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Let’s face it: elite sport can be ethically ugly

Let’s face it: elite sport can be ethically ugly

Paul Bickley argues that the fixation with success in elite sport leaves questions of morality aside. 14/08/2020

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the documentary The Edge about the England cricket team’s journey to become the top test side in the world.

In spite of the fact that in 2009, when England embarked on this quest, there were only ten test playing nations, this ambition was thought... well, ambitious. After their famous victory over a formidable Australian side (and drunken bus top tour of London) in 2005, they quickly spiraled down in a cycle of injury and complacency until they were bowled out for 51 in Jamaica – their third lowest test score. In the documentary, the then-captain Andrew Strauss vividly likens the team to a body with an illness: “that test match was our massive great pile of vomit”.

Nevertheless, through a combination of naturally talented players and disciplined leadership, England achieved their goal. Yet Strauss’ reaction is revealing: “It was a bit of an anti-climax. Is this it?” To its credit, the documentary takes a surprising turn into the team’s subsequent mental, emotional and relational fragmentation. The by-product of their ambition? Players with eating disorders. Players suffering from depression. Players hiding injuries. Players, in the midst of all the intensity of elite level team sport, isolated and lonely.

What comes across is a kind of inhumanity, a disregard for the individual and his wellbeing - including, interestingly, the coach himself. Players ended up hating the game, yet were paradoxically unable to give it up: “As soon as you take your whites off your value and your brand fall off the face of the cliff”, said the mercurial Kevin Pietersen.

Of course, cricket isn’t alone. Earlier this week, the latest in a long line of British gymnasts – Olympic medal winning Nile Wilson – has called the culture and coaching methods of the sport abusive. Again, the justification for this is sporting excellence – the logic of ‘no pain, no gain’ taken to its furthest extent without regard for the young athletes themselves. We can’t pretend it’s one sport, or even one country.

“But we wanted to win medals. The governing body, the coaches, wanted to win Olympic medals... This culture of 'win at all costs'… I feel for many years emotional manipulation and being pushed through physical pain was certainly something I experienced. I think it was coaching methodology where we felt what it feels like to live in fear - you perform or there's a consequence”.

Few of us will ever be exposed to the unique pleasures and anxieties of elite sport. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine well-paid and highly-praised sportsmen and women as ‘victims’, and all too easy to dismiss their frustrations. Most of us would love to be paid to do what we love, but it would be better by far if that wish is never granted. Philosophers and theologians have observed the affinity between sport and play – and this is how most of us experience it. We play because, frankly, it’s fun – and for something to be fun, it tends to have to be freely done, unnecessary or – as the philosophers say – autotelic: for itself. There might be fringe benefits to health, relationships or even character to sporting participation, but if those were what we were interested in you probably wouldn’t go and stand on a cricket pitch for most of your Saturday. Meanwhile, at elite level, we often say that a sport has become ‘more than a game’ – a phrase which is used to point to its popularity and significance, but which perhaps should be heard as a sign of its ethical distortion and potential dangers.

Sport should be reclaimed from the tyranny of necessity – an argument made by this previous Theos report. In his interview Nile Wilson conceded that everyone is colluding somehow: “I have empathy for the system, because you're a coach wanting success and an athlete wanting success – the culture was already there, that's how it worked”. But what is the system? The fixation with success – Olympic golds, top test playing nation, winning the Champions League – leaves questions of morality and the good aside; they are superfluous to the circular logic of success. Why do we need medals? Because look at all the money we invested. Why did you invest? To win medals. This is defended by vague appeals to national morale, public expectations or, when the ethical cupboard is looking particularly bare, base appeals to (probably faulty) economic thinking... “Well, as you know, [fill in the blank] is big business these days”, as if that gives players, administrators or coaches a free pass.

Karl Barth, arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, once argued that sport was one of the ‘chthonic’ or earthly powers – things that can serve the human good and be a source of joy, but where the relationship has somehow been reversed, with humanity serving them. Effectively, they become gods to be propitiated (Nile Wilson’s language is fascinating... the athletes are “treated as pieces of meat”).

I don’t know that there’s an obvious answer, other than to get our sporting goals back into proportion. I do know there’s surely ever more a case for chaplaincy in elite sport – a subject which Theos has touched on before. They’re an institutional way of saying, “this is only a game” and, indeed, that the player is more than the performance. I vividly remember speaking to a chaplain who, rather than celebrating with the team after league promotion, went to the bedside of an injured player in hospital. As one footballer put it, “A psychologist has to get the best of the player on the pitch. The chaplain has to get the best of the player for his life. The chaplain has to be strong. Forget the football… ask the questions that relate to life.”


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Image: Airwolfhound licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Posted 14 August 2020

Chaplaincy, Mental Health, Sport

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