From refs to cynics: 10 steps to a happier sporting new year
Tipping Point: Sport’s aim to ensure fairness remains its greatest virtue
Mo Salah gets a penalty against Newcastle. The FA concluded the way he threw himself down after the flimsiest touch on his arm was legitimate, thus setting a poor precedent. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
1. Give referees a break. They’re there for a reason. It’s to try and maintain the aspiration towards fair play that is sport’s greatest virtue. It isn’t to soak up spleen from those with only one partisan eye. Nor is it to tolerate the sort of abuse that too often gets excused on the grounds of supposed passion when it’s usually little more than ignorant posturing.
So let’s hear no more self-serving bleating about all anyone wants from referees is consistency. As if demanding consistency is some minimum requirement rather than an impossible cop-out. The person in charge is human. Humans make mistakes. They’re also usually doing it for little other reason than actual passion for the game. So, grow up everyone.
2. A constant media gripe is lack of access. It applies across almost all of the mainstream sports. If drug testers screened as efficiently as agents and media officers we’d all be a lot better off. Many players and athletes are now often available to interview only when they’re flogging something, grudgingly divulging snippets of damn all that contribute less than damn all to popular discourse.
So rather than facilitate this charade why not simply not play ball. When they come a calling just say thanks but no thanks, across the board, all in. Faithfully exchanging credibility for reporting that Joe Six-Pack is a brand ambassador for some isotonic fizz is no fair swap. Let’s just stop it and see what happens.
3. Messi and Marta on the same team; it should be an ambition everyone in football holds out for. Everyone knows Messi. Marta is generally regarded as the finest female footballer in the world. The 32-year-old Brazilian was once risibly tagged “Pele in a skirt”. In reality she’s one of the most talented players on the planet. There’s no reason she, or other top female players, can’t play alongside males.
The GAA should concentrate on finally introducing a clearly defined way of tackling a player
Messi himself is the answer to the old chestnut about size and strength being an issue. He and Marta can comfortably look each other in the eye in more ways than one. There will always be a place for technique and fitness in any team. Splitting the men’s and women’s game is legitimate generally. But at elite level soccer segregation looks self-defeating.
4. Rules need to be black and white. Too much grey doesn’t work. And there’s way too much grey in rugby’s tackle laws even though plenty will argue the opposite. That blurring reflects the existential crisis rugby is having just as the game has never been as popular in this country. Such popularity though brings issues surrounding tackling, head injuries and concussion to the fore.
So a case can be made for introducing an effective black and while rule about all tackles above the waist being a foul. This has obvious benefits for those being tackled. But it also forces tacklers to go low which is for their own good. Best of all its clear-cut, defined and helps cut out reckless accidentally-on-purpose shots.
5. The issue of a tackle in Gaelic football is also vital. Because there isn’t one really. Rather than fiddling around with rules about numbers of hand passes and how far a kick-out can go, the GAA should concentrate on finally introducing a clearly defined way of tackling a player rather than continuing to facilitate the pawing mess that applies.
6. Slow play continues to haunt golf and there’s no reason for it. Generally speaking players get 40 seconds to play a stroke. There are occasions, such as being first to play on a Par Three, when a minute is allowed. If a professional player can’t get the job done in that time they’re taking the mickey, no matter how devoted they are to “process”. So one warning and disqualify.
There’s still way too many former sports stars who think they only have to spout a few inanities to justify taking the media shilling
7. Compulsory State-funded swimming lessons at primary school might produce a champion in time. More immediately they would be a fundamental social good. Allowing kids the chance to learn to swim before reaching awkward adolescence, and all that entails, is a practical step that lays the foundations for so much benefit to so many people in later life.
8. Racing’s ambition towards being a spectator sport is declining in proportion to the media rights rewards involved in effectively treating tracks as vast TV studios. But even in telly terms having gaps of up to 35 or 40 minutes between races is a turn-off. As for anyone actually bothering to go, the wait between races can feel interminable.
Race times need to be condensed. Current schedules are dictated by many different demands but also a sense that that’s the way it’s always been done. Tradition is one thing. Stagnation is another.
9. Jumping the shark is movie slang for irrelevance but jumping the fence should be the most relevant piece of advice to ex-pros pursuing the punditry game.
There’s still way too many former sports stars who think they only have to spout a few inanities to justify taking the media shilling, all the while instinctively shying away from any criticism of former colleagues. The result is anodyne commentary that’s all but irrelevant. Pick a side of the fence either way; straddling is uncomfortable and unsightly.
10. Apparently Mo Salah didn’t dive to win a penalty against Newcastle on Wednesday. The FA concluded the way he threw himself down after the flimsiest touch on his arm was legitimate. So that apparently is that then. And that’s dreadful. Because if that’s okay it means there’s no distinction between means and ends, and that reduces fairness to a sound-bite cliché.
Sport can’t afford to rubber-stamp such cynicism. That ambition towards fairness really is its greatest virtue, perhaps the only part of everyday life where the word fair can be used without irony. Despite all the spoofery, shystering and stupidity, preserving that ambition, and at least being seen to try and nail the cheats, should be the most important resolution of all for 2019.