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Guard against ugly side of sports

Monday, July 7, 2014

While there is no denying sport has the potential to deliver social benefits, it is important that not too many non-sporting expectations are placed on athletes and sport in general. Just like everything in life, there are potentially dark sides that can be associated with sport.


It is quite easy to become overwhelmed by the euphoria that sport generates especially at national and international events such as the FIFA World Cup, Olympics, Super Bowl, as well as the individual performances of athletes and teams. 


Sport is generally seen as harmless, in fact some see it as bordering on being sacrosanct. Some see sport as providing the answer to dealing with many social issues, such as deviance, because sports inherently build social character and teamwork. 


However, in recent times sport has become laden with a series of undesirable, unethical acts. These acts (cheating, corruption, racism, sexism, etc) have manifested themselves across various sporting disciplines and have involved players, managers, fans and even the president of a country. It is worthwhile not only to acknowledge that these unwanted acts exist but also take measures to ensure that they are properly policed and every measure taken to prevent their continuation. 


As sport has become commercialised, the stakes have increased. Sport, for some, is not only about the ethos of fair play and matching of natural ability and skills. Winning is not only important to the athletes; winning is important to managers, support staff, governments, legitimate and illegitimate businesses and fans. Sport is a product that is sold on the market.


Recently in Spain, the unsavory taste of racism was highlighted when Brazilian Danny Alves was subjected to racist taunts by a spectator who eventually threw a banana at Alves. In Italy, Mario Balotteli was subjected to racist taunts by children while the national team trained prior to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. 


At the World Cup, fans from Croatia and Russia displayed anti-Semitic banners in their games against Brazil and South Korea, respectively. The Russian fans displayed banners of the Celtic Cross, a symbol that was used by the neo-Nazis and white supremacists groups throughout the world. Brazilian fans were also accused at hurling homophobic comments at the Mexican goalkeeper when the two teams clashed. 


Luis Suarez was prepared to bite his way through Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini shoulder in an effort to earn a decisive win over Italy. Fifa banned Suarez for four months from all football related activities as well as levied a fine of 100,000 Swiss Francs (US$ 111,000). It was not the first time that Suarez have had to be sanctioned for biting. He served a 10-game ban in the Premier League in 2013 for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic and in 2010 committed a similar offence while playing for Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam. The Uruguayan President, Jose Mujica, referred to the ban on Suarez as a ‘fascist ban’ and that “Fifa are a bunch of sons of bitches.” Suarez’s national hero status heightened in Uruguay. 


Dutch striker Arjen Robben has reinforced his reputation as a ‘diver’ given his antics in Holland’s second round match against Mexico. The fact that he indicated that he did dive in an earlier attempt to win a penalty kick in the game highlights the extent players are willing to go in order to win.


At the World Cup in 1982, West Germany’s goalkeeper Harald Schumacher knocked out France’s Patrick Battiston unconscious for 30 minutes with a reckless tackle to foil a goal scoring opportunity. At that same World Cup, Austria and West Germany were accused of conspiring to ensure that they both qualified for the second round of matches at the expense of Algeria. These two incidences continue to haunt Germany’s football history.


These acts should not be taken mildly and forgotten. They should form part of athlete development programmes. It is important that coaches, managers, parents and supporters instill the basic ethos of fair play from early so that it will become habitual not only their sporting discipline but in every aspect of their lives. It is imperative that what is considered as character building traits are consistent with what is considered as acceptable behaviour across every aspect of social life. 


Coaches, parents, administrators and everyone involved in sports directly and indirectly must be prepared to discuss with athletes especially junior athletes the “rights” and “wrongs” about sports. These discussions should be open and frank and should incorporate real situations which are abounding today in every discipline. It is never too early to start talking to youngster about the ugly side of sports. They should be prepared for all expectations.


Every practical measure must be ensued to ensure that unethical acts do not become “normative” in sports. Additionally, there should not be any hastiness to put the tag of “role model” on sports personnel because it may return to “bite us.”


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