Open Letter to Tracey Couch on GB Football Team for Rio 2016

Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, in order to highlight how important it was to ensure a GB women’s football team was sent to the Rio Olympics:

Dear Ms Crouch MP,

On the back of the tremendous performances by the England women’s football team in the World Cup, could I urge you as Secretary for State for Sport, to lobby the Home Nations football governing bodies to work together to enter a GB team for the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics is unsurpassed in the way that it promotes women’s sport on the same level as men’s and therefore effort needs to be made to ensure that women have the opportunity to play on this stage. Both England women and men have qualified for the rugby 7s but have agreements in place with other Home nation governing bodies to send a GB team to represent the country in Rio. Everything should be done to ensure this is the same for football. I cannot understand what reasons could possibly take priority over the opportunity for a women’s football team to play in the largest global sporting event.

Please could you let me know what you are currently doing, or plan to do, in order to make this opportunity a reality.

Yours sincerely,

Emily Ryall

I’ve just received a written response back and it’s very sad and disappointing. Effectively it looks like it’s not going to happen:

“The home nations are rightly proud of their history and the independent statuses they enjoy in world football, and there remains genuine concern that FIFA could see the coming together of a unified British team in this instance as a reason for them to question the validity of having separate national teams in future world competitions.”

Ultimately the blame is placed on FIFA for not providing sufficient assurance that the integrity of the home nations team will remain if they come together to form a GB team for Rio.

The sad consequence is that the best women footballers in GB will not be able to represent their country at the biggest global sport event for women. These are not the highly paid men that care little about putting on a national shirt, these are women that have fought (and continue to fight) to be respected as athletes and are denied the opportunity to showcase their achievements at the highest level.

I will continue to push Tracey Crouch to advocate for a GB women’s football team and encourage you to do the same.

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Should the SPL referees go on strike?

The Scottish Premiership referees have voted to strike this weekend in protest against the growing threats that they receive from players, managers and fans alike in addition to the fact that they feel their integrity is being questioned. But are they right in doing so?

The latest controversy was fuelled by match officials, Steven Craven and Dougie McDonald, admitting that they lied about the reason for changing a penalty decision. This led to widespread criticism about the honesty and integrity of referees, and Celtic Chairman (and ex Home Secretary) John Reid and Scottish MP Pete Wishart, to suggest that officials are forced to declare which teams they support and prevented from refereeing in those matches.

There are two particular ethical concepts at the core of this issue; fairness and respect. One of the basic tenets of sport is that it is a fair contest where the best (i.e. most talented, most deserving) side wins. A sport where the rules are ignored or overlooked can quickly descend into anarchy and is no longer sport at all. Sport can only work if the rules are followed. The Victorian conception of sport was that officials were unnecessary since players themselves were able to ensure adherence – the role of umpire in cricket was just to hold the hats and jumpers of the bowlers and count the balls in the over. However, the rise of professional sport (with its extrinsic rewards), along with a change in sporting attitudes, led to officials being needed to make sure that players didn’t try to give themselves an unfair advantage. And these officials were expected to be totally objective and impartial, even if their competency could sometimes be questioned.

Now, the SPL officials are being attacked on grounds of both competency and impartiality. On the latter, there is no defence for official’s bias towards one team over another. If the adherence to rules is a prerequisite for sport then this undermines the game itself. Even if all officials do genuinely seek to remain impartial, it would still seem reasonable to bring in Mr Wishart’s suggestion that referees do not officiate in games where they support one of the teams so as to ensure there is no sub-conscious conflict of interests or grounds for accusation of bias.

However, on the issue of competency, the criticism given towards the referees is unreasonable. And this bring in the concept of respect. All those involved in the game realise that matches can not be played without a referee. Let us be charitable and say that these referees are doing their utmost to ensure they make the correct decisions. So when considering the limitations of being human and the balance of probability, an incorrect call occurs, does this justify the torrent of abuse that officials receive? Of course it doesn’t. No-one deserves to be subject to death threats, especially on the grounds that they gave a penalty when it wasn’t, or vice-versa.

And this seems to be the fundamental problem with football.  Officials are not given the respect that they, as humans, ought to be given. The FA’s respect programme seeks to change behaviour towards officials in football, but it it is limited because it focuses primarily on amateur and children’s football rather than professional leagues. Arguably, it is fighting a losing battle when those at the grass roots emulate the behaviour of players and managers at the top.

