Photo: Geelong Advertiser.
Tanks for the memories and the role of cheating in sports
This article was published as ‘Purity in sport elusive,’ Geelong Advertiser, 9 August 2011, p. 16.
Where do you draw the line in sports? What is cheating and what is not? Last week it was Dean Bailey’s hint that in his early coaching days at Melbourne he connived at the loss of games by playing youngsters out of position with a view to developing their talent for the future. Of course, he did not do so in order to lose and hence pick up a reward in terms of a higher draft pick or even a priority one for finishing last! Or so he told the AFL, who believed him.
In all sports, and indeed in much of commercial life, pushing the existing boundaries to achieve an advantage is not just something which occasionally happens, but rather an integral part of both types of activity. I have often argued that capitalism (and sports) depend for their survival as systems on individuals, groups, clubs, teams and companies at the margin continually testing and breaking the existing rules for their operation. Sometimes it is by means of a technological innovation which renders the existing rule unworkable or obsolete, at others it is exploiting a loophole or an ambiguity in an existing regulation to gain what is initially considered an illegal or unfair advantage. If the innovation goes too far the enterprising operator will be hauled back. At other times the flattery of imitation will follow and the boundaries will shift to accommodate the breach as acceptable practice.
So Collingwood sends its players for high-altitude training in the USA, Melbourne Storm rorts the salary cap, Melbourne Victory tries to get the clubs it competes against to help finance an offer to Harry Kewell to sign a contract to play for the club. All of these examples breach existing rules or conventions or policies, but some will be accepted and regularised, while others will be pilloried and sanctioned. We will all argue about them, buy newspapers and watch television channels which debate them and as we do the games evolve. So the AFL and the Australian Cricket Board can systematically and simultaneously promote gambling and wring their hands about the chance that gambling may undermine what they refer to as ‘the integrity of the sport’ for which they have responsibility.
It is no use thinking that there used to be golden age in the past when such practices did not exist and sport was just a game, unsullied by contact with the commercial world or untainted by cheating and chicanery. My grandfather, who captained Celtic, Newcastle United and Scotland, later became a football manager at our local club, Ayr United. He said he caught a director of club trying to bribe a referee, but when it came to the tribunal he had no evidence in support of his allegation and was told to apologise. When he did not do so, he was banned for life. The man he accused had been treasurer of the Scottish Football Association for twenty years, but the following year the fellow was voted off the executive, the only incumbent to whom this happened in living memory. The ban on my grandfather was subsequently lifted.
Match fixing is not an invention of the 21st century and examples abound ever since modern sport began. Cheating to win was there at the dawn of sport. Our own Tom Wills was no-balled for round-arm bowling in the 1860s. Geelong and Melbourne could not agree on the rules of the Victorian game in that decade, because we wanted to pick up the ball and run with it, while Melbourne did not.
Geoffrey Blainey argued that one of the great virtues of Australian football is that it has continued to evolve and the rules are always changing to accommodate or limit the boundary-challenging or ‘cheating’ which has gone on since it emerged as a distinct code in the mid-nineteenth century. I think the argument applies to all sports which have survived, including Association football, which is currently trying to tackle match fixing, corruption and decision making by officials by the use of technology as well as trying to level playing fields by insisting that clubs live within their income. That leaves aside the sharp practice over World Cup hosting bids and the election of the president.
Much as we would like to see a time when sport is pure and unsullied by cheating or chicanery, I am afraid that will never happen and we have to learn that sport, as in much else, mirrors our imperfect, but changing and challenging world