The Only Way is Ethics

This article first appeared in The Blue Bird on MARCH 2ND 2015

The twenty fifth of May, 2013. The Aviva Premiership final. Leicester versus Northampton. All Stephen Myler has to do is bounce the ball into touch to end the first half (he knows this because the referee, Wayne Barnes, has told him so repeatedly). Instead, he kicks it out on the full. Leicester are duly awarded an attacking scrum, manage to get away with pushing early and win a penalty. In an inversion of Marx’s famous dictum what has been occurring as farce is about to repeat itself as tragedy. A red card appears, is brandished in the face of the Northampton captain, Dylan Hartley, and Wayne Barnes informs everyone privy to his on-field microphone that he will not accept being labelled a ‘f*cking cheat’. For those television viewers privileged enough to be watching the game on Fox, there is the added luxury of a commentary response to Hartley’s transitory linguistic shift into French. As Hartley trudges off the pitch, that hackneyed phrase follows him through the airwaves: ‘This is rugby—it’s not football. You do not speak to officials like that.’

Prima facie, these words read simply enough. If you swear at an official in rugby, then you should expect some form of punishment. These are the rules of the game. The fans know it, the players know it, and Dylan Hartley knew it—the referee had made it very clear to him two minutes before the red card came out that any abuse directed towards the match officials would be dealt with accordingly. Parsed as a point of law, then, the claim that ‘this is rugby…you do not speak to officials like that’ says very little that is interesting to anyone. And yet, spliced in the middle of this uncontroversial phrase is the seemingly innocent addendum ‘it’s not football’. Conspicuously enough, the prima facie reading remains true even in the face of this supplement. It is rugby. It’s not football. And, as such, a red card should be awarded. But it’s not cricket either. Or handball. And in any case, no one was under the misapprehension that it was football. Applying a reductio ad absurdum logic to the inclusion of the phrase ‘it’s not football’ within rugby commentary would only result in meaningless comments such as ‘this is rugby—it’s not football. You can pick the ball up and run with it’.

Of course, reductio ad absurdum arguments are so named precisely because of their farcical conclusions. The salient point here is that the prima facie reading of the commentator’s remarks about Dylan Hartley’s red card is redundant—no one would seriously interpret his words as a point of legal clarification. Instead, in the insertion of those three words into his punditry, a more implicit supposition is introduced into the discourse, and that supposition is this: rugby is different to football. More than that, rugby is better than football. Now before this descends into the asinine one-upmanship that so often accompanies the comparison of two sports by their proponents, let’s be careful to make a distinction at this point. The ‘better’ of the claim ‘rugby is better than football’ being advanced here is not an aesthetic ‘better’—discussions of this sort can never progress much beyond the level of argumentation evidenced in the ‘[insert noun here] is more attractive/funny/intelligent/better than [insert noun here]’ debates that should not be allowed to get off the ground in the first place. Rather, what is signified here is an ethical ‘better’, a value judgement based on a perception of the moral superiority of rugby over against its counterpart.

Such an acknowledgment should not be altogether surprising to anyone who has any sort of exposure to the spectacle of sport. It is not uncommon to hear similar sentiments uttered by rugby supporters should they be unfortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a football match. In my all-too-frequent experience of such incidences, the situation is brought to an almost unbearable crescendo in the very likely event that a tackle takes place and a player, either rightly or wrongly, ends up on the floor. For the sporting ingénue, with the uproar that ensues, he might be forgiven for assuming that one of the players had begun masticating on the arm of another player (which of course would never happen on a football field…). For the rugby fan, however, what has unfolded before his eyes is a perceived injustice which is indicative of a deeper problem within football in which players are encouraged to exaggerate their falls or even, heaven forbid, simulate them entirely. Admittedly, in most instances, it is not entirely clear that what is being disparaged is the laissez-faire attitude to ethics within football or behaviour considered unseemly for a human person in possess of any amount of testosterone. In either case, rugby is deemed to be more noble, more principled and more honourable than football.

