Monday, 8 February 2010

Terry and Tebow - A Moral Maze

Barely could you pick up a newspaper, browse the news online, or take a journey on public transport this week without encountering some opinion about the rise and fall of Chelsea (and now ex-England) captain John Terry. Expectations have been that everybody, from MPs to tabloid journalists, and obviously The Cynical Challenge, has to wade in, and throw its two-penn'orth into, the murky, foul-smelling waters of Terry's sex-life.

If these various vox-pops and opinion pieces about the issue are representative of the general consensus, then the British public are disgusted with Terry's infidelity, and are satisfied with England coach Fabio Capello's decision to strip him of the captaincy. The message is clear - any man who sleeps around, and especially with the ex-partner of an England teammate - is not fit to enjoy the ambassadorial and leadership role which the captaincy bestows.

Two fundamental points seriously muddy the waters of this narrative.

The first is the nature of Terry's indiscretion. Undoubtedly, beyond the tabloid "think of the children" brigade, people are angry. Many have drawn parallels with their own workplace and suggested that if Terry's behaviour were repeated in other professional contexts he might be out on his ear. Others are just upset that Terry - 'Dad of the Year', "my family means the world to me" - has fooled the public about the nature of his private life, and (worse, in a way) sought to cover it up by paying off the parties involved. That includes a rumoured £750,000 payment to Vanessa Perroncel.

As understandable as these reactions are, neither are reasons to relieve Terry of the captaincy. Indeed, the argument that Terry's wandering eye makes him an inappropriate leader of the England team is surely a red herring. As Guardian columnist Paul Hayward notes, it was his misuse of the position of England captain which forced Capello's hand:
"[The argument that] an England captain should be sacked for having extra-marital sex [was something] this saga was never really about. At its heart was persistent misuse of the leader's role: the latest being the allegation that an associate of Terry's management team offered the use of his skipper's subsidised Wembley box for £4,000 in readies."
Coming off the back of revelations in December 2009 that Terry had touted tours of Chelsea's Cobham training ground for £10,000 a pop, along with his contracting of an agency to market himself for advertising and endorsements, Terry's use of the captaincy was teetering towards abuse. The sexual dalliances in this story provide titillation, but not grounds for Terry's dismissal.

Indeed, the ins-and-outs (excuse the innuendo) of Terry's private life are far less interesting than the manner in which they have been discussed in public. And this forms the second reason why we should be more cautious in joining in the public airing of Terry's dirty laundry.

To illustrate the point, let's switch to another major sporting story going on across the Atlantic. Superbowl XLIV is being played literally as I type. It's one of the most-watched sporting occasions on the planet, and for some the most keenly-anticipated part of the Superbowl television coverage is the half-time advert break. Unsurprising really, since, at a cost of around $100,000 per second, each advert is a hand-crafted piece of televisual history.

This year's series of adverts included one rather controversial offering from an organisation named Focus on the Family. Starring Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, rated as one of the NFL's biggest prospects (he will be drafted in 2010), the advert explicitly promoted a pro-life message. Never before has such a potentially divisive issue been given airtime during the Superbowl, and many observers, including one commentary from ABC news, are angry that the usually non-political flavour of sports programming has been tainted.
"If you're a sports fan, and I am, that's the holiest day of the year," wrote Gregg Doyel of CBSsports.com. "It's not a day to discuss abortion. For it, or against it, I don't care what you are. On Super Bowl Sunday, I don't care what I am. Feb. 7 is simply not the day to have that discussion."
Whatever ones view on abortion, it's hard to disagree that the use of a sporting occasion to open up debate on a moral issue leaves a bitter taste.

Sport and morality are uneasy bedfellows. Are sports stars expected to behave as paragons of virtue? Should sporting authorities encourage athletes to give a moral lead? When does a sportsman's private life become of public interest? These are tough questions, but I'm inclined to think that most people would prefer to see sport and morality largely kept separate.

Yet if we heap opprobrium on John Terry for his misdemeanours one minute - in other words, asking sport to be a moral arbiter - we cannot oppose the moral lead provided by the Tebow pro-life commercial the next. It's this inconsistency, this hypocrisy, which exposes an unpalatable truth about the tale of John Terry and Vanessa Perroncel: that Terry's job description does not include the role of moral leader to his fellow players and England fans. Whatever awful things he gets up to in private, they are irrelevant when they have little bearing on his on-field performance.

Euro 2012's own moral dilemma

A brief addendum to the sorry Terry story - UEFA revealed before Sunday's draw for the Euro 2012 qualifiers that, because of an unwillingness to mix politics and sport, neither Armenia and Azerbaijan, nor Russia and Georgia, would be drawn together. It's a point that quite neatly fits in with the argument of this blog - sport and politics, much like sport and morality, do not easily mix.

The problem is, of course, that by pandering to the political factionalism of these warring countries, UEFA has paradoxically done the very thing it sought to avoid - politicising sport, bringing football into the disputes over Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia.

Funny: UEFA was pretty keen to extoll the virtues of sport as a unifying force in a similar example last year, the process dubbed 'football diplomacy' which brought together Turkey and Armenia after nearly a century of strife. Now the goalposts have been moved, it's hard to say where sport begins and politics ends. Like the private life of John Terry at the moment, it's all a bit of a mess.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James