On Best Behaviour

Sportsmen and women are human. They will make mistakes in their lives just as the general public do, the difference being that because of our nation’s obsession with our sports stars and their lives away from the pitch (can’t really call it private anymore), any minor  indiscretion will be seized upon and reported to the world. The British public are generally intelligent enough to realise when a story has been blown out of proportion though, on the whole they will appreciate that everyone makes mistakes and that  public figures should be allowed to do so without being vilified by the press. However when an indiscretion becomes more than minor it should come as no surprise that it will be splashed across the papers and one’s judgement will be called into question.

*The aim of this post is not to discuss the rights of the press or an individual, it is to highlight the carefree attitude some take to their career choice as a professional athlete and the responsibilities that come with it.*

Jonny Wilkinson

Jonny Wilkinson focuses on the matter in hand. Photo: Taneroa

Like it or not, high-profile professional sport now comes with a price. Yes you get to do something which you love and get paid handsomely in return, but if you choose to make the most of this fame then you have to be prepared to tolerate the media intrusion that will inevitably follow. There are of course those who shy away from the spotlight, who simply go about a normal life as you and I would, just with considerably more money than we could ever dream of. This results in journalists and paparazzi ignoring them as they go about their lives, deeming the holiday photos of a happy family to be of far less interest than those of Cristiano Ronaldo lying on a boat surrounded by girls in bikinis. People such as Paul Scholes spring to mind, Jonny Wilkinson is another, these are athletes who at their peak were unquestionably the best in the country at what they do, if not the world. They could have cashed-in on their talents and lived the lives of playboys, instead they shunned the publicity. Both of them still look ill at ease when being interviewed and the fact that their Wikipedia pages struggle to muster even a paragraph for a ‘Personal Life’ section speaks volumes of their modest lifestyles.

In fact it should be noted that this type of athlete is actually the norm. There are thousands of professional footballers, rugby players, cricketers and other sportspeople, the vast majority of whom live event-free lives. They occupy the back pages of the newspapers but never trouble the front, just as their managers and coaches prefer it to be.

Cristiano Ronaldo poses for an Armani underwear poster.

Ronaldo doesn't exactly shun the limelight. Photo: chris.huggins

Then there is the other type of athlete, the one who thinks nothing of going out and getting drunk just days before an important fixture, or thinks the best way to settle a disagreement with a rival fan is to resort to violence. In every walk of life there are a small minority who spoil things for the majority and professional sport is no different. The trials and tribulations of a select few seem to have tarred everyone with the same discoloured brush, particularly when it comes to footballers, and Premier League footballers more specifically. Ask a person in the street for their opinion on top-level footballers and it will invariably be negative. Phrases such as ‘overpaid prima donna’, ‘egotistical playboy’ and ‘lacking morals’ will be trotted out before even a thought is given to those hardworking professionals who make plenty of personal sacrifices and do lots of good work for charities.

You can forgive people for falling back on the media depiction of the irresponsible pro though when you recall some of the incidents to have made the front and back pages in recent years. Gavin Henson, Andrew Flintoff, Joey Barton, Craig Bellamy, Danny Cipriani, just some of the names to have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. Offences have included breaking club’s discipline rules, drinking heavily during a vital training period, stubbing out a cigarette in a teammate’s eye, attacking a teammate with a golf club and going to a night club in preparation for an international fixture. It beggars belief that these supposed professionals would  jeopardise not only their own performance levels, but the performance and health of teammates so willingly. Successful performance in any aspect of life will always require an element of sacrifice, yet these sportsmen seem determined to have their cake and eat it too. They seem cavalier in their attitude towards their job, their reputation, their club’s reputation and the reputation of their sport. Sportspeople may not have asked to be ambassadors for their club or their sport but it comes with the territory. It’s not even as if people are asking them to be saints and live a monastic lifestyle, all it takes is a little common sense; if you’ve got a big game coming up at the weekend then don’t go out to a club in the build up, if you have a disagreement with a teammate then leave it as a disagreement without reaching for the 9-iron, and if you go to a club party then watch where you put your cigarette.

