commercial endorsements. It’s nothing sporting or personal.Only business.

    • thomasaikenhead

      The world awaits Nike to come clean about what they knew about Salazar and the Camp Oregon regime!

  • thomasaikenhead

    ” The best we can offer is John Terry, leader and legend, former Dad of the Year and the only man sacked twice as captain of the England football team.”

    Oh dear Simon, no mention anywhere of that great football hypocrite Rio Ferdinand?

    Now why would that be?

    Rio of drink-driving fame, Rio found guilty by the FA of racist behaviour with regard to Ashley Cole, Rio who avoided a drugs tet and was subsequently banned from football, Rio who conducted an affair for many years before and during his marriage and then spent £500, 000 seeking a super-injunction to conceal it before being forced in court to admit at least ten OTHER affairs?

    All the shile Rio was playing the public and corporate sponsors for a fool by claiming to be a happily married family man?

    Simon, how can you mention John Terry and yet ‘forget’ to mention the arch hypocrite Rio Ferdinand?

    • Dominic Stockford

      Or Steven Gerrard now we see him hit the bloke with the bottle (allegedly) now he’s found not guilty, and so on?

    • sfin

      Lindford Christie also springs to mind…but, you and I are barking up the wrong tree…wrong skin colour apparently.

  • JoleneWScott

    ….Some time hit the spectator Find Here

  • Virik Navarro

    Sports: Because we need to develop as better animals in the digital age moving into the robotic age. Sorry for the intellectually bankrupt sarcasm but people should’ve seen the end of the sports mania a long, long time ago.

  • Annie

    Sports men.

    I haven’t seen any scandals involving women. And we all know if Fifa was run by a woman it would be a less shady, rapey affair.

    • Nuahs87

      Martina Hingis and Marion Jones are obvious examples. It is sad you are too sexist to follow women’s sport. I suspect racism also played a part in your ignorance regarding Marion Jones.

    • Dominic Stockford

      Athletics is rife with scandals involving women.

  • Partner

    I associate sport not with moral virue but with being very, very, very thick. Most sportsmen are basically so stupid they can’t find their way home at night unaided and most sports writers churn out cliches that only very, very,very thick people want to read. What kind of drongo models his/her life on a golfer or (even worse) a footballer? Only other people as stupid as they are. I have never in my entire life read anything said by a sportsman or sports writer that has been of the slightest profundity or interest.

    • HAL 9000

      Yes! And I’m glad to see you using ‘drongo’ – another fine Australian word from the country that gave you ‘whinge’.

  • Davidh

    It’s perhaps a little simpler than all that. If a guy has that much single-minded determination for himself to be better than all others, then chances are he might not be such a nice person. Put the other way around, if these sports “heroes” had been nicer people, they perhaps wouldn’t have reached the top anyway.

  • tomgreaves

    The good, clean sportsman who is disciplined, self sacrificing, tough and yet fair is the idealised role model who keeps to the rules and doesn’t argue with the ref. What a bore! Give me a coke snorting rock star any day. But the worst thing is that sport has become the perfect microcosmic representation of just how banal, mindless, absurd and thoroughly sycophantic we have become in the face of the social engineering project of morality made into political correctness. This amplified good-guy morality, lensed though sport, conceals a combination of greed, corruption and control freakery that makes fools of us all. Why do we put up with it?

  • Sue Smith

    I haven’t read so much hokum as this in many a year!! Bollocks.

  • John Lea

    No one has mentioned Andy Murray, Dunblane’s answer to Pol Pot. A man who has literally bored millions to death with his pre and post-match interviews.

  • Charles Hatvani

    Sport at first used to be amateur with all the lofty words attached to it; the so-called professional sport was confined to circuses, country fairs, arenas and such, with lofty words completely absent. Some 40 years ago professional sport became all-embracing, usurping amateur sporting codes and inserting into them all the morality and ethics of circuses, arenas and country fairs. Professional sport is not sport, it is business! And as we do not ask our butchers, accountants, tradesmen, etc., what poisons they are taking to perform their tasks, we should not be asking profesional “sportsmen” (for which they are not!) what poisons they are taking, in order to amuse us more!