July 20, 2011

Is Sport Dead? Or, the Lie Detector

Years ago I found the single-best golf membership in the world. At Ampleforth College, a sort of Catholic Eton on the edge of the North York Moors, there is a challenging little golf course primarily for the use of the pupils. There’s also a private members roll, and on enquiry I discovered that the subscription rate for students (as I then was) ran at only £50 for the year. Who could refuse? I sent in my form, and wrote to the secretary asking if he required proof of my student status. The reply was just what you might have expected: ‘The last time I looked’, he said, ‘golf was an honourable game. No proof will be required.’

I had a happy two years in that honourable place, and in the adjacent pub. But I’m given to reflect on the diminution of that spirit of trust in sport in general. The influence of money has corrupted most of the pursuits we love, and the spectre of cheating lies in wait for those activities we cherish as sacred. Baseball has been disgraced; cricket is in the mire; athletics (track & field) has become the least trustworthy display of athleticism known to man; and cycling is a plain farce. I could go on.

Hogarth, Pit Ticket. The shadow of a dishonourable man hangs over the game cocks.

In times past the influence of money was perhaps just as prevalent, but the general sense of shame, or fear of disgrace, checked abuses. In the heady days of cockfighting, which before the 1830s was as popular and as monied as horse racing, those who made false bets were publicly exposed, suspended from the ceiling in a large basket, and alienated from the community until all debts were properly settled. The community regulated itself because the honour was the point of the activity. Winning was hollow unless winning was genuine. And when winning was genuine there was no shame in losing. The better man, or his cock, won, and hands were shaken.

The spirit of fair play is integral to sport, and that is contingent upon trust. Sport must be honourable or else it is not sport. With this in mind I viewed with some horror the latest developments at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). The MCC is the home of cricket at Lord’s in London, and upholds everything good about the traditions of the sport. It is stuffy, conservative, and typically reactionary, but it is all these things in the best traditions of the English anti-revolutionary pace of reform.

Enter the Australian: Steve Waugh is a member of the MCC’s World Cricket Committee. He’s a former Australian captain, and a fabulously plucky character. And Steve Waugh is cheesed off. Fed up with being asked how many games he played in were fixed, Mr. Waugh decided to put himself through a lie-detector test. Naturally, he passed the test with flying colours, but in his report to the media he suggested that the polygraph ought to be taken up by the sport so that innocent men could prove their innocence and restore public confidence. The integrity of the sport, he seems to suggest, depends on honourable men being subjected to lie detection.

My strong feeling is that the fading integrity of the sport is killed outright by such a suggestion. If an innocent and honourable man truly is innocent and honourable, then I will take him at his word. If I am betrayed, no doubt it will come out in due course, and we will shake our heads. But the fundamental point is that we would be better to educate our youngsters to uphold the games they play in the right spirit so that such barbarisms as polygraphy are unnecessary. Doubtless, a return to the glory days of amateurism are not set to return, but that does not mean that we have to accept the notion that financial reward is the raison d’être of sport. Primarily, I expect sportsmen to be sportsmen because they fundamentally love their sport, and love the competition that comes with it. If we can instil this precept, we shall not have to worry so much about corruption.

If lie detectors are really thought necessary, then the sprit of sport is surely dead. I await the outcry of honourable men.


  1. When television and endorsements command ludicrous capital to individual players, cheating becomes not a temptation, but an actual and measurable market force. This materialized force goes beyond seduction and becomes a contingency for not success, but for participation. Any stats nerd will confirm that the likelihood of performance increases in male athletes on a sustained schedule year after year is physically impossible. Our elected leaders lie and cheat while under oath and scrutiny, so why would an athlete take the high road to financial ruin instead of the other road that leads to fabulous wealth and ease? The market does not offer cheating, it demands it. There are innumerable swank offices staffed by brilliant and devious sharks ready to put a positive spin to the consumers (fans) and run interference for whatever regulators once lurked about. The corruption and duplicity has thoroughly infected the NCAA as well, by hoodwinking impoverished urban males into a college farce while dangling potential future (professional) earnings in front of them, then criminalizing that very incentive during the time when they could use it most.
    All of the sport films of the 1970's and 80's predicted this in some form, and I am left combating (protesting) it by taking my family to college, high school, hobby, or club level sporting events only. There is little manliness left, precious little gallantry, and nearly no honor. Because of this, I suggest that capital S "Sports" is dead, but sports are not.

  2. That makes for depressing reading, but I share the optimism of your terminal point. I have been advocating an interest in non-league/non-professional activities for a while. On the plus side, the recent women's world cup seemed to have been full of those qualities lost to the men's equivalent.

  3. Our sporting is only affected by our society. The issues in the game are just symptoms of larger societal issues. Wall st. cheats, spouses cheat, athletes cheat. Parents cheat at work, kids cheat in school, and police cheat in court.
    Sport is not dead but it simply suffers from the same ill our economy and society create.

    Funny you post such things today as I posted something with quite differing sentiments today… before I came over here.

  4. Quite so. I agree with your post, I think, without contradicting the sentiments here. The key is to be active (i.e. actually play), and amateur.


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