At this juncture, it is important to introduce another careful distinction into the argument. There can, under no account, be any suspicion of a suggestion that cheating is acceptable on the sports field. It is, of course, not my intention to argue otherwise. In every sport there will inevitably be individuals who feel the compunction to cheat, believing that winning is more important to them than their moral integrity. Such people are rightly derided within their disciplines and their actions judged as detrimental to sport. Even within football, arguably the least ethically circumspect of all the sports, such duplicity is frowned upon—at least, that is, within England (although this may have more to do with the fact that, in the light of the recent demise of English football, a perceived moral respectability is about all that we can exploit in our bid to assert any superiority within world football). The sort of moral high ground presumed by rugby supporters, therefore, cannot be one which structures itself around a binary of ethics versus lawlessness.

Instead, the ethical integrity perceived at the heart of the game of rugby emerges under the guise of a particular attitude engendered within the sport itself. Take Evan Prendergast’s comment in the Independent, for example. He writes:

It is only around halfway through the 2014-2015  season and we are seeing worrying signs of increasing disrespect in the sport of Rugby. Rugby was once the sport that could boast about its’ extreme level of respect and honesty, and if something isn’t done to regain that moral high ground this great game once had, there will be nothing to differentiate it from the football of today. (Evan Prendergast, ‘Comment: Is the abusive attitude of footballs fans seeping into rugby?’, The Independent, accessed online 14/11/2014)

In encountering remarks such as this, the reader may well be left wondering what it is about rugby’s perceived ‘moral high ground’ that its proponents are so eager to protect. At almost every juncture, the ethical mores of rugby seem to be contrasted to the relative moral poverty of football over against any recognition of the intrinsic rightness of holding such a position. If it is not the case that ‘respect’ and ‘honesty’ are considered ends in themselves but simply furnish rugby fans with a ‘moral high ground’, then the question might be raised whether or not the objective of ethical deliberation has been missed entirely here.

In the face of this observation, the ‘moral attitude’ evinced within rugby begins to appear less and less palpable when brought into closer scrutiny. Whilst there is undoubtedly a far higher level of respect and honesty within the game of rugby, there is also a curious shadow-side to its purportedly ‘gentlemanly’ nature in which punching and fighting are considered ‘fair game’ (so long as such activities are conducted mano a mano) and through which a heavy drinking culture has emerged which allows the ‘gentlemen’ who play the ‘hooligan’s game’ to engage in behaviour more befitting of their sport. In some cases, these darker tendencies erupt into full-blown barbarity. One can only imagine the repercussions that would have followed if Ben Flower’s ‘double punch’ in last year’s Super League Grand Final had been carried out by a footballer rather than a rugby player.

In the end, when raised to the level of self-reflection, the professed ‘moral character’ of rugby starts to look very much like the sort of probity that you might expect to find within the training camps of the British Army—an imposed order and discipline in which its adherents are inculcated into a system in which they are expected to ‘do’ rather than to ‘think’. As such, it is not clear that what is perceived of as an ethics is anything more than an externally imposed system of regulation. By making a comment about the relative ethical superiority of rugby, then, it seems as though the rugby enthusiast may be confusing intrinsic moral value with the form of life into which they have been unwittingly instilled. What we are dealing with here does not appear to be morality per se but, more properly, the enforcement of legality upon an unwitting populace. Could it be the case that the perceived moral decency of rugby is merely ideology all the way down?

