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Sports stars behaving badly: Have they lost touch with reality?

16 June 2015 [12:48] - TODAY.AZ

Outrage upon outrage. An England footballer, clearly drunk, sings an obscene song in public. A rugby star assaults two female police officers. Three young Premier League players are sent home from a tour after allegedly appearing in a racist sex tape.

Out of control, out of touch. Spoiled by success, intoxicated by money.

This easy analysis may be true. None of these stories reflects well on the young men involved, none adds lustre to sport's currently grubby image.

Yet none of it is particularly new.

A medicinal whisky at half-time

Jack Wilshere, occasional smoker of fags, singer of anti-Tottenham chants on cup final parades, plays for a club whose most iconic captain of the last 40 years was imprisoned for drink-driving.

The manager who first made that man skipper was banned from football for a year for taking bungs.

You might think Tony Adams and George Graham were one-offs. In which case it's probably worth being reminded of the rather more distinctive case of former Arsenal midfielder Peter Storey, who counts among his various criminal deeds being given a six-month suspended sentence for running a brothel, the Calypso Massage Parlour, in Leytonstone.

Maybe, then, things would be better if today's stars were more like the Brylcreemed dashers of the past.

Men like Denis Compton, the glorious middle-order batsman for Middlesex and England and flying winger for the Gunners, who at half-time in the 1950 FA Cup final drank several measures of whisky in an attempt to improve his performance.

Compton being Compton, he then played a blinder in the second half as Arsenal saw off Liverpool 2-0.

This is not an attempt to compare Compton's rudimentary medicinal treatment of a sore knee to Graham's illegal activities or Wilshere's slurry potty-mouth, or to portray Arsenal as some sort of hotbed of infamy.

But the context is there all the same. You do not have to condone theactions of Manu Tuilagi, whose assault on two police officers has cost him a place in England's World Cup squad, or Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, allegedly photographed lying in the street on holiday in Tenerife, to find it.

A brighter spotlight than ever before

Today's sports stars are living not merely in a bubble but rather in a state of constant surveillance: filmed on mobile phones, stories for the front pages as well as the back, misadventures in a million inboxes and timelines before those newspapers can even come out.

If it happens, we will hear about it within hours. And this is the great change: no more waiting until it is all dusty past to tell the tales, no more turning blind eyes, no anonymity nor indulgence.

It is perhaps for the best that former Formula 1 world champion James Hunt, for example, did not live through the age of the smartphone.

This was a man who wore a badge on his racing suit, in the sort of prominent position usually reserved for big-name sponsors, which featured a flexed bicep and the logo, "Sex, Breakfast of Champions".

By Hunt's standards that was relatively tame. As detailed in Tom Rubython's picaresque biography Shunt, the Briton broke off from practice at the title-deciding Japanese Grand Prix of 1976 to open his overalls and urinate in front of a packed grandstand.

Compared to his preparations for the race it was still mild stuff. He had spent the previous fortnight roistering with Barry Sheene, newly crowned World 500cc motorcycle champion, in which alcohol, cocaine and cannabis all featured heavily.

In that era, international playboy drivers were one part of a very small club of sporting heroes who could behave like that - not because they were the only ones who wanted to, but because they, like rock stars, had easy access to such roguish sin.

Sportsmen of today, far from being more isolated from the supporters who cheer them on, are in many ways closer - not because they are suddenly living prosaic lives, but because everyone else has caught up.

According to a national survey in 2014, almost a third of the British adult population have taken illegal drugs. Figures from Alcohol Concern indicate that more than nine million people in England drink more than the recommended daily limit each week. More than half of the British population watch pornography online, according to a survey carried out by the Observer newspaper.

We might not all be in this together. But lots are.

It is a world that has shrunk not only through technology but through experience. These errant young sportsman may not so much have lost touch with reality as be reflecting it.

If you haven't been to Magaluf it's probably too late. If you have, you'll be aware that excess of all types is not confined to those earning millions.

'The third highest American Express bill in the world'

There is an argument too that some of today's outrages are actually puerile stuff compared to the epic carousing of the past.

How, for example, would the modern world react to someone like Vitas Gerulaitis, Australian Open champion in 1977 and contemporary of another iconic player who liked to let off steam in unfettered fashion, Bjorn Borg?

'Broadway Vitas' - the nickname itself should be enough of a steer - liked to kick back after training at New York's notorious Studio 54, not so much a nightclub as shorthand for an era of pre-Aids decadence.

A habitual cocaine user, he was treated for addiction, enjoyed in full the company of numerous models and, according to his good friend John Lloyd, one year racked up the third highest personal American Express bill in the world.

Wayward sports stars are often criticised for being appalling role models. This rather misses two points: firstly, that what is considered disgraceful for someone blessed with sporting talent is often considered perfectly acceptable, if not decadently charming, in someone of the same age and social background whose talents instead lie with music; and secondly, that very few have ever claimed to be role models in the first place.

Why expect sportsmen to display an unimpeachable morality when a greater number of politicians, whose responsibilities lie with actually making our laws, cannot do so themselves?

Be upset. Be disappointed. But do not be shocked.

/By BBC/


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