On the hypocrisy of sport

This has been a busy week in the fight against corruption and cheating in sport. In South Africa Gulam Bodi was banned from cricket for 20 years (five of them suspended if he agrees to take part in anti-corruption education). Bodi who played three times for South Africa was famous for keeping Kevin Pietersen out of the KwaZulu-Natal team therefore (if the myth is to believed) causing the latter to emigrate to England in 2001. But now Bodi will be linked with corruption having admitted to “contriving or attempting” to fix matches in the 2015 Ram Slam, South Africa’s domestic 20 20 competition. His 20 year ban was his punishment.

Meanwhile in New Zealand a convicted cheat –  Mohammad Amir of Pakistan – has been making his international comeback after being given a five year ban for spot fixing in 2010. His comeback has not been universally welcomed. Plenty of people thought he should have been banned from cricket for life and some of the crowds in New Zealand have booed him. More seriously the stadium announcer at Westpac Park in Wellington Mark McLoed was reprimanded by New Zealand Cricket (NZC) for playing a cash register sound effect during one of Amir’s spells in the third 20 20 international. Amir can expect more of the same when Pakistan tour England in summer 2016 especially as England’s fans and press are more hostile to match fixers than their equivalents in other countries.

It is not just cricket though. This week UK Athletics are trying to ban first time drug cheats for life by making athletes waive their right to represent the UK if they are subsequently caught using performance- enhancing drugs. If they don’t they can’t represent the UK which is to my mind blackmail. Now the UK used to ban drug cheats from the Olympics for life but were forced to drop life bans when the courts ruled it illegal. Now showing breathtaking arrogance UK Athletics are using blackmail to bring life bans back. The Government should order the arrest of UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner and prosecute him for contempt of sport, hit UK Athletics with 83% tax and cut off funding. UK Athletics as like all sport shows total contempt for the law and should be forced to obey it by being hit in the pocket.

But not all sports bodies hand out draconian punishments. Also this week the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) took no action against Tyson Fury (see previous post “A Tale of Two Awards”) over his sexist and homophobic remarks – except to reprimand him. Yet if he had taken drugs or fixed a fight he would have been banned for years maybe for life.

Another example was convicted rapist Ched Evans who would have back in football after serving a two and a half year sentence but for public uproar. Yet the sentence Evans received was less than Amir and Bodi’s bans never mind the life ban UK Athletics wants. And if he had taken drugs or fixed a match the FA would have banned him for years maybe for life.

This is the hypocrisy of sport. What I would call crimes against sport (match fixing, drug taking) are taken seriously and produce long maybe even life bans while crimes against society (rape, sexism/homophobia, domestic violence) are treated as less serious. This reflects the dominance of old, white men in sport plus also the thought of sport that it is above the law and can do whatever it wants. Time for a change.

Despite what I wrote about UK Athletics I am in favour of drug cheats and match fixers being banned for life and the Government should change UK law if that is what it takes to make life bans legal. But in return sport should be forced to ban rapists, woman beaters and people who make sexist/racist/homophobic remarks for life as well. Most people who are not sport fans would regard rape and domestic violence as more serious as match fixing and drug taking. Sport should be forced to accept this. Until it agrees match fixers and drug cheats should not be banned for life if rapists and woman beaters are not.

Let’s get ready to rumble

As I mentioned in an earlier post (“Why Rousey v Mayweather must never happen”) I am a fan of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and this Sunday sees my favourite WWE event the Royal Rumble. Now the favourite event of most WWE fans is Wrestlemania but mine is the Royal Rumble which is not only unique in the WWE but is rare in sport.

For in the Royal Rumble you do not know who you will see. At all other WWE events you know who are wrestling each other. At the Royal Rumble you do not. This is because of the unique format of the Main Event the Royal Rumble match itself. The match is a 30 man* Battle Royal. The catch is you do not know who is going to appear. This is because the 30 are not all in the ring at the same time. The first two wrestlers (usually decided by a random draw but not this year as I will explain later) start the match. After a fixed time (usually 90 seconds) the next wrestler enters the ring and thus carries on until all 30 have appeared in the match. Elimination occurs when a wrestler is thrown over the top rope with both feet touching the floor (a key caveat this. In 1995 Shawn Michaels was thrown over the top rope but only one foot touched the ground and went on to win the match).

