Fair Play, And Its Many Meanings

Fair play is a sporting ideal. But what does it mean? And where did it come from?

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Imagine that France is playing Brazil in the football World Cup final. The scores are tied and the match is in its final moments. Brazil gets a corner but a poor delivery leads to a counter attack. The French players swarm forward. However, as soon as the ball is released to the free player out wide, she is fouled by an opponent. This leads to a breakdown in the move and the move fizzles out. The Brazilian footballer accepts the penalty of a yellow card, which is insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

Irrespective of how the match turns out, France have been hard done by. This is a pattern of play that must be very familiar to football watchers. Some call it institutionalised cheating. Such faultlines emerge in other sporting disciplines as well.

Time wasting in Test cricket is a romanticised relic that lives on. However, such acts do not inherently damage any sport’s character. Each and every sport’s constitutive rules remain fiercely protected and faithfully policed. For example, if a player scores a ‘goal’ off her hand, then football is compromised. So, severe penalties do follow for a deliberate act of handball.

As serious as these penalties might be, there are not as severe as public flogging which was not an uncommon punishment at the ancient Olympic Games. Although that was a practice best left behind, a call to fair play has existed ever since organised games came into being.

All major sporting bodies today swear by the definition of fair play as mandated by the International Fair Play Committee: ‘Fair play is a complex concept that comprises and embodies a number of fundamental values that are not only integral to sport but relevant in everyday life. Fair competition, respect, friendship, team spirit, equality, sport without doping, respect for written and unwritten rules such as integrity, solidarity, tolerance, care, excellence and joy, are the building blocks of fair play that can be experienced and learnt both on and off the field.’

This definition captures the central concerns of fair play but not its history. The socio-cultural origins of this ideal are decidedly Anglo-Saxon and they can be traced back to medieval games and battles. The privileged classes went on to nurture fair play carefully in the English public schools of early 19th century, employing it even to develop the imperial episteme. The Empire went on to spread this ideal across the world and beyond sporting borders. The white Englishman came to be projected as morally upright, just, and fair to his subjects, having imbibed those qualities on the playing ground.

The control of sport by the privileged white classes was a natural consequence of their burgeoning social capital; this cultural legacy remains intact. Even today, when R. Ashwin ‘Mankads’ Jos Buttler, it is the Marylebone Cricket Club’s (MCC) word that is given undue weight in a matter that belongs to the realm of ethics rather than rules.

The ideal of fair play continues to be defined by antiquated notions set by a social elite nearly two centuries ago. Any challenge to it cannot come until we move beyond a meritocratic definition of sport which often serves as a fig leaf to obscure questions of justice at large.

This is an important conversation because the ideals of fair play and justice are in sharp conflict. The Caster Semenya case is one example; another is that of women in sport generally. It is often argued that women should not be paid as much as men because they do not attract as much attention.

Even if that were true, sport’s affective power is based on equality of opportunity which is certainly not the case for women. Right from the grassroots, women are not provided the same tools as men to become the best athletes that they can be. To expect them to match the standards set by male sportspersons is an illegitimate concern.

The subject of talent sheds further light on the questions of fair play and justice. Talent is often viewed within the boundaries of genetic makeup but it has to be nurtured for an athlete to become world class. The nurturing process does not operate in a vacuum; it is determined by one’s socio-cultural context.

This is directly seen in the case of the richest football teams or of the most successful nations at the Olympics. The results often neatly represent the existing structures of wealth and power, although these teams or countries are not the only ones to harbour talented athletes. Yet, society is keener to explain these consequences away by placing the emphasis on the individual.

Informed by a wider understanding of the world around us, it would not be wrong to claim that fair play is dependent on a faithful commitment to rules while justice is not merely determined by actions on the field. To truly be a standard bearer of model conduct, sport must marry fairness and justice. Only then can it break down institutionalised barriers.

Priyansh is a writer based in Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate

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