Was watching BBC Newsnight (may not have been on Newsnicht) last night and former ace Scots footballer Pat Nevin captured perfectly what I haven’t seen written anywhere about the John Terry business yet (but that’ll be my reading rather than rubbish sport journalism, most likely).
Nevin (you might not remember him, but I do) was completely unmoralistic, felt Terry should remain in the England team, of course, yet subtly and very effectively pointed out the unbelievably corrosive effect of the captain’s relationship being with a team-mates partner.
For a lot of people, probably not big football fans, morality will come in to it. But if it truly does, how could anyone be a fan of any team sport at all, any public entertainment, without being a hypocrite? Who knows what other members of the England ensemble, bosses included, have got up to in the past? Never mind the fans.
That’s not to deny the possibility of morality in public or private life, I really don’t mean that. But it’s fair to say that if the talented people we all rely on to entertain us were subjected to a moral audit then music, sport, pretty much everything would the the poorer for it. To say the least.
For many serious team sportswomen and men, the problem for Terry is that he’s in charge on the field. That’s important. He can’t be in charge of you if you think he’s going to tup (in the Shakespearean sense) your partner. On the same programme (BBC Newsnight), the writer Toby Young typically described Terry in the visceral terms of battle, ‘a snorting, priapic bull’. That’s why Terry’ll resign as captain, I guess. Today, there’s a commercial pressure on managers to make ‘stars’ captains. In truth, that’s far from the way team sports work. It’s far from the way life works, if you ask me (which, I grant, you didn’t).
But, for me anyway, it’s also a story of how team sport is soooo different from individual sport. I remember Tim Henman saying he really didn’t care much about the ‘Henman for Britain’ thing – he just wanted to win matches and tournaments. It was a remarkably honest statement for an ‘individual’ sportsman in the throes of national attention. He knew that in saying that, he ceded (morally, in the broadest sense, at least) the right to special status as a national representative. Of course the media took no notice, undersandably. But it was important, all the same.
Henman, like Andy Murray today, didn’t have team-mates to let down. He could be haughty and Murray childlike, neither particularly apealling public personnas actually (but lovely in private, I’ve been assured) and it doesn’t matter to most folk. People don’t superimpose their lives upon these unbelievably talented people – they just want them to entertain and quite like it if ‘their’ guy wins.
The chatterati media are full of the liberal implications of John Terry’s gagging order on the media (and they are so right to be. The Guardian deserves special credit). Yet for most people, I sense, that’s of a lower order of importance. The larger question, the one which drives a multi-million pound industry, is how the Terry, everyday, story can be accommodated in the context of a team sport which is set to enthral the world in a few short months.
It’s a game of two halves. Terry scored on Saturday – yes, queue the puns. And England will do well (but not win) at the world cup. Terry isn’t supercool, anymore than the rest of us. It’s just that he does what he does, so naturally and brilliantly. He’s a professional (and, as it happens, smart) footballer. The red-tops, and the Mail, will pretend the morality thing. But that’s just more sport of itself. They don’t mean it.
I don’t think there’s room for morality in sport. Is that a metaphor with wider implications? I don’t pretend to know. I do know how much folk spend on Sky Sport subscriptions, though.
Most people put sport in it’s rightful place. It’s fun at least, inspiring at most, but its heroes are like the rest of us of the field. The real heroes, the ones in Afghanistan, have their poor pay, and their medals disgracefully constrained by Whitehall. Yet people don’t, on the whole, feel visceral about the latter.
Journos often use the sport/war metaphor – but it isn’t a good metaphor. It’s just sport.But it is what makes a lot of people happy.