Fair play and the spirit of sport


A blog by sports editor Theo Garrun was doing the rounds on social media last month, relaying a conversation between a 13-year-old Capetonian schoolboy and his mother after a 1st team water polo player had his jaw broken and several teeth knocked out in a punch-up in the Bishops versus Rondebosch game. This prompted the 13-year-old to tell his mother that he no longer wanted to play water polo, not only because of the excessive levels of aggression but, as he put it, “because everyone was always angry: the coaches, the referees, the parents, the players …”

Garrun, who was deputy principal of Highlands North Boys High School in Johannesburg and a water polo coach for many years knows all about aggression in school sport and how this progresses and escalates at the provincial, national and international level.

He points to a pervasive problem where physical and emotional displays of excessive aggression between players and management are all too common and even regarded as laudable in sport. Cricket has an apt term for it – ‘sledging’ – and no aspect of a player’s body or psyche is spared.

In a co-authored article in The Conversation by Keith Parry, lecturer in Sport Management, Western Sydney University, and Emma Kavanagh, Lecturer in Sports Psychology and Coaching Sciences, Bournemouth University, they discuss the levels to which sledging escalates, including what is often downplayed as ‘banter’ but, which, in reality is cruelty and misogynistic insult, such as claims of intimate knowledge of a player’s wife, partner or mother.

This happened during the first Test match between South Africa and Australia at Kingsmead in Durban this year, Australian Vice-Captain David Warner and South Africa’s Quinton de Kock had an ugly altercation, allegedly due to de Kock making insulting comments about Warner’s wife after a systematic barrage of abuse that had been thrown his way.

Threats of violence are also commonplace. Parry and Kavanagh relate an incident during an Ashes test match a while back when Australian captain Michael Clarke was overheard via on-pitch microphones suggesting that England’s James Anderson should “get ready for a broken f*****g arm”. Following the match, Clarke was fined 20% of his match fee for the sledge but sledging and various forms of abuse continue in every sport.

Parry and Kavanagh rightly question why aggression and abuse is considered taboo in the workplace but celebrated on the sports field to the extent that fellow sportspeople and spectators often idolise the most abusive players.

“It is not acceptable to excuse this behaviour,” write Parry and Kavanagh. “Instead, it is time to accept that maltreatment would not be condoned in any other area of society, and therefore has no place on the sports field.”

What are the leadership lessons that we need to learn from this?

As a very keen sportsperson, I’m responding from the premise that physicality and aggression are absolutely part of sport but the key issue here is the spirit of sport and fair play. There needs to be a strong revival of these qualities that seem to have disappeared from the general sporting code.

How do we restore the spirit of sport and fair play? Perhaps one of the key leadership lessons that should be taught from school level is that if you don’t have an opposing team, you won’t have any competition to play against. Starting from that premise means that you have to respect your opposition for giving you the opportunity to better yourself rather than trying to smash them into submission by all and any means. Coaches, schools and parents need to focus less on winning at all costs and instead teach our youngsters how to win. Sometimes the best lessons about winning come from losing.

In sport and in business we need to appreciate the opportunity to test ourselves against others. We see this between two of the world’s greatest tennis players of all time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have been archrivals on the court for years. They treat each other with the greatest of respect as worthy opponents and masters of the game. Off the court they are the greatest of friends.

Federer famously said, “I fear no one, but I respect everyone”. This nurtures a positive spirit of competition for all the right reasons; it promotes wellbeing in sport, it produces positive role models and it boosts national pride. Fair play embraces every aspect of sport, including not using illegal substances to boost performance, and not permitting any form of sexual abuse, misogyny or un-sportsmanlike behaviour.

An example of misogynistic behaviour at the highest level of football was in 2015 when Chelsea’s former team doctor, Dr Eva Carneiro, ran on to the pitch during a Premier League match to treat an injured player last year, and heard Chelsea’s former manager José Mourinho call her a “daughter of a whore” in Portuguese for making the injury call. She took him to court and won. Far too many cases, such as the current high profile cases of young sportspeople being sexually abused by people in authority in the UK and USA, are not dealt with at the time, and the damage to the young people and to sport itself is unforgivable. Far too much abuse in sport is pushed out of sight instead of being tackled head on and publicly condemned.

