Foul Play – What’s Wrong With Sport by Joe Humphreys

It was like a gift from the gods. The thorny question of giving unquestioning allegiance to a corporate monster called Chelsea FC was weighing increasingly heavy on the mind. As each season passed the whole corrupting football affair was becoming less and less tenable. So when I stumbled on the book that put it all in some kind of perspective you can imagine my heartfelt joy. I was no longer alone in my torment. At least one other human soul had come to the conclusion that something was seriously rotten at the heart of our new global religion. If there were two of us, perhaps there were more.

Humphreys declares in his conclusion:

sport starts to go wrong as soon as it’s taken too seriously. And that can happen in a school playground as easily as it can happen in an Olympic stadium. It can happen in the mind of an athlete who values winning above all else, or in the heart of a spectator who becomes a manic obsessive P223

Well that was me. Forty five years of obsessively obsessing about Chelsea football results and twenty years obsessing about keeping my ping pong club one step ahead of the pack. I needed therapy and Humphreys was on hand to provide it.

If you ever wake up believing that sport is ennobling, life enhancing and a medium for world peace and harmony, Joe Humphreys book will quickly disinvest you of your delusions. We have thankfully embraced The God Delusion from Dawkins, now we have been treated to the sports delusion from Joe Humphreys. Humphreys proceeds to unravel every facade that has been constructed around the sporting delusion; moral, social, political. By the end of the text we are left with a rather sober account of what most of us actually suspect; modern sport is morally, socially and politically bankrupt. The few notable exceptions are just that, exceptions.

Humphreys argues that, Modern sport can be seen as a moral experiment and a moral experiment that has gone badly wrong. P49

It all began, he explains, in the era of Queen Victoria:

The British Empire was at its height, and public schools across the home nations were embracing the philosophy of Muscular Christianity. The thinking was that sport would not only prepare the next generation of British leaders for the hard knocks of life, but instil in them virtues such as self-discipline, courage and justice. Britain at this time saw no contradiction in preaching Christianity while committing mass murder in the colonies. So a theory suggesting that boys could be made better through brutalisation had an instant appeal. P46 But contrary to the hopes of the Muscular Christianity adherents, latest research tends to show, that team sports are mostly detrimental to one’s moral character. The pack mentality dilutes players sense of individual moral responsibility. P52

That finding could just about describe any professional football match across the globe. On the rare occasion when a player does disagree with the referee in favour of the opposition it makes national headlines. You can count the examples on one hand. The research concludes:

The more competitive the sport, the lower the participants morals tended to be. P53

Humphreys adds:

sport in general was found to encourage unethical behaviour. P53

Having debunked the moral and ethical pretensions of sport, Humphreys goes on to explore the highly contentious issue of drug use and abuse in sport. Here Humphreys tends towards the conclusion that performance enhancing substances are entirely in keeping with the general win at all costs ethic of all professional sport. He quotes Jay Coakley, a US sociologist specialising in behaviour of elite sports performers who controversially concludes:

The use of these substances is not the result of defective characters among athletes, or the existence of too many material rewards in sport, or television coverage, or exploitation by coaches and managers, or moral weakness among athletesmost substance use and abuse is clearly tied to an over-commitment to the sport ethic itself P71

I particularly warmed to the chapter, Sport, Lies and Self- Deceit. For me, this chapter gets to the very heart of my life-long obsession with Chelsea. When Humphreys writes that, everything- tradition, history, a sense of community, old fashioned values,- can legitimately be sacrificed
on the alter of sporting success, I sense he is talking directly about Premier League Football supporters. Humphreys continues, Note how little outcry there is in clubs over the demolition of memory-filled stadiums or over foreign takeovers. Chelsea fans know all about the joys of a foreign owner lording it over all and sundry. At the time of writing Chelsea are on their fifth manager under the Abromovich regime. Nothing and nobody is sacred in the pursuit of glory.

Throughout the book Humphreys makes the parallel between sport and religion and it’s a very convincing parallel. Humphreys explores the work of American psychologist, Daniel Wann, who has studied the impact of sport on mental health. Wann explains:

People don’t go to church as often as they used to so one option is sports fandom. By going to a game, or even watching it, you get that sense of tribalness, of community, of a common bond you can embrace. P172

A surrogate faith in a Godless society to use the words of Humphreys.

In the same way as Marx described religion as the opiate of the masses so we might regard sport in the very same way. Humphreys proceeds:

In fact, sport may be worse than a distraction in that it gives people the illusion of being involved in important matters of state, whereas this couldn’t be further from the truth. Humphreys continues, It should not be forgotten, moreover, that sport was deliberately used by some of the worst dictators of the 20th century, not only as a distracting device but as a vehicle for suppressing political dissent. Franco effectively stole football titles for Real Mardrid to boost his public ratings. P181

Humphreys returns to the sport as religion theme when he explains:

‘religious events winter and summer solstice, papal visits, pilgrimages, Easter vigils and the like were the definitive social unifiers, bringing old and young, men and women and rich and poor together for a common purpose. Today, sport is our primary form of communion. No longer do we mark the seasons by the changing colours on a clergyman’s robe. Rather we know its autumn because the English Premier League is back. P184

Humphreys conclusions on modern sport are bleak and perhaps one sided. Humphreys position is best summed up by his reference to George Orwell who had this to say on the subject:

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. P187

Humphreys continues in uncompromising form:

In fact it could be argued that sport is a last refuge for racism, sexism, homophobia, animal cruelty and bad language too

My own managerial experiences in sport from grassroots to elite level have certainly borne out much of what Humphreys has described but they have also yielded great moments of individual and collective joy. With careful guidance, young people can grow and expand their horizons but the key here is the guidance. Without it they can easily succumb to all the negatives that Humphreys has so adequately outlined. Without a nurturing hand, sport can quickly degenerate into bigotry and tribalism. But with the right sort of nurturing provided by a coach, a manager a teacher or occasionally a parent, a young person may rise above their immediate circumstances and tentatively crawl out of the cesspool of tribal bigotry to see the bigger picture.

Foul Play should be compulsory reading for every coach, every governing body, every parent and of course, every athlete in every sport. Read it at the start of every season and it may just be possible to mitigate against some of the more dehumanising aspects of sport; our obsession with winning no matter what the costs.

Good as Humphreys little golden book is, it still hasn’t weaned me off my Chelsea obsession. With an FA Cup final coming up next week, can I really pretend that I’m just not interested?

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