Unfortunately the list of idiotic acts committed by professional athletes doesn’t end there. Below are a select few of the most ridiculous stories you will ever read, if they weren’t true then they’d be funny – unfortunately they’re all true:

Plaxico Burress (NFL wide receiver): Sentenced to two years in prison for shooting himself in the leg with a pistol he had tucked down his trousers in a nightclub.

Andy Powell (Welsh rugby union flanker): Arrested for drunkenly stealing and driving a golf buggy 3.5 miles away from the team hotel towards the M4 motorway following a narrow victory over Scotland.

Ashley Cole (Chelsea and England left-back): Shot a work placement student with his .22 calibre air rifle at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground.

Delonte West (NBA point guard): Having been pulled over for a traffic violation whilst driving a three-wheeled motorcycle police found him to be in possession of a pistol, he was also carrying a pump-action shot-gun in a guitar case on his back. Also reported to have had an affair with Gloria James, mother of teammate LeBron James.

Freddie Flintoff celebrates ENgland winning the 2005 Ashes.

'Freddie' Flintoff chooses a more appropriate time to indulge a little celebration. Photo: Ben Sutherland

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool and England midfielder): Arrested and charged, but later cleared, for assaulting a DJ at a night club for not allowing him control of the sound system.

Michael Vick (NFL quarterback): Served 21 months in prison for his part in an illegal dog fighting ring that operated for five years.

So it seems that if you can think of it, a professional athlete somewhere has done it and put their career in jeopardy as a result. The combination of phenomenally high salaries and lots of spare time to fill could be used to do so much good, and in the majority of cases it is – even if that good is just living a happy life away from the cameras. Unfortunately there are a select few who drag everyone else down around them, of course there will always be the odd few in any population that cannot be controlled but you can’t help but think that with the correct guidance and advice that the vast majority of ill-discipline issues could be eradicated.

One final point; I’m not advocating a world full of Paul Scholes’ and Jonny Wilkinsons, that may tire somewhat, but individuals such as Ian Holloway demonstrate that it is possible to have a character, entertain people and still do a sterling job at the same time.

R. E. S. P. E. C. T.

The charges have been made, the appeal heard and the a title=Wayne Rooney banned for Man Utds FA Cup semi-final href=http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/12995661.stm target=_blanksentence handed down/a; Wayne Rooney will be missing for Manchester Uniteds FA Cup semi final against a title=Sir Alex Ferguson stokes up hostilities with Manchester City after derby victory href=http://http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/article6841960.ece target=_blanknoisy neighbours/a City this weekend at Wembley. But did he deserve his two match ban? Was his offence really that bad? And perhaps most importantly, why on earth did he do it in the first place?

a href=http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5207/5284558112_e255f227fe_z.jpgimg class=size-full wp-image-41 title=Glasgow Rangers FC v Manchester United – UEFA Champions League src=https://thebigblogofsport.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/wayne3.jpg alt=Rooney reacts to scoring against Rangers in the Champions League width=510 height=286 //a

Controlled

Wayne Rooney is currently the most famous exponent of the four letter rant in English football, however he is by no means alone in his love of the profane. It would now come as a shock to watch a Premier League game without someone being caught swearing on camera at some point. Rooney is a serial offender though, add to this his high-profile and the timing of the event (coming just days after the a title=Premier League to curb player behaviour – Scudamore href=http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/9442760.stm target=_blankFAs latest push for respect/a in the game), and it should come as no surprise that those in charge have chosen to make an example of Rooney.

Was his crime really deserving of a two match ban though? Especially considering the lack of action taken by the FA for the inexcusable elbow he dished out to Wigans James McCarthy in February of this year. That offence apparently warranted no punishment on the pitch and even having reviewed the damning video evidence after the event, the FA still chose to take no action.

So it seems repeatedly swearing into a television camera is worse than assaulting a player, at least that is what the decision makers think and theyre the only opinions that really count. In my opinion a two match ban seems appropriate for such a crime, however the problem comes when you compare it to other offences of a similar nature and the punishment they received.