Fair play in sport is the business equivalent of good governance, including ethical behaviour, transparency and accountability. The difference between competition on the sports field and competition in the work environment is that in sport there can only be one person or one team holding the trophy or gold medal at the end of the tournament or series. In the business environment there isn’t an immediate trophy or medal but there is also a high degree of competitiveness. Business has a long way to go before it can claim a clean slate, but physical or emotional aggression is not regarded as acceptable or laudable, and it is ahead of sport in terms of entrenching this.

Sport, like business, needs to be bigger than any individual, and at the same time it is the collective actions of individuals that determine the spirit of sport. We need to witness our top sportspeople being decent or heroic, and this can include small acts of decency or heroism such as our rugby sevens Blitzbokke stopping to help a woman change a flat tyre en route to the start of the World Rugby Sevens Series in Vancouver. It can also include celebrating more public acts, such as Sonny Bill Williams spontaneously giving away his Rugby World Cup medal to a young fan; or parents and sports coaches at school level being encouraging and motivational instead of vicious, angry and critical.

And it doesn’t have to be for professional competition either. I have two friends who epitomise all that good sportsmanship stands for. Both were and still are excellent at sport, even in their 50s. Both are also remarkable and significant business people, who do a tremendous amount in their communities.

The one, when he was in junior school, was about to win a sprint race when he stopped and helped another boy who had tripped and fallen. Unbeknownst to him, that action triggered him being the recipient of a fully paid bursary by an unknown benefactor who was watching the race. My friend only discovered many, many years later why he was given the bursary.

The other was captain of a residence rugby side at university. In a match that literally went down to the wire, his team was given a potential match winning kick in the dying seconds of the game. Simple outcome. Ball goes over the cross bar and they win. Miss and they lose. It was a tremendous kick and as the ball flew high over the one pole, the flags were raised and the points awarded by the referee who adjudged it to be over.

However, from where my friend was standing, watching it anxiously head towards the poles and the possible win they had fought so hard for, it had quite obviously missed. He immediately went to the referee and insisted that he reverse the decision, even though it meant his team had now lost the match. As he said “How could I live with myself enjoying the post-match celebration knowing full well that we had lost. It was only right I pointed out the error”.

Winning is certainly not about shouting at players and insulting them into winning at all cost; this type of victory is short-lived; it doesn’t build long-term commitment and, in fact, ill-prepares our young people for life, even putting some young people right off sport.

As Garrun explains in observing the coaches, referees, and spectators at several big water polo tournaments in Johannesburg. “I hardly saw a smile, a friendly gesture or a kind word from anyone,” he writes. “The coaches yell like madmen at their players throughout the games, the parents see nothing wrong in their offspring but spot all the errors and alleged dirty play of the opposition and the referees, who are copping it from everyone, seem to take it out on their whistles, which thankfully don’t feature peas anymore or they will all have been blown out of them long ago. 
It makes for a highly emotional, white hot atmosphere, and it’s a wonder we don’t have more punches thrown by the players who are in the middle of it all.”

He concludes that if he were 13 again, witnessing all this, he would also want to give up playing.

We cannot ignore this; if we do, we are ignoring abuse. We need to put it on the table and have some hard, honest discussions about how to reignite the true spirit of sport. If we don’t, corporate sponsorships will disappear, talented individuals will stop playing their chosen sport and crowds will diminish. It requires taking the egos out and bringing fair play in.

In his book, A Fighters Mind, Sam Sheridan writes, “From my very first real fighting experience in Thailand, I saw that the best fighters were the most humble. But much like jiu-jitsu, you start to see it as a ‘chicken-and-egg’ problem. Is it that great fighters lose their ego? Or is it that you cannot become great unless you lose your ego? Your ego keeps you out of the zone? Guys who can naturally control big egos do better?”

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 391, April 2018. It is reproduced with their permission.