What makes this match unique is that the fans do not know who is going to enter the ring until their entrance music appears. That is why I compare the Rumble to football’s FA Cup in that in the Cup a football fan does not know who their team is going to play until the result of a random draw. And it could be anybody. In the third round say Manchester United could draw Liverpool… or Leyton Orient. The Rumble is the same. I remember for example the 2002 Royal Rumble when Stone Cold Steve Austin had cleared the ring and was waiting for the next entrant. The response of the crowd when the theme music of Triple H another elite WWE superstar was played was amazing. It was like Liverpool bring drawn against Manchester United in the FA Cup!

Another resemblance between the Rumble and the FA Cup is that while usually ( but not always) a rich team/big name superstar wins you get giant killings along the way. By far the Royal Rumble’s biggest giant killing came in 2002. The Undertaker had cleared the ring and was waiting for the next entrant. It was the male winner of the “Tough Enough” reality show Maven who had barely had a WWE match. But with the help of the Hardy Boyz and Lita who distracted the Undertaker Maven eliminated the Dead Man. It would be like Arsenal being knocked out of the FA Cup by a non league team!

The one difference between the Rumble and the FA Cup is it can be a surprise when a big name wins the Rumble. Normally it would not be a surprise that John Cena or Edge won the Rumble. But in 2008 (Cena) and 2010 (Edge) they were injured and not expected to come back thus their appearance and victory was a surprise. The WWE often use the Rumble for surprise debuts/returns. For example the popular AJ Styles has signed for WWE and it would not surprise me if he made his debut during Sunday’s Rumble Match.

Talking of Sunday’s match this year’s Rumble resembles those of 1992 and 1999. Like 1992 the WWE title will be won by the winner of the Rumble match. The difference between now and 1992 is that in 1992 the WWE title was declared vacant due to shenanigans between Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker whereas now the WWE title is definitely not vacant. Reigning champion Roman Reigns is being forced to defend the title in the Rumble Match because he has gotten on the wrong side of WWE owner Vince McMahon who is determined that Reigns will lose the Rumble and the title (to no one’s surprise Reigns has been lumbered with the number one entry in a rigged lottery which means he has to go from gun to tape to win). And that is where the resemblance to 1999 comes in. In 1999 McMahon was determined Steve Austin would not win the Rumble lumbering Stone Cold with the number one entry and even entering the match himself. In fact the 1999 Rumble’s tagline and theme music were both called “No Chance in Hell” – referring to Austin’s chances of winning and still McMahon’s entrance music to this day. McMahon is determined that there will be no chance in hell for Reigns seventeen years on.

McMahon himself – with help from the Rock – won the 1999 Rumble. What I fear is that McMahon’s son in law and WWE chief operations officer Triple H will do the same in 2016. What I’d like to see is either Reigns winning against the odds or Brock Lesnar winning (preferably with Reigns the last man eliminated) thus setting up a Reigns v Lesnar main event match for the title at Wrestlemania 32 in April. Remember there was never a winner between Reigns and Lesnar at last year’s Wrestlemania because Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank so you could have them meet again to see who is the better man.

One thing is certain. The Royal Rumble will again be the most exciting hour in the WWE. All together now. 10-9-8-7….

*Usually 30 man but in four Royal Rumbles women competed. Chyna (1999,2000), Beth Phoenix (2010) and Kharma (2012). Since the WWE is now PG hopefully the abomination of male v female wrestling will not happen again.

Mixed Troubles?

During the Women’s Football World Cup last year I stumbled on a Twitter conversation between Jeremy Smith, Philippa Booth and Elliott Ross of Football’s a Country. Smith had picked a hypothetical combined French male and female team and Ross tweeted the following :

the first mixed world cup is going to be a wonderful thing when* it happens. (Football’s a country. (@futbolsaCountry) June 17 2015).

An outlandish claim by Ross. But it has no chance of happening this side of the year 4000**. Apart from the fact that both FIFA and the law of the UK prohibit it the fact is that people do not want mixed sport or take it seriously – and it is an easy thing to prove.

