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Evra And Suarez, Behaving Like Adults

In Sport on September 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm

There was something troubling about the coverage of the handshaking in Liverpool yesterday. I don’t mean the actual handshake between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra – if Evra thought it was appropriate and Suarez had decided to show some remorse for his actions last season that is entirely their business. The coverage of it, and especially its connection to the Hillsborough tributes that yesterday’s game was really supposed to be about, was deeply worrying.

The Sky Sports commentary team declared that it was a good thing and that the two men had behaved ‘like adults’. This in itself is a problem. Suarez had racially abused Evra and shown absolutely no sign that he was sorry, even trying to claim that he had used a racial slur in a nice way during a heated argument. Had Evra refused to shake Suarez’s hand, he would have been entirely within his rights.

Not respecting racism is not being childish, it is an entirely appropriate reaction to something that has no place in football. Indeed, one Liverpool supporter told me that it was all over now and it was just ‘something that happens in football’. I do not believe this is true and, even if it is, that is all the more reason not to let these things slide.

Worse, however, was the build up to the pre-match handshaking in the shade of the horrific (and dispiritingly unsurprising) revelations about what happened at Hillsborough in 1989. Evra himself has said that he felt that, if he had not shaken the hand of the man who racial abused him, he would have been disrespecting the fans and detracting from the day’s impact as a tribute to Hillsborough. It seems that many agreed with him.

And this is the problem. It is entirely possible for a human being to believe, as I do, that what happened at Hillsborough was a tragedy, that the subsequent police and media cover-up was a national disgrace AND that racism is a disgusting thing that has no place in modern society, let alone football. Recognising and acting on the third statement does not detract from my ability to respect the memory of the first one or my ability to feel outrage at the second.

Evra not shaking Suarez’s hand would not have meant he did not respect the memory of the 96 who died at Hillsborough and he should not have felt that he had to ignore racial abuse in order to show the proper respect. To suggest, as the Sky Sports team did, that to do otherwise would be childish – perhaps even selfish – is a dangerous message to send to victims of racism, within football and without.

Good and Bad at Games – My Life In and Out of Rugby

In Education, Sport on August 11, 2012 at 10:53 am

I was bad at games. During the winter terms of my first three years of secondary school I would pull on my rugby boots and head out onto the playing fields to be dispatched to non-squad training. My school was one of those at which rugby is very serious business and so everyone has to play but, as a relatively underweight eleven-year-old, I was deemed not good enough for one of the four Year Seven sides and so I would spend two afternoons a week with others whom luck or biology had not made good enough or big enough (as well as those who were simply not enthusiastic).

This is not to say that I did not enjoy rugby. I might not have been good at passing or tackling but I was quicker than most of the non-squad boys and came to really enjoy running with the ball in the rudimentary games that weplayed. I hoped that this would get me noticed by the teachers and sent up to squad training, but it did not. We received little coaching and no advice on how to improve our chances of playing for the school and so in the non-squad I remained. I suppose I could have asked the teachers what I needed to do, but that is a hard thing for a shy eleven-year-old to do and perhaps I had already internalised the idea that I was not good enough. After a few years, I simply gave up. I was thirteen.

It is now just less than a decade after I hung up my schoolboy rugby boots and things are different. Over my three undergraduate years I was a permanent fixture on the wing for my college team – the chronically underachieving Caius rugby club – and, even more unlikely given my experiences at school, I have made about twenty-five appearances for the Cambridge University Rugby League Club – including a varsity match against Oxford – and, I hope, I am not done yet.

So what changed? I got a bit bigger, certainly, and became brave enough to ignore years of being told I was not good enough when the 2007 rugby world cup began to get me thinking about playing again. But, mainly, it was because I was given a chance to do something because I enjoyed it without people who were consumed by the desire to win saying I couldn’t.

I don’t mean that Caius don’t care about winning, we do, but we are also about having a good time with your mates – as all amateur teams should be. And besides, through playing and being coached by better players who had been in their school 1st XV sides, I became good enough. I am not a naturally gifted athlete, but by being allowed to do something I enjoyed simply because I enjoyed it, I both got better and reaped the physical and mental benefits of sport.

This is why recent comments from some about the vital need for school sport to be competitive have particularly infuriated me (in addition to the fact that the ‘all must have prizes culture’ is a myth). A single-minded focus on competition at school effectively killed my athletic confidence, put my love of rugby into a coma and actually prevented me from improving – all until I left school. Competition is fine later in life and, of course, it is vital at the top levels, but most of us will never be more than amateurs, turning out at the weekend, watched by nobody except the occasional intrepid better half on a playing field that is nigh impossible to find simply because we love our sport. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to fall in love with a sport, or the coaching that leads to this, simply because they are not good enough aged eleven.

Children, You’re In The Army Now – Education, Class and the Military School

In Education on July 10, 2012 at 3:28 pm

What is a ‘military ethos’? Labour are suggesting it as a new model of schooling, proposing to establish military schools across England in order to ‘raise aspirations in poor areas’. There is, however, little explanation as to what that ethos is beyond ‘character formation’ and ‘high ethical values’. There are two problems which this business highlights. The first is the reliance on key words designed to suggest toughness and ease the more conservative elements of the electorate, the kind of people who say that what children today need is discipline. The second, however, is more worrying and has to do with how we view education in general and secondary school in particular.

The primary purpose of the armed forces is war and, by extension, killing our enemies. I do not have a problem with this – there are people who mean us harm and, in some cases, military force is the only way of protecting ourselves and others. It may be regrettable, but it is occasionally necessary. However, the ethos that is drilled into new recruits is not in the main about character formation or high moral standards, it is about obedience.

Troops are trained to obey orders. This is not about citizenship or ethics or any of these noble goals, it is about obedience. Whatever one’s personal feelings, if your superior tells you to do something, you do it. On the battlefield, this is absolutely necessary not only to accomplish objectives effectively but also to at least try to ensure that our troops make it home alive. This is why one of the first things the army teaches new recruits is drill – it teaches obedience to the word of command. This sort of obedience also requires faith in one’s commanders – that they have made the right decisions, which among other things ensures the sanity of the professional soldier – if one is being asked to kill, one has to believe it is for a good reason (unless one is a psychopath).

This is all fine as far as the armed forces go. It should not come as a galloping surprise if I say that education is not the same thing as war. Indeed, the best education depends on the exact opposite of blind faith and obedience to authority. Rather, it relies on a curious, questioning mind. One that is not content simply to swallow what those in authority (teachers) tell it, but that will argue if it disagrees. In short, it depends on exactly the sort of behaviour that on the battlefield will probably get you and your mates killed. The two are not compatible.

None of this seems to have entered the thinking of Labour’s education policy people. The problem, they believe, is about discipline rather than education and casts teachers as simply crowd control rather than mind-trainers. Worse, military schools are not being touted as a model for everyone, but rather for poor students alone. While their richer contemporaries will receive something approaching a proper education, we will be content if those in poorer areas simply refrain from setting fire to things, and it does not matter what promising minds we brutalise in the process. It appears that deep within Labour’s policy unit, the prospects of poorer students have already been written off and the bar set so low that a real education is out of the question. This is not the spirit of the Labour Party.