In answering this question, I want to put aside the questions of ethics proper for the time being and turn, albeit too briefly, to the subject of the forms of life out of which football and rugby have emerged in modern Britain. The famous Nietzsche expert and cultural critic, Joseph Barton once wrote, ‘at Liverpool my hometown, the comprehensive schools play football and the grammar schools play rugby. Simple. Straight away you have a class system that is glaringly obvious.’ (‘Toulon vs. Bordeaux – My Admiration for Rugby’, accessed on Whether this is a defensible account of the socio-cultural particularities that structured the historical development of rugby and football in modern Britain is not for me to say. I suspect that the continuity which seems to hold here is more than a peculiarity of history. However, in raising the issue of class distinction, Barton underscores the importance of scrutinising the sorts of historical conditions—what we are calling ‘forms of life’—out of which cultural phenomena materialise and within which they attain their societal meanings.

In general, arguments that move from class consciousness are not especially convincing. More often than not, all that is achieved by them is the careful repositioning of the chip upon the shoulder or the silver spoon within the mouth. In this case, however, by reminding ourselves of the forms of life out of which football and rugby materialised as cultural phenomena, we are able to approach the question of the relationship between ethics and sport in a more constructive context. The class issue does become pertinent at this juncture, allowing a means by which to express the implicit attitudes which underpin rugby and football respectively. Where the rugby field functioned as the site at which an order or discipline was infused within the lives of its participants, the football field has traded in a different ratio—a ratio in which, for some, order and discipline could be eschewed, in which individuality could be achieved, in which the structures of society might be broken down rather than slavishly adhered to. Within the sports as we find them in their modern guises, these forms of life are still indistinctly palpable—rugby, with its emphasis upon the collaborative, the team moving as a pack, differentiating itself from football, with its infatuation with the potentiality of the individual instantiated in the celebrity culture that has come to dominate the world media.

This emphasis upon individuality, despite its often unsavoury sentiment, can be traced back to an earlier time in which the material conditions of the sport were far removed from the almost cultic veneration that attends the modern game. For many people throughout the twentieth century, football was the only means through which their lives could attain any meaning or significance, allowing them the possibility to stand out from the humdrum of the quotidian and be recognised. Here was a different hierarchical structure in which respect was gained not by the arbitrariness of an inherited societal structure, but through an ability to entertain. Thus, while Terry Eagleton announces football as the modern ‘opium of the masses’, an ideological state apparatus which has prevented the revolution from occurring, in reality, football has provided many individuals with a rare opportunity to rebel against the invidious systems in which they found themselves situated. As such, the form of life which operates as the background against which football attains its significance contains an anarchic streak—the rejection of order and the status quo—with its players engaging in a form of insurrection in the ninety minutes which passed from the first to the last kick of the game.

In the present day, the form of life out of which modern football emerged may well seem a thing of the past. Football has now inevitably become coerced by a capitalist world that views it as the means to a lucrative end. The humble beginnings of the football league at the turn of the last century have become overshadowed by the corporate machine that is the Premier League. No doubt this simply adds to the frustration of the rugby fan who considers the effete footballer as the instantiation of all that is bad about modern society. This may well be the case. However, we are all products of the forms of life within which we find ourselves. And in staking a claim upon the moral high ground in any sphere of existence, we need to recognise the contexts out of which our own position surfaces. In so doing, it may well transpire that the rugby fan comes to realise that the purported moral superiority of rugby may consist in little more than the implicit assumption of the sorts of societal structures that football dissented against in the first place—a societal structure in which the higher classes moralised the lower classes and which led to football being labelled a ‘gentleman’s game played by hooligans’. By contrasting rugby to football, therefore, the rugby fan is not properly engaging in ethical debate; instead, he is harking back to the ancien régime in which a purported ethic was levied upon the lower classes in a bid to propound a social hierarchy of sorts.

Football and rugby are equally compelling spectacles which will continue to draw on the social imaginations of people in modern Britain. The differences which exist between them are many and varied, requiring more space than this column would allow to adequately discuss. However, the perception of a moral superiority in rugby over against football cannot be helpful in the attempt to understand the role of morality in sport and will only reiterate the sorts of inequalities that we have striven for so long to overcome. In the end, it is only once this cultural baggage has been swept off the stage that the important questions concerning the relationship between sports and ethics can be adequately answered.