The FA have made an example of Wayne Rooney, but with no precedent for their decision. Were there a set of rules in place to deal with foul and abusive language and its use on the field of play (or at least a set that are enforced) then perhaps this incident wouldnt have received the coverage it has.

If the sports governing body really are serious about achieving respect for their match officials then perhaps they should behave like a body that deserves it. Instead of promotional videos with Ray Winstone, advertising boards around the edge of the Wembley pitch and a little patch on a players sleeve, how about punishments for every swear word aimed at anyone other than themselves. A yellow card for a first offence, red card for second and match bans for anything after? The rule makers may say there are already rules in place to cover such offences, in which case they should be enforced.

Players need to realise that they cant turn the air blue whenever they feel like it and get away with it, if referees had this kind of power then they may just be respected that little bit more. Like it or not footballers are role models, so they need to learn to behave like it – if suspensions mean they miss important games, lose endorsement deals and are hit with significant fines then they may just sit up and pay attention.

Perhaps the more important question to ask with regards to this and countless other situations in which tempers boil over is why it happens in the first place? Why do players feel the need to swear into a camera, butt heads because someone may have mis-timed a tackle or join in a mass brawl, all started because someone wouldnt give the ball back quickly enough?

The slew of official player apologies that get trotted out to the press after a game will more than likely feature one of more of the following phrases: heat of the moment, not intentional, never meant to cause any offence, pressure can do funny things etc.

I fail to see how scoring a hat-trick to take the lead in a vital game could lead to swearing directly into a television camera. Surely this would be a joyous occasion, one to revel in with your teammates and supporters?

If a teammate of mine were getting involved in a fracas with an opposition player, I dont see the reason for two whole teams to then get involved and risk further punishment. If I were to ring a title=BBC – 606 href=http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0070hz6 target=_blank606 on 5Live/a with this opinion I would no doubt be told by Robbie Savage that you cant understand the pressures players are under until youve played at that level. I would agree with him up to a point, he is correct in saying that professional footballers are under far more pressure to perform than the average amateur sportsperson could ever imagine. However were he then to go on and say that it is just passion boiling over, this is where I would draw the line. Passion is a word used to excuse all sorts of despicable behaviour in sport, I refuse to agree that amateur sportspeople dont play with the same passion and desire to win that the pros do.

a href=http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2430/3598523111_12eb2a781b_m.jpgimg class=size-full wp-image-42 title=Roger src=https://thebigblogofsport.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/roger1.jpg alt=Roger Federer celebrates winning at the French Open width=170 height=240 //a

Federers

Of course foul language and bad behaviour is not reserved for professional sport, neither is it the sole preserve of a football pitch; John McEnroe, Serena Williams, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, the list could go on. So is it really passion boiling over or is that just an excuse for a lack of emotional, and sometimes physical, control? I would lean towards the latter and suggest that the old myth of if you take it out of their game youll lose something is a load of rubbish.

Roger Federer is a prime example of what someone can achieve when they a title=Roger Federer’s quest for tennis perfection href=http://www.sportingo.com/tennis/a4495_roger-federers-quest-tennis-perfection target=_blanklearn to control their emotions/a and focus that energy into something positive. As a teenager he was renowned for his emotional outbursts and racket smashing antics, but as soon as he learned to keep his emotions in check, he transformed into the serene genius that dominated mens tennis for so long.

So the benefits of keeping calm and respecting those around you are clear, you dont run the risk of suspensions, fines and tarnishing your reputation – and it may lead to an upturn in performance. It is evident that some find it easier to control their emotions than others, but even losing your cool is no excuse for violent outbursts, be they physical or verbal. How is it possible then for officials to obtain the respect they crave? If the athletes cannot learn to control themselves then at least consistent punishment might eventually push the message home.

Photos courtesy of stronga title=americanistadechiapas photostream href=http://www.flickr.com/photos/americanistadechiapas/ target=_blankamericanistadechiapas/a /strong(Wayne), and stronga title=Perunotas TVs Photostream href=http://www.flickr.com/photos/39203725@N08/with/3631936864/ target=_blankPerunotas TV/a /strong(Roger).