From refs to cyn­ics – ten steps to a hap­pier sport­ing new year

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Brian O’Con­nor

1Give ref­er­ees a break. They’re there for a rea­son. It’s to try and main­tain the as­pi­ra­tion to­wards fair play that is sport’s great­est virtue.

It isn’t to soak up spleen from those with only one par­ti­san eye. Nor is it to tol­er­ate the sort of abuse that too of­ten gets ex­cused on the grounds of sup­posed pas­sion when it’s usu­ally lit­tle more than ig­no­rant pos­tur­ing.

So let’s hear no more self-serv­ing bleat­ing about all any­one wants from ref­er­ees is con­sis­tency. As if de­mand­ing con­sis­tency is some min­i­mum re­quire­ment rather than an im­pos­si­ble cop-out. The per­son in charge is hu­man. Hu­mans make mis­takes. They’re also usu­ally do­ing it for lit­tle other rea­son than ac­tual pas­sion for the game. So, grow up ev­ery­one.

2A con­stant me­dia gripe is lack of ac­cess. It ap­plies across al­most all of the main­stream sports. If drug testers screened as ef­fi­ciently as agents and me­dia of­fi­cers we’d all be a lot bet­ter off. Many play­ers and ath­letes are now of­ten avail­able to in­ter­view only when they’re flog­ging some­thing, grudg­ingly di­vulging snip­pets of damn all that con­trib­ute less than damn all to pop­u­lar dis­course.

So rather than fa­cil­i­tate this cha­rade why not sim­ply not play ball. When they come a call­ing just say thanks but no thanks, across the board, all in. Faith­fully ex­chang­ing cred­i­bil­ity for re­port­ing that Joe Six-Pack is a brand am­bas­sador for some iso­tonic fizz is no fair swap. Let’s just stop it and see what hap­pens.

3Messi and Marta on the same team; it should be an am­bi­tion ev­ery­one in soc­cer­holds out for. Ev­ery­one knows Messi.

Marta is gen­er­ally re­garded as the finest fe­male foot­baller in the world. The 32-year-old Brazil­ian was once ris­i­bly tagged “Pele in a skirt”. In re­al­ity she’s one of the most tal­ented play­ers on the planet. There’s no rea­son she, or other top fe­male play­ers, can’t play along­side males.

Messi him­self is the an­swer to the old chest­nut about size and strength be­ing an is­sue. He and Marta can com­fort­ably look each other in the eye in more ways than one.

There will al­ways be a place for tech­nique and fit­ness in any team. Split­ting the men’s and women’s game is le­git­i­mate gen­er­ally.

But at elite level, soc­cer seg­re­ga­tion looks self-de­feat­ing.

4Rules need to be black and white. Too much grey doesn’t work. And there’s way too much grey in rugby’s tackle laws even though plenty will ar­gue the op­po­site.

That blur­ring re­flects the ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis rugby is hav­ing just as the game has never been as pop­u­lar in this coun­try. Such pop­u­lar­ity though brings is­sues sur­round­ing tack­ling, head in­juries and con­cus­sion to the fore.

So a case can be made for in­tro­duc­ing an ef­fec­tive black and while rule about all tack­les above the waist be­ing a foul. This has ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits for those be­ing tack­led.

But it also forces tack­lers to go low which is for their own good. Best of all its clear-cut, de­fined and helps cut out reck­less ac­ci­den­tally-on-pur­pose shots.

5The is­sue of a tackle in Gaelic foot­ball is also vi­tal. Be­cause there isn’t one re­ally. Rather than fid­dling around with rules about num­bers of hand passes and how far a kick-out can go, the GAA should con­cen­trate on fi­nally in­tro­duc­ing a clearly de­fined way of tack­ling a player rather than con­tin­u­ing to fa­cil­i­tate the paw­ing mess that ap­plies.

6Slow play con­tin­ues to haunt golf and there’s no rea­son for it. Gen­er­ally speak­ing play­ers get 40 sec­onds to play a stroke. There are oc­ca­sions, such as be­ing first to play on a Par Three, when a minute is al­lowed. If a pro­fes­sional player can’t get the job done in that time they’re tak­ing the mickey, no mat­ter how de­voted they are to “process”. So one warn­ing and dis­qual­ify.

7Com­pul­sory state-funded swim­ming lessons at pri­mary school might pro­duce a cham­pion in time. More im­me­di­ately they would be a fun­da­men­tal so­cial good. Al­low­ing kids the chance to learn to swim be­fore reach­ing awk­ward ado­les­cence, and all that en­tails, is a prac­ti­cal step that lays the foun­da­tions for so much ben­e­fit to so many peo­ple in later life.

8Rac­ing’s am­bi­tion to­wards be­ing a spec­ta­tor sport is de­clin­ing in pro­por­tion to the me­dia rights re­wards in­volved in ef­fec­tively treat­ing tracks as vast TV stu­dios. But even in telly terms hav­ing gaps of up to 35 or 40 min­utes be­tween races is a turn-off. As for any­one ac­tu­ally both­er­ing to go, the wait be­tween races can feel in­ter­minable.

Race times need to be con­densed. Cur­rent sched­ules are dic­tated by many dif­fer­ent de­mands but also a sense that that’s the way it’s al­ways been done. Tra­di­tion is one thing. Stag­na­tion is an­other.

9Jump­ing the shark is movie slang for ir­rel­e­vance but jump­ing the fence should be the most rel­e­vant piece of ad­vice to ex-pro’s pur­su­ing the pun­ditry game.

There’s still way too many for­mer sports stars who think they only have to spout a few inani­ties to jus­tify tak­ing the me­dia shilling, all the while in­stinc­tively shy­ing away from any crit­i­cism of for­mer col­leagues.

The re­sult is an­o­dyne commentary that’s all but ir­rel­e­vant. Pick a side of the fence ei­ther way: strad­dling is un­com­fort­able and un­sightly.

10Ap­par­ently Mo Salah didn’t dive to win a penalty against New­cas­tle on Wed­nes­day. The FA con­cluded the way he threw him­self down af­ter the flim­si­est touch on his arm was le­git­i­mate. So that ap­par­ently is that then. And that’s dread­ful. Be­cause if that’s OK it means there’s no dis­tinc­tion be­tween means and ends, and that re­duces fair­ness to a sound-bite cliché.

Sport can’t af­ford to rub­ber stamp such cyn­i­cism. That am­bi­tion to­wards fair­ness re­ally is its great­est virtue, per­haps the only part of ev­ery­day life where the word fair can be used with­out irony.

De­spite all the spoofery, shys­ter­ing and stu­pid­ity, pre­serv­ing that am­bi­tion, and at least be­ing seen to try and nail the cheats, should be the most im­por­tant res­o­lu­tion of all for 2019.

‘‘ Messi and Marta on the same team; it should be an am­bi­tion ev­ery­one in soc­cer holds out for . . . Split­ting the men’s and women’s game is le­git­i­mate gen­er­ally. But at elite level, soc­cer seg­re­ga­tion looks self-de­feat­ing.

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