Offside, 10 March

Are foul-mouthed footballers corrupting our youth?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Football, as the old cliché goes, is only a game. However, this mere game is increasingly regarded as the sporting arm of government social policy, charged with solving all manner of social ills from racism to drug abuse and childhood obesity. Now secondary head teachers want a clampdown on footballers using foul language on the pitch which, as they see it, is directly responsible for bad behaviour in schools.

‘When a player tells a referee to f-off in full view of millions of people on television he should be sent off, not for a repeat offence but first time, every time, however famous he may be’, said Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association (SHA). Ward called on broadcasters to act more responsibly. ‘Where is the moral authority of television companies in showing this to the nation?’ he asked. ‘Such incidents should not be shown until after the 9pm watershed and, preferably, not at all.’

The issue of swearing on the pitch has been a big talking point since Wayne Rooney was caught on camera mouthing a torrent of obscenities at referee Graham Poll when Manchester United played Arsenal in February. ‘Young people behaving like Wayne Rooney does on the football pitch are increasingly finding themselves in front of an exclusions panel’, claimed Dr Chris Howard, a head teacher from South Wales. It is estimated that Rooney uttered as many as a hundred expletives in the Arsenal game, which suggests either that the teenage sensation can’t curb his temper or else that he is involved in vulgarity-related spread betting.

Last Saturday Foulmouth struck again, this time ranting and raving at referee Mark Clattenburg during United’s goalless draw with Crystal Palace. I was at the game and, to be fair, Rooney wasn’t the only person effing and blinding. We were all at it. When Rooney came on as a substitute he was greeted with a chorus of taunts from the home fans. ‘You fat bastard’, chanted a group of Palace fans near me. Even this mild-mannered columnist found himself yelling ‘Granny shagger!’ at England’s finest young footballer.

Swearing isn’t just an optional extra to be included or omitted from the soccer menu according to taste – it’s an integral part of football. At a football match the conventional rules of public conduct are temporarily suspended (well, most rules at any rate – coprophilia would probably still be frowned upon). Swearing like a trooper is not appropriate behaviour at a church service or a dinner party but it’s practically obligatory in a football stadium. Moreover, swearing cannot be surgically removed from football without the spectacle being seriously damaged in the process. ‘It’s not nice, it’s tough and coarse and cruel, and if you take that away from it and try to make it into some Disneyfied world you’ll kill it because no one wants to watch 22 robots wandering round the pitch being polite to each other’, wrote former footballer Tony Cascarino in The Times (1).

Opponents of foul language invariably use children as human shields to push through their prudish, illiberal agenda. I’m all in favour of parents taking their kids to football matches but, instead of demanding a ‘family-friendly’ environment (ie, no atmosphere) they should treat it as part of their children’s initiation into the adult world where adult language is freely used. Not that children need to watch Wayne Rooney to learn how to swear. I learnt most of my swearwords, not through lip-reading Match of the Day, but in the school playground. And while some swearwords might have changed since my schooldays in the 1970s, I can’t imagine that children today are any more foul-mouthed.

It’s not so much that children’s behaviour is getting worse but that adult authority has been eroded. And as parents and teachers struggle to exercise authority over kids, the refrain that footballers must act as role models to our children grows ever louder. But it’s a copout to expect sportsmen to compensate for the failure of adult authority. As the veteran broadcaster Jimmy Hill put it: ‘Discipline is the parents’ job.’ Hill’s sentiments were echoed by Tony Cascarino. ‘The last time I checked, I was responsible for bringing up my children properly, not Wayne Rooney or El-Hadji Diouf’, said Cascarino. ‘If I was watching television with my children and Diouf was shown spitting or Rooney swearing, I’d make a comment about how disgusting it was and trust that my children were old enough, smart enough and respectful enough to listen to their Dad and not to mimic what they saw.’

Cascarino is spot on. It’s ludicrous to imagine that parents can completely insulate a child from exposure to bad language. What we can and must do is to teach our children that what Wayne Rooney shouts at the referee should not be repeated in the classroom, and that what Daddy shouts at Wayne Rooney should not be repeated when visiting granny.

(1) Watershed approaches for the badly behaved, The Times (London), 7 March 2005

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