Sunday, January 21, 2018

Just Do It

The win at all cost approach to sport

With due regard for their phenomenally successful advertising slogan, should we nevertheless hold Nike responsible for the negative aspects of the “Just Do It” type of behaviour exhibited by sportsmen and women around the world?

Whether it’s Liverpool striker Luis Suarez biting the arm of a Chelsea defender or Lance Armstrong perfecting the art of doping on the way to winning seven consecutive Tours de France, there seems to be no limit to what supposedly elite performers are prepared to do in pursuit of success, with all its attendant trappings of fame, fortune and considerable influence.

It may appear to be a burgeoning and fairly recent trend given those examples, but of course the short answer is “no”. Long before that evocative tagline was first associated with the trademark Swoosh symbol of the American sportswear manufacturer in 1988, performers at all levels and in all sports have been motivated for different reasons to either flagrantly break the rules or engage in subterfuge and deception to gain an unfair advantage.

Now though, given the wall-to-wall coverage of so many sporting events and the multi-billion-dollar advertising campaigns built around highly-successful performers, the temptation to cheat is considerably greater given the potential rewards. Indeed, some will argue that if everyone, or almost everyone, is engaging in a practice that is not permitted by the rules of their sport, then, strictly speaking, it isn’t cheating in real terms if the vast majority of your competitors are doing exactly the same thing.

Sport has long since metamorphosised from the pure pursuit of athletic excellence to full-blown, money-spinning entertainment. And as we know only too well, when it comes to the entertainment business, behaviour that would usually be categorised as reprehensible among the ranks of ordinary people is not merely tolerated but openly celebrated as part of a culture that places these so-called “icons” above and beyond the strictures that govern the run-of-the-mill members of a disciplined, orderly society.

Yet there are consequences to such cavalier indulgence, and it’s not only the nurturing of an “All Ah We T’ief!” cynicism towards top-level sporting competition. As a coach of footballers at the very earliest stages of their development pointed out to me a few months ago at a community programme in the Aranjuez Savannah, boys and girls five and six years of age consider it perfectly normal to be pulling on the shirt of an opponent. A few years older and part of the understanding of the skill of the beautiful game is the ability to fool officials into believing you have been fouled.

So common and so accepted is the practice that football commentators and reporters hardly ever make a fuss about it anymore. “Drawing the foul” has replaced “cheating” in the language of football, unless of course it occurs at a critical juncture of an absolutely vital fixture, which is when the hypocritical hyperbole about outrageous behaviour is unleashed with all the venom and self-righteous indignation that the broadcaster or journalist can muster.

In essence, what would usually be defined as “acceptable” behaviour in the sporting domain is dependent on the times we are living in. Not long ago, loyalty to a particular club or other sporting institution was the norm. Now it’s accepted that allegiances shift--often in a matter of days--based on the size of the financial package offered by the rival club. So players follow the dollar in moving from club to club, franchise to franchise, thus widening the gap between the haves and have-nots as youthful talents who have nurtured and developed their skills in more humble surroundings are lost to one of the big fish who appear considerably more attractive with their promise of a bigger stage and a bigger payday.

Those, like myself, with only a cursory appreciation of the machinations and intrigue of school sport in this country thought that the culture of a schoolboy changing schools just to play sport had suffered a significant body-blow in the mid-1980s when the technical institutions were declared ineligible to participate in what was then known as the Colleges Football League.

That decision came in the aftermath of the dominance of San Fernando Technical in the 1985 season with a team that was essentially an assemblage of national youth players--including the already mesmerising Russell Latapy--from all corners of the country. In relating with persons closely involved in the school system today, I have since come to learn that the change trumpeted then has been more or less cosmetic, and that several schools continue to abuse the system liberally over a range of sports.

Apart from feeding a mantra of winning at all costs, it also solidifies an attitude of entitlement and privilege among young men (and I suppose a few young women as well) who are led to believe that they are so special, that they are so great, that such matters as a solid education and the discipline that should be a part of school life do not apply to them.

We usually associate this practice with football, but you may be surprised to learn how many prominent cricketers from this nation, both past and present, who are touted as graduates of so-and-so big-name school, really only got to those institutions via transfers that had little to do with academics and more with their sporting ability.

Twenty-five years after it first appeared on Nike apparel, the principle of “Just Do It” flourishes, to the long-term detriment of sport and wider society here.