In no other job would such behaviour be considered anywhere near acceptable, and those involved would be subject to disciplinary measures on the grounds of bullying and harassment. However, sport once again, appears to be a moral vacuum.

So are the referees right to opt for strike action? I would say absolutely. I would like to see such solidarity spreading out to other associations whereby referees refuse to officiate unless they are granted the respect they deserve, both in the capacity of being human and in that they enable the game to take place at all (let us witness a professional game without the use of match officials to see how it works). Nevertheless, in return, officials need to ensure that their biases do not affect (either consciously or sub-consciously) the decisions they make. They need to ensure that they do their level best to keep the game fair.

I recognise the frustration that clubs and fans feel when referees make incorrect decisions but the times I have been on the receiving end of this, I have had to bite my lip for I know that without them we would have no game at all. We must respect officials regardless of the (human) mistakes that they might make simply because without them the game would become unplayable.

The 3 Rs: Reading, writing and reasoning

The last few weeks have been pretty busy for me. Yesterday I played in a ‘re-enactment’ of the very funny Monty Python ‘Philosopher’s football match’ sketch. The primary purpose of this was to promote the value of teaching philosophy to school children and was organised by the non-profit organisation ‘The Philosophy Shop‘. Read Nigel Warburton’s ‘Referee’s review‘ here.

The other exciting news is the publication of my new book: ‘Critical Thinking for Sports Students’ which, in the same vein, is a resource for teaching and developing reasoning skills. It can be ordered from Amazon here and has already been discounted to £11.85. Bargain!

Finally, on my regular check that nothing suspect comes up on a Google search of my name, I found a blog commenting on my Radio4 appearance with Simon Barnes discussing Theirry Henry’s handball incident in the World Cup qualifiers. Thanks to the author of Moonballs, Prithvi Chandrasekhar, for his kind words about me.

What if the beautiful game was performance sport?

Following a stimulating first year seminar group this morning, I’ve decided to explore one of the questions that we were discussing further:

What would be the effects if the objectively-evaluative results orientated sports became more subjectively-evaluative performance sports? 

The example we were discussing in class was that of football. The stimulus that got me thinking about this issue was the frequent use in television  soccer programmes of the ‘goal of the month’ or ‘goal of the season’ piece or competition. This seems to provide an indication of an answer to the question, ‘Is a skillfully created move that involves many players and a variety of skill that ends in a goal better than a goal mouth scramble where the ball crosses the line after ricocheting off a defending player?’ – well, ‘yes’ we seem to want to say. Yet, if the outcome is the same for both these situations (i.e. the ball crosses the goal line) then the rules determine that both situations are of equal worth, (i.e. a goal = 1 point).

This leads on to what could be an interesting thought experiment: what if a goal could be worth a variety of points depending on how it was scored? What would it mean for league positions, and moreover, what would it mean for the sport itself?

So this is my project (if I have time). I will now watch Match of the Day (a programme I rarely watch) in order to evaluate the quality of goals scored and produce a league table (of the English Premiership teams) of my own. I feel that I am reasonably qualified to do this as I’m not a particular fan of football and don’t have any affinity to any particular team. I do however, have an appreciation of footballing skill and aesthetic quality, and therefore, my judgements should be as balanced and nonpartisan as they possibly could be.

What the criteria I will use for my judgements remains to be decided. It might be that I decide there will be three or four points available, so teams will receive one point for the aforementioned goalmouth scramble, two for a reasonably produced goal, three for a well worked move or individual skill, and four for an outstanding piece of skillful and beautiful play. The scores will be collated and will be depicted in a table to be compared with the current league table.

As this is merely a thought experiment, the effects that the change of scoring criteria has on the game itself will be more speculative. My initial hypothesis is that football would develop to be an even more beautiful and skillful game as players would want to score the highest number of points for each goal. This would ultimately make the game more entertaining to watch which in the professional market economy in which the sport is currently contained would not necessarily be a bad thing.

[I have briefly thought about whether this could work for other sports but have decided to concentrate on football as it is arguably easier to judge aesthetic criteria; for instance, the different positions and skills required in a game such a rugby makes it more difficult to judge whether a try was more skillfully scored – as many front-row stalwarts would argue that a pushover try from a scrum involves as much skill as a creatively worked backs move. Additionally, players are less constrained in football than they are in other sports as to positional or territorial opportunities available, i.e. netball players have are much more limited in the space they have available to play. It might be that the scoring system does work for sports such as tennis, but it will be something that I need to give greater thought to.]