Sports Morality

Created on 30/7/2008

There have been several sports stars, both in the UK and US, who have behaved appallingly. It’s not hard to imagine that this has always happened, but in days gone by it was largely unknown. There was less media attention and money involved and that was probably the reason for virtual anonymity.

No one much cares what you get up to in the bedroom if you’re an accountant or a refuse collector, but they do if you’re a sports star. The other obvious reason for this undue and probably undeserved attention are the endorsements and sponsorships signed up to by our leading brands with these stars. Put another way, if you hold yourself under a microscope for money when it suits you, you don’t be too surprised when people keep looking when you think you’re off duty and it’s less convenient.

Imagine, if you’re a brand trying to sell trainers or candy and the star you pay a fortune to be caught with three or four ladies of the night, none of who is much older than your target market?

There are hard, commercial imperatives behind the sports stars being tightly controlled. It would be great, and much more rewarding if they were to behave better because they felt it was the right thing to do.

There are clearly two different categories of misbehavior in sport, and they shouldn’t be confused.

The first, and much easier to control, is when a sports star simply misbehaves on the pitch. If a guy punches another player during a game, it’s very easy to punish the guilty party and sort him out psychologically. There are extremes here, like when the past master of the dramatique, the French master of Manchester United, Eric Cantona, was verbally attacked during a game at Crystal Palace and decided to seek physical revenge with a kung fu kick aimed at the miscreant’s head. Luckily his aim wasn’t perfect, and he left his stud marks on the victim’s neck. Eric was left to contemplate the folly of his ways over a season long ban and some community service. He came back more philosophical than ever.

This week, Joey Barton, an English football Premier League footballer, who plays for Newcastle United, was released from prison. He had been a guest of Her Majesty for a few months after having admitted a serious assault whilst he was already on a warning. His career was marred by many despicable incidents and disciplinary problems. On 20 May 2008 he was sentenced to six months imprisonment for common assault and affray during an incident outside a McDonald's restaurant in Liverpool City Centre for which he served 77 days of this prison term, being released on 28 July 2008. On 1 July 2008 he was, in addition sentenced to a four months suspended sentence after admitting another assault, this time actual bodily harm on former teammate Ousmane Dabo during a training ground dispute. This incident effectively ended his Manchester City career

Clearly Joey doesn’t enjoy much self-control. The question being asked in much public debate is whether or not Joey should be allowed back to play football for his weekly £70,000 ($140,000). He was quoted as saying. “"Where I'm from, you either work hard at school to get out or you escape through sport. The other option is loitering, crime, drugs and prison." It seems that Joey needs to stop and think since he clearly knows the answers, but has to live them rather than just speak them.


A similar debate rocked the world of former world heavyweight boxing champion, Mike Tyson. He had several convictions and a couple of jail terms for various offences. Before his time there was the famous draft resister, Muhammad Ali, who refused to serve his country in the Vietnam War. Ali was stripped of his world title and certain countries wouldn’t allow him entry. Tyson was treated somewhat less severely by his sporting authorities.

We have had many other examples of sports stars behaving like animals over the last few years. There have been debauched orgies with underage girls, rapes and violence

Two things are happening, one of which could be termed a restraint of trade, and which the sports star concerned could litigate against. The argument goes like this, OK, I might have done something wrong, and now I have been punished for the crime, so when my time is served, it is not natural justice to punish me a second time, by stopping me in the pursuit of my career. I agree with this view.

If a very evil person were to paint a wonderful picture we should be allowed to look at it, regardless of his or her moral turpitude. The same rules should be applied to a sports star. One punishment for each crime is sufficient and proper.

Different to this is the case last week of Dwain Chambers, the English 100 meter sprinter. He was found to have cheated by use of performance enhancing drugs. He had to serve a ban, and then he had all the medals he had won during the period in question taken away from him. Both of which seem reasonable and appropriate punishment,

After Chambers two-year ban was served he resumed competitive running, which is his right. He then sought to legally overturn the British Olympic ban, which is lifelong, on any person caught cheating with drugs. Only two countries, England and Norway, apparently, enforce such a ban. Even though it runs contrary to natural justice as outlined above you can see a good reason for making an example of the punishment handed down to athletes in these circumstances. If this doesn’t happen, on a global basis, then this situation will only worsen until the rarity will be the person who doesn’t use drugs. The suspicion is that this is already the case. We can only hope that this is not true.

Of course the best punishment for a person like Tyson or Barton is that they are no longer able to generate commercial sponsorship or endorsement, and that will soon make even the biggest thug and idiot realize that they can’t get away with unacceptable behavior, whatever the level of their stardom.

There is also a clear and pressing need for the sports franchises, sponsors and endorsers to work out how they can help their meal tickets, the sports stars, to behave better. If a tiny fraction of the huge investment into these players were channeled into educating them better, and more completely, they would learn how to behave.

We have heard many of these sports stars complain that they never signed up to be a role model when they learned to kick a ball, or punch or play tennis, but the truth is, that when they took the money to endorse products to sell to the kids they did become role models, and they did sign up to this the instant they took the cash. So behave or give the money back then do what you want, stop whining, and take your punishment.