Men behaving badly: Should players’ off-pitch behaviour affect fans’ support?

Football fans and morals. A thorny bush, as we’ve discussed before on Just Football. But should we as supporters be ready to withhold our support for players whose behaviour doesn’t quite match our own standards or moral codes? Making his debut, we welcome Chris Woolfrey.

Yesterday (17/01/11) it was claimed that a cohort of Premiership footballers, including Wayne Rooney and England team-mates Ashley Cole and Gareth Barry (The Times), are avoiding tax payments through a number of legal loopholes, and that the combined sum of unpaid tax sings to the tune of around £100m (The Daily Star).

Given the current mood for punishment that sections of the public are voicing over tax avoidance – the UK Uncut campaign has caused a serious headache for Arcadia boss Philip Green, who protesters claim owes billions in tax – the news makes for interesting reading. Given, too, that these revelations come on the back of a number of high profile ‘mistakes’ by a number of high-profile footballers – Rooney’s alleged off-field misdemeanours and so on – it begs the following question:

Does how a sports-person conducts their life dictate our appreciation of them?

The question is tremendously difficult. How do West Ham fans view Paolo Di Canio now, after scoring a goal for Lazio and celebrating with a fascist salute? Should it matter? Can you separate the sport from the person?

Examples are abound; these new reports of tax avoidance are simply more fuel for the fire. Frequently newspapers report on the soap-opera sex lives of professional footballers, from John Terry’s affairs to the national furore over Sven Goran Eriksson’s unfaithfulness back when he was England manager.

Plus, it’s not a modern phenomenon. George Best, of course, was frequently the subject of media attention, not least because of his problems with drink but also because he was a young, handsome and charismatic man who came closer than most footballers to living like a musician, an actor, a socialite. Examples are abound here, too; before the European Championship in 1996 the English tabloids were obsessed not with England’s poor pre-tournament results but with stories of Paul Gascoigne et al trashing aeroplanes and drinking bars dry long into the morning.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, that the ultra-rich do everything in their power to pay less in tax than they should is a well known narrative, and it’s important to remember that footballers aren’t just sports people; some of them are also part of the ultra-rich. Equally, that people have affairs, sleep around, cheat on spouses, is hardly a phenomena unique to the footballing community, and nor is excessive drinking.

It’s difficult to know whether that’s the point here, though. Certainly footballers, when they’re being footballers, are at work; and to be able to keep your work and private life separate is an unspoken social rule. Further, the (sometimes) very private things we’re told about them are well within the remit of ‘normal’, if morally dubious, behaviour.

But something doesn’t quite chime: isn’t forgetting that the behaviour of footballers is often terrible, just because we admire their sporting prowess or are partisan in our support for them, a little naïve? Can we keep the beauty of the sport, for all its good points, separate from the bad ones? Shouldn’t we grow up?

Taking that one more step, though, you’d also have to consider that, if you could boycott footballers – plus presumably football teams or football itself – on the basis of off-pitch behaviour, then you’d have to think long and hard about the music you listen to, the films you watch, the politicians you vote for.

Should footballers be judged by their actions, then? Max Rushden doesn’t think so. That said, it’d be hard to deny that Di Canio’s behaviour, if not plain wrong, was certainly insensitive, and at the very, very least a compromising thing to get yourself into at work. Which counts for something.

All in all, as with most important debates, there’s probably not an easy answer: so let’s hear your thoughts.

Chris Woolfrey is a new contributor to Just Football.

(photo by Ryu Voelkel on Flickr)

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7 Responses to “Men behaving badly: Should players’ off-pitch behaviour affect fans’ support?”

