MY PARENTS always encouraged me to play sport when I was growing up. Cricket, tennis and golf filled my summers, while winter would find me on a muddy rugby field somewhere. Now that I’m a father myself, I can see why they were so keen to see me pull on my pads or lace up my boots.
Of course there are the obvious benefits – the exercise and the fact that it gets you outdoors, away from the TV and, these days, the ubiquitous games console. Being part of a team, and learning how to get on with a variety of different personalities, also stands you in good stead for the world of work. But more importantly than that, sport can help keep you on the straight and narrow, instilling a much-needed sense of discipline and structure to young lives.
It teaches you some important life lessons too. The enjoyment you get out of sport is usually directly proportional to the amount of effort you put in. The harder you train, the better you get. The better you get, the higher the sense of achievement.That’s a powerful – and priceless – lesson to learn when you’re still trying to find your way in the world.
But as much as I want my son to inherit my passion for watching and taking part in sport, there is one game that I hope he doesn’t grow up to have more than a passing interest in. And that’s football.
I feel an ambivalence where football is concerned. Not because it isn’t a great game, it is – even if, for the nation that gave the sport to the world, we excel ourselves at being spectacularly bad at it when we find ourselves on the big stage.
No, the reason is that there is a nagging sense of it having sold its soul to the highest bidder. There’s a gaudiness about the modern, post-Sky game, an apparent willingness to sacrifice just about anything at the altar of money. Increasingly, I worry that the life lessons my son is likely to take from the game aren’t ones I want him to learn.
Last week, Sheffield United allowed convicted rapist Ched Evans to resume training. Three patrons of the club – including television presenter Charlie Webster who was herself sexually assaulted as a teenager – resigned in protest. Olympic heroine Jessica Ennis-Hill has said she wants her name removed from a stand at Bramall Lane if Evans is offered a new contract. For her trouble, she received abuse from Twitter users who said they hoped Evans would rape her. Presumably these are the same vile thugs who have been chanting songs celebrating his crime in the stands. It now remains to be seen whether these individuals disown former Housemartins and Beautiful South frontman Paul Heaton who last night became the latest celebrity to resign as a patron of Sheffield United’s Community Foundation.
The saddest part about this sorry saga is the fact that the club’s decision did not come as much of a surprise. Nor did the FA’s refusal to condemn it. Our faith in football’s ability to do the right thing is all but exhausted.
The suspicion is that this is the first step on the road to the Blades re-signing Evans, a man who still refuses to acknowledge his crime or recognise there is anything wrong with having sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent. The complete absence of contrition – and the club’s apparent willingness to ignore it – is deeply troubling.
What sort of message does this send to the legions of youngsters who idolise the nation’s footballers and see them as role models? I’ll tell you. It says that just about anything will be tolerated – even a crime as heinous as rape – as long as you are talented enough at kicking a ball.
Here was football’s chance to make a stand, to say that there were some things that were simply beyond the pale. And it failed the test miserably.
That is not to say that Ched Evans, at just 25, should simply be written off because of the crime he committed and served time for after being convicted at a court of law. No. Every effort must be made to aid his rehabilitation, to help him see the damage his behaviour has inflicted – not just on his victim but the young fans who cheer his every move. However, when he still refuses to face up to what he has done, allowing him to resume his highly lucrative career would heap more shame on the game as a whole.
But this is part of a bigger picture, one in which football has consistently refused to shoulder its responsibilities for setting a good example to the nation’s youth.
Where once England had leaders of the calibre and stature of Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, it is now captained by Wayne Rooney, a man who has admitted sleeping with prostitutes in the past and whose off the field indiscretions have been much chronicled by the tabloid Press.
Time was when someone with Rooney’s past wouldn’t have come close to getting the captain’s armband. But such is the extent to which football’s moral compass has gone askew that he was hailed a national treasure at the weekend when he received his 100th cap against Slovenia.
Given the sport’s inability – or even its unwillingness – to do the right thing, perhaps the question shouldn’t be why wouldn’t you want young boys to immerse themselves in the world of football, but rather why would you?