If mixed sport was ever going to work tennis is the sport it would be most likely to gain credibility in. Men and women play the Grand Slams at the same time, both genders get equal pay for their singles and doubles events and the mixed doubles is part of every grand slam and (since 2012) it has been a part of the Olympic Games. But the fact is that mixed doubles has zero credibility whatsoever.

There are plenty of ways to prove this. A Daily Telegraph article (January 1 2010) is dismissive of mixed doubles claim to be proper sport.  It said that mixed doubles “deserves a “Carry On Lawn Tennis” image, and that it belongs at your local club, not in the professional game” Old champions like Fred Perry (“a form of men’s singles with a woman on either side of the net”) and Bill Tilden (” a completely unbalanced and in many ways uninteresting game”) were totally contemptuous of the event.

Nor do modern players take it seriously. Its easy to forget that Andy Murray was not the first member of his family to win a Wimbledon title. His brother Jamie won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 2007 but did not exactly take the event seriously. He was playing with Jelena Jankovic and the Serb told him that good shots would be rewarded with kisses! Not exactly what you would expect in professional sport!

And when mixed doubles returned to the Olympics in 2012 it had a hostile reception in the UK press – even though the British pair of Andy Murray and Laura Robson won the silver medal. One article said it was unfair that little Laura Robson (who is 5 ft 11 in!) had to play against giant Max Mirnyi (who is 6ft 5in). But she wasn’t playing against him she was playing against him and Victoria Azarenka.

Nor do the four Grand Slams take mixed doubles seriously. Prize money shows this. None of the four Grand Slams pay mixed doubles the same prize money as the single sex doubles. At this years Australian Open – which starts at midnight UK time – the winners of the same sex doubles events will win $ Aus 650,000 while the mixed doubles winners will win $ Aus 150,000. At last year’s French Open the figures were € 450,000 and € 114,000 at last year’s Wimbledon they were £ 340,000 and £ 100,000 and at last year’s US Open they were $ 570,000 and $ 150,000***. Plus the fact that the deciding “set” in the mixed doubles was a “super tiebreak ” (first to ten points) rather than a normal set. Only Wimbledon had the mixed doubles as the best of three sets.

All this proves that the mixed doubles is not taken seriously in tennis. And if mixed sport is not taken seriously in tennis – the sport where women are taken as seriously as men – what chance will it have in a sport like football where women’s participation is often treated with contempt? Ross, Smith and Booth’s idea of a mixed football World Cup is not a bird that is going to fly anytime soon.

* my emphasis.

** Or the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series whichever comes first (sorry Cubs fans!)

**The French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open have not announced their prize money for 2016 yet.

Quotas in sport can only work in non playing roles

The start of 2016 sees the England cricket team flying high after an impressive 241 run over the world’s number 1 Test team South Africa. However as impressive as England were South Africa did not look anything like the world’s number 1 Test team. The batting especially was quite pathetic and on their perfomance in Durban I reckon Australia, India, New Zealand and Pakistan – as well as England – are better than South Africa who on the evidence of Durban will soon fall as low as number 6 in the world.

Apart from the fact that Dale Steyn the world’s number 1 ranked bowler is injured again and will miss today’s second Test in Cape Town and that the batting – AB de Villiers and Dean Elgar apart – is still traumatised by their Indian nightmare South Africa have a uniquely South African problem which in my opinion they should not have to face and will definitely hinder their chances of coming back into the series against England.

The problem is the quota system in South African cricket. To compensate for the fact that non white South Africans were discriminated against in the country’s pre 1991 apartheid system there is a process in South African cricket called “transformation”. There is a target of four non white players in every South African XI. This caused a problem in the Durban Test where star player de Villiers was forced to keep wicket against his own wishes. This was to accommodate two non white batsmen – the hopelessly out of form JP Duminy and the out of his depth Temba Bavuma. Coincidentally – or not – rumours began to appear in the press that de Villiers would retire after the England series because of being overloaded and that he did not want to keep wicket. Coincidentally – or not – (white) wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock has been recalled to the squad for the second Test. But in order to play de Kock they will probably have to drop either Duminy or Bavuma which means they would be one short of their target number of non white players. In turn that means the injured Steyn will be replaced by (black) fast bowler Kagiso Rabada in order to keep the number of non white players at four. Now Rabada is a promising young bowler but how on earth will he feel knowing he is in the XI to fill a quota?

