(An opinion piece by Hugo Saye)
Apparently rugby is a thugâ€™s game played by gentlemen and football is a gentlemanâ€™s game played by thugs. So the saying goes. Of course this sanctimonious pearl of wisdom was always a little shaky- exactly how “gentlemanly” the Saturday night antics of your average rugby club are has long been debatable – but now it seems to have finally crashed to the ground.
As the internet is an international phenomenon there may well be people reading this who are not aware of what Iâ€™m talking about so Iâ€™ll explain. A couple of weeks ago the Rugby Football Union (RFU) found former Bath players Alex Crockett, Andrew Higgins and Michael Lipman “guilty of failing and/or refusing to submit to internal drugs tests” and were all banned from the sport for nine months.This happened at the same club from which prop Matt Stevens had left in March after being banned for two years following a positive test for cocaine.
Since then the gameâ€™s reputation has been further damaged by the inquest into the “bloodgate” scandal, in which Harlequins’ wing Tom Williams bit on a fake blood capsule in order to exhibit an injury that would allow his side another substitution during their Heineken Cup game with Leinster in April this year (pictured). Williamsâ€™ mouth was subsequently cut for real by a club official in order to cover up the deceit. The player has been suspended for four months while Quins’ director of rugby Dean Richards received a three year ban.
There are other instances but no more need to be mentioned, Iâ€™m not on a crusade to sully the name of what is a great sport. Iâ€™m simply here to suggest that maybe itâ€™s about time we stopped portraying footballers as being so utterly devoid of morals compared to everyone else. Of course theyâ€™re not all perfect, but theyâ€™re certainly not all brainless thugs brawling in the mud while the gentleman of this world play a tough but fair game of rugger before retiring to the club house for an Earl Grey.
The numerous charity visits that footballers make pass by with barely a word, yet the merest accusation of wrongdoing is pounced upon by the countless moral paragons in the press as yet another display of all that is wrong with todayâ€™s “baby Bentley” generation of overpaid players.
Of course this is symptomatic of a media that is more concerned with sales figures than a balanced and unbiased review of the truth, but by creating an arrogant, thoughtless stereotype for the public then doing their utmost to continually reinforce it they go too far. Compare the amount of press coverage given to Steven Gerrardâ€™s recent court case to that which accompanied the England teamâ€™s decision to donate all their match fees from this World Cup qualification campaign to charity and it becomes clear where their agenda lies.
A huge number of footballers have their own charities, and just about every Premier League player does charity work in some capacity. On top of this the modern footballer is often teetotal, and always hugely committed to his profession. Those at the top are not necessarily the most naturally talented players, but they are the ones who spent their formative years ignoring their friendsâ€™ pressure to drink or stay out all night in order to concentrate on their careers.
I wonder how many of their countless critics showed similar dedication and purpose throughout their adolescence. Obviously footballes slip up occasionally but put simply it requires talent and attitude in equal measure to reach the very top.
Suppose we take an imaginary sample of 100 18 to 25 year olds, to be generous weâ€™ll even make them all â€œwell brought up” middle class children, and give them each Â£25,000 a week. It would be a pretty safe bet that this group would see more drinking, fighting and drug-taking than 100 randomly selected Premier League footballers of the same age.
As I have said, footballers are not perfect. They do lose their tempers from time to time, they do drink occasionally, sometimes they even break the law. But, for better or worse, thatâ€™s just what people do. Nobody is immune from all these things, but the fact that footballers as a group succumb to them so infrequently that itâ€™s still considered news when they do, speaks volumes about them.
These are some of the best behaved and most dedicated young men in any profession – they have to be – so itâ€™s about time we stopped continually painting them as a disgrace and actually gave them some credit.