  1. Dino Dimopoulos
    January 18, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    I don’t see why you can’t enjoy someone’s talent whilst accepting that they are morally defunct. Isn’t that part of the joy of public spectacles and events, you can enjoy peoples exploits, live vicariously through them and not ever have to actually encounter them as humans beings, with all their short comings. Besides, its commonly accepted that in film, literature and reality t.v, most of the entertainment is initiated by the exploits of the villains, why not football? Can’t we just accept that its fun to hate and understand that we need these figures of offence as much as the boy wonders to make the game as enjoyable as it is.

    • Chris Woolfrey
      January 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

      It’s difficult to decide, though, whether footballers/sportpeople are partly there to represent the people who support them. If they do, then the same arguments about politicians — if they’re rich, they’re out of touch; if they act ‘immorally’, we want them sacked, and so on — would presumably apply. If they don’t then they’re more in the artists’ camp, who, as private entertainers, can essentially do whatever they like, within the remit of law (and sometimes out of it).

      It’d be tempting , though, to say that if footballers aren’t representative of their fans, that’s a result of the commercial aspect of the sport, and that once upon a time — certainly when teams were comprised of amateurs — it would be expected, and encouraged, that they were.

      Maybe that’s reactionary, and it could definitely constitute a kind of ‘false memory’. You’d perhaps get a different argument, though, in somewhere like Spain, where fans (albeit only certain fans) are involved in the election of club presidents, so that clubs are effectively held to promises made in manifestos. Would individual personality and behaviour, individual or collective value systems, come into place at that time?

  2. Alex
    January 19, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    I was thinking about this subject the other day when complimenting my future. You can work hard in life be a good person but this doesn’t always help you to where you want to go. There is nothing I hate more in modern life then when someone has a talent of commercial value then they can get away with activities that greater society would deem to be immoral! Joey Barton is a prime example. He is a total prat in the true sense of the word, went to prison came out and someone gave him a job back in the public eye. In the past going to prison would be shameful and would not be good PR to hire someone who had been to prison. What does Joey learn from the experience? Precious little by the looks of it, having seen him on the pitch again for Newcastle. We shouldn’t throw people on the scrap heap but when kids look up to these players it sends out the wrong messages. Players as with anyone in the public eye should understand their responsibilities and if they concentrated more on game and developing their left feet (unless left footed) the beautiful game would not turn in to an ugly affair!!!

  3. tony l
    January 19, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    I’m conflicted. If I see footage of a Geoffrey Boycott innings and I think wife-beater, but I don’t have the same reaction to Gazza.

    I don’t think of statutory rape when I see a Roman Polansky film, but I’d happily lamp Marlon King (if he wasn’t harder than me and prone to violence).

    If the question is DOES a footballers actions affect our appreciation of them then the answer is largely yes.

    SHOULD it, that’s a bit more complicated.

    It’s all so personal it’s hard to come up with a hard and fast philosophy on the issue as a whole.

    I’d like to think I could separate the man and their art, but Paulo Di Canio has clearly soured his legacy for most people.

    A related issue is the information we are force fed about footballers. Why should we care or be told about footballers sexploits, when Austria didn’t care if Haider was gay or not and France seem largely uninterested in Sarkowsi’s marital status.

    Taxation of the super rich and arguably (domestic or drink fuelled) violence stories are in the public interest, and footballers can keep themselves out of the media (see Giggs and Scholes), but you have to question the merit of the media fixation with footballers private lives, and if the public demand really exists to support it.

  4. Half-time Whistle
    January 19, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    I think it’s a valid question. But also, should players expect fans to behave well? Can anyone expect anyone to behave well in today’s seemingly morally defunct society.

    Unfortunately there are mindless idiots all over the game, playing, supporting, administering, etc. For every John Terry there are plenty more philanthropic, normal, decent people. For every burberry-clad moron jumping on the pitch and starting fights with rival fans, there’s plenty more well-behaved fans having a good time.

    So no, I don’t think we can expect ALL footballers to be well behaved because, let’s face it, that wouldn’t be at all representative of society as a whole. The balance of John Terry-and-his-ilk to well-behaved players seems about right IMO.

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