It is interesting to note that baseball and UK football – both of which have past histories of discrimination against blacks – never used quotas on the playing side. When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the Major Leagues for 60 years in 1947 he was not signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers to fill a mandatory quota or a target. He was signed because the Dodgers thought he was good enough. The same applied to the first black players in the English football Leagues. Now it was hard enough for Robinson and the first black footballers in England. Robinson (as I wrote earlier) got spiked and shoved on the baseball field and in the 1970s and 80s black footballers in England had to listen to monkey chants  and had bananas thrown at them. And they were picked on merit. Imagine what it would have been like if they had been picked to fill a quota. The pressure on Bavuma and Rabada especially (since South Africa want more black (as opposed to coloured)) players in the team is huge. Both are young players who might be Test players in the future but are not Test players at the moment and have been rushed into Test cricket too soon just to meet a target. To my mind quotas have no place on the sports field and the International Cricket Council (ICC) should tell South Africa in no uncertain terms that teams must be picked on merit.

That does not mean quotas have no place in sport but they can only work in non playing roles. Again an example from another sport. In American football the “Rooney Rule” – which insists that franchises must interview non white candidates for jobs – only applies to non playing roles like coaching and senior football operation jobs not to playing jobs. In UK football people have called for the “Rooney Rule” to be brought in but only for manager’s jobs not for the playing side. And the same when it comes to gender. Jean Williams has asked (in “A Game For Rough Girls?” page 132) “why are women not more represented* in non-playing professions?”. In the same book she also writes (in page 146) that “Quotas would also assist in opening the full range of coaching opportunities”. There are plenty of people who want more women in men’s sport – even suggesting quotas – but only a tiny minority (Natalie Bennett, Charlotte Proudman) want that applied to the playing side. Most want it applied to non playing jobs.

The reason quotas are not needed on the playing side of sport is shown in the book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. In page 126 they point out that “markets tend to work when they are transparent – when you can see who is doing what and place a value on it”. This applies to the playing side of sport – where we can see players play and it is easy to spot who is not good enough – like Bavuma in the South African cricket team – but not to managers, coaches etc where we can’t see their work. Kuper and Szymanski again “Inefficient markets can maintain discrimination almost indefinitely”.

This should tell South African cricket there is no need for quotas or targets because if everyone in South Africa is given opportunities the best will come through regardless of colour. I know South Africa is a special case in that non whites were banned by the law of the country – not by a  gentlemen’s agreement as in baseball (in UK football non whites were never banned it was just a case of waiting for the children of black immigrants to grow up) but history shows that if you are patient the talent will come through.

England must not be complacent in this Test series. On both their last two South African tours they were 1-0 up going to Cape Town. One game they lost the other they drew with nine wickets down. In both cases South Africa’s best and most experienced batsman Jacques Kallis scored a first innings century and lead the fightback. The precedent of 2005 and 2010 suggest South Africa are an AB de Villiers century away from being right back in this series. But it would help if they did not handicap themselves with a quota system that other sports have shown is not necessary.

*In men’s football.

Not finished on a double

Lion & Unicorn

Every Christmas and New Year at Alexandra Palace there is a world darts championship, this year’s having started last week and running until 3 January. Then a week later, at Lakeside Country Club in Surrey, there’s another one.

Admittedly the latter is so drained of prestige that even the BBC can afford the television rights (for this year at least), but it’s a world championship nonetheless, with players from Lithuania and New Zealand, and finalists from as far afield as Dorset and Cambridgeshire.

The split between the two codes of the sport, like similar fissures in rugby, tennis and, of course, chess (not to mention the proliferation of governing bodies in boxing), was all about money: namely, the lack thereof for the players, and the indifference thereto of the administrators.

The administrator in this case was Olly Croft, a mutton-chopped slate tycoon…

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