Fair’s fair

As someone who has spent the last two weeks hauled up in the same hotel room as my two young sons, I’m pretty much aware of the amount of different ways you can apply the phrase ‘it’s not fair.’

As any discerning child will tell you, those three words are essential rhetoric in the daily routine you take up with your sibling. Fairness, and indeed unfairness, is the commodity in which you trade; your parents become the unwilling customers at your stall.

What is fair or unfair is an interesting question. CS Lewis, in his book ‘Mere Christianity’, examines the subject and asks how we know when fair is fair. How did we find out? Who was it that told us that because someone shared an orange with us, we should share ours back? Was it nature or nurture? Do we have an inbuilt gauge to measure fairness or is it something we have to learn through trial and error?

Food for thought and even though I don’t have the answers Lewis wanted, I do feel fairness or morality or integrity, call it what you want, is the centre point of our existence. I judge people very much on their appreciation of such values. An ability to understand when you need to be fair is essential to your make up as a decent human being.

Sport is a particularly interesting prism through which to view fairness. Naturally competitive and governed by rules and laws, there are areas of black and white although, as discussed earlier, there is enough space to operate in various shades of grey. But the argument around playing within the rules is slightly different to the issue raised by two particular recent sporting stories. The area of fairness they push is one concerning integrity. As a professional sportsman, someone who is a role model and an aspirational figure to others, should your word be your bond? If you come out and say you are committing to a club and its fans, can you change your mind?

The footballer Fabian Delph cut a particularly sad figure this week, stretchered off as he was in Manchester City’s defeat to Real Madrid. As a rule, we sports fans never like to see injury take a player from the pitch but I couldn’t help but think that a smiling god of sport had just pressed one of his big red karma buttons and muttered, “Seems fair.”

FabianDelph (1)

Delph had only recently signed for City. Two weeks ago he was an Aston Villa player and when news of the Manchester club’s interest in him first broke, he categorically ruled out a move. In a public statement intended to ‘set the record straight’ he said, “I’m not leaving, I’m staying at the football club (Aston Villa) and I can’t wait for the start of the Premier League season.” Six days later he signed a five year contract with the Etihad outfit.

I won’t be alone in sympathising with Villa fans. Even though it is not uncommon in football transfer stories to be told one thing and then shown the other, this particular change of heart must rank up there with the worst. I scoured the papers for any quote from Delph backtracking on previous remarks, hoping that some element of decency would exist in him to say “I know what I said but I changed my mind, the offer was too good, please forgive me”, but no comment was supplied. It didn’t really seem fair.

Rugby, however, can outdo its football brethren on this one. Quade Cooper’s non move to Toulon is as big a U-turn as sporting transfers can get. One that has the lawyers dipping their quills and the rugby public furrowing their brow.

Unveiled as the French club’s star signing a month ago, Cooper is the most precocious attacking talent in world rugby. From back of the hand bullet passes to outrageous sidesteps, the Australian fly half can do things with a rugby ball that no one else can. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not without fault; he doesn’t always make the right decision on the pitch and can get himself suspended for foul play; his infamous tweet about Robbie Deans’ “toxic” national team set up earned him a two year international rugby ban and the permanent press prefix of ‘controversial’; things even get as dark as a dropped burglary charge on his Wikipedia page. All of this adds up to ultimate sporting allure; he is eminently watchable, a rugby player who puts bums on seats. Quade Cooper is uncommon and unpredictable. The perfect attraction for Mourad Boudjellal’s Toulonnais Circus.

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But he ain’t going, apparently. Reports last weekend suggested he is now staying in Australia and despite having a photo taken shaking hands with Boudjellal in a Toulon shirt, he will not be turning out in the famous red and black of the European Champions. Their owner, the bombastic Boudjellal, is incensed (an emotion you would think that comes relatively naturally) and is threatening a compensation claim of millions. From a business point of view you can see his outrage; season tickets have been sold on the promise of Cooper, replica shirts ordered, other talent passed up because Quade was the man. But from a fairness point of view, is this ok? Does it damage the profile of a sportsman to go back on his word. Should professional athletes worry about honour and decency? Should a firm and confirming handshake actually mean something?

I’m a desperate romantic about these sorts of things, perhaps I am too naive for sport in 2015, but I would answer yes to the above. We live in a world where very little is secure or guaranteed and I feel sport, and especially rugby, should hold itself up as an example. Sport plays a crucial part in society and the values it impresses on the watching public must be genuine and proper. If you commit, you commit. If you release a statement or take part in a photo call, then you have made the decision. Reneging is out of the question. You follow through. You give it your best shot. It may end up being a mistake, sure, but you don’t welsh out of the deal before it’s even got going. That’s not sport.

Mercurially talented he may be, but for me, Quade Cooper doesn’t have the values I want in my sportsmen. He may be able to create moments of ball playing nectar on the pitch but I feel integrity is more important than any skill on the park. Because long after the footwork and slight of hand have waned, doing what you said you’d do will still burn bright.

When you were a child, your parents will have countered your whining complaints with the ultimate and irrefutable response; life is unfair. True, but that doesn’t mean that our sportsman have to be.

Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.

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