There is nothing quite like big-time, high-profile sport to influence non-sporting behaviour in wider society. As the football season gets under way, we shall soon be hearing how some incident involving a player (pampered, overpaid, ill-disciplined) or a manager (ill-tempered, unsporting, disrespectful to authority) has set a terrible example to young people everywhere.
Yet, compared to more apparently respectable games, football can often appear to be a sport of adamantine integrity. Tennis authorities were recently revealed to be promoting games by female players on the basis of their sexy looks rather than their talent. Now rugby union, another proudly blue-chip sport which traditionally likes to present itself as manly, decent and old-fashioned, has turned out to be a hotbed of corruption and moral obfuscation. When wrongdoing is discovered in the world of rugby, as it has in the recent case involving Harlequins, blame is passed from one person to another with the speed of a ball travelling down the All Blacks three-quarter line.
What is striking about how Harlequins tried to cheat their way to victory in an important match is how organised it appeared to be. A player went on to the pitch with a phial of false blood in his sock. When he needed to be substituted, he bit on the phial and faked a blood injury. In the dressing-room after the match, according to the player in question, Tom Williams – the inside of his mouth was cut by a scalpel to produce real blood.
At first, when the scam was discovered, Williams took the rap. Then the director of rugby, Dean Richards, resigned. Eventually, last week, the Harlequins chief executive wrote an open letter of apology to his fans. Unwittingly, he also revealed his sport’s attitude to what had happened. Having paid tribute to Richards, noting that “one mistake, albeit extremely high profile” should not overshadow his achievements, Evans managed to concede that the club had been “naïve”. Of course, he pointed out, many fans would feel that manipulation of the substitution rules was now “so widespread in the game that this case has been blown out of proportion”.
This weaselly form of non-apology is clearly endemic in rugby. Analysing the Harlequins case in a newspaper article, the former England player Brian Moore makes the usual, dreary reference to footballers’ attitudes to referees before admitting that for some time there had been indications that the “unacceptable” – that’s cheating to you and me – had been creeping into rugby.
What had caused the problem? Moore’s approach is to quote unnamed defenders of rugby’s integrity and then solemnly to intone that there is no excuse for bad behaviour. Some say money has tarnished the game; others that celebrity has “lured rugby players into excesses shown by other sportsmen”.
It is a hilariously unconvincing argument, this idea that innocent, square-jawed rugby players have somehow been corrupted by the beastly outside world. Who can think of any other sport where sleaziness is so planned, where moral responsibility so evaded? There is also, in these defences of rugby, an element of social superiority which is downright bizarre under the circumstances. Having claimed that rugby is no more middle-class than football, Moore bizarrely makes a snobbish, class-based joke at the expense of the rival game.
Undoubtedly, there are excesses and acts of individual dishonesty and gamesmanship in other sports but, judging by this case and the arguments that have surrounded it, there are few to match the combination of dodginess and smugness offered by the world of rugby.
You sing it and I’ll read it
One of the side-effects of the great boom in arts and music festivals is that now and then an intriguing process of cultural cross-fertilisation can take place. First literary events started including musical acts in their programmes – Van Morrison opened Hay-on-Wye, Leon Redbone appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Then some of the larger rock events, most notably Latitude, found space for poets and novelists.
Now it seems that the artists themselves are thinking in terms of joint performances. At the small Harleston and Waveney Festival in Suffolk on Thursday week, the great musical parodist Neil Innes, once of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Monty Python and creator of the ultimate Beatles tribute group, the Rutles, appears with Craig Brown, the literary pasticheur behind Wallace Arnold, Bel Littlejohn and the celebrity diaries which appear in Private Eye.
Perhaps it will catch on, this idea of combining the worlds of music and books. Elvis Costello and Will Self, anyone? Philip Roth and Randy Newman?
Sex, Shakespeare and Saint Judi
A small number of people in public life are so beloved by the media that they can do nothing wrong. Stephen Fry is one, Carol Vorderman another. No one, though, has quite the stellar status of the sainted Dame Judi Dench.
So the dame’s decision to appear next year as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a role she last played, mostly topless, while still a teenager will probably be hailed as a stylish refutation of the new ageism. An interviewer will doubtless say that, at 75, Judi is sexier than most women a third her age.
The rest of us should probably keep our rather less generous thoughts to ourselves.