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August 31, 2004

Amateur Sports and the Yearning for Honour & Chivalry

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Are amateur sports a repository for English civil virtues? Lincoln Allison, a leading academic expert on sport and author of Amateurism in Sport, argues that the robust survival of amateur sport reflects a continued yearning for the values of honour and chivalry.

In a previous essay I argued that over the previous generation certain English civil virtues had been eroded by growth and prosperity or, rather, by the necessary conditions of growth and prosperity. These included amateur and voluntary activity and the world of pubs and clubs. At its simplest this could be seen as a simple mechanical effect as hard work and commuting leave little room for collective and cultural activity. Production and consumption both rise and between them they squeeze out the space for civil society. We work hard, commute hard and consume hard, leaving less space for the pub and the cricket club. In doing so I harked back to my book Condition of England published in 1981 in which I had argued that English economic failure had to be put alongside cultural success, even in economic terms.

However, although these effects are simple and inevitable, I do believe that there are important counter-tendencies and room for optimism. Partly this is based on an intuitive belief in the persistence and durability of national cultures: just as we must be surprised by how much De Tocqueville's America seems like that of our own age despite vast demographic and geographical changes, so we must always fear German authoritarianism, insecurity and inflexibility.

If there is hope, it lies in the students. In Condition of England I wrote:

The overwhelming quality which distinguishes Californians from Englishmen was the complete predominance of their individual ambition. It occurred in many contexts: in the Stanford Business School (where I used to attend some lectures and social events) it was positively sinister; among the very young it was quite endearing whilst among the vacuum cleaner salesmen and bicycle store owners it could be pathetic. Among the academics it was stultifying, encouraging them to keep their profiles low and produce prodigious quantities of written work of great conformity and little imagination.

Undoubtedly, emphatically over the years since my academic colleagues have become more like Californians as described here. (They are, in any case, a cosmopolitan lot and a fraction of them are Americans, whereas even more have studied in America.) What is more interesting, though, is that the students have not. They aspire only to the 'II,1 and the good time' and otherwise to be immensely clubbable. They are multiple members of clubs, bands and societies; I have never met an English student who would admit to wanting to be the best in his class perhaps a first would be nice, but not for competitive reasons. Certainly nobody would want to miss out on membership of the Rugby Club or the Big Band for the sake of a better degree.

One element which has developed fabulously since I was young is the Tour, whether the choir's tour to Canada or the football team's tour to Holland or Ireland. The tour represents a kind of Chaucerian yearning for a shared journey, generating a narrative of risk and achievement, of drink and companionship. At one stage earlier this year I was putting a lot of work into organising my cricket club's tour to Wales while my youngest son was competing for the phone to organise his football club's tournament in Ireland. His generation may find it difficult as they progress through life to find time to be secretary of the dramatic society or the golf club, but all the evidence suggests that the aspiration will be there in as many people as it ever was.

I wrote about football in Condition of England and contrasted the ethos of Major League American sport as a fully commercialised entertainment based on television with the culture of a 92-club football league. Structurally, we have turned into Major League in the years since with the top level of the game absorbed into a television-based global economy and the rest struggling and withering financially. However, it is also true and rather surprising that live football support is thriving at the lower levels with the number of spectators rising at the fourth , fifth and sixth . levels of the pyramid. An extreme case is Leamington Spa where the town football club was revived in 2000 having not fielded a team for twelve years after the firm which had incorporated the club pulled the financial plug. Devotees finally found another ground and were able to field a team, which has risen up the minor leagues attracting bigger crowds than ever. There is a determination here not to be sucked into the global nexus of watching Manchester United on television, but to be part of a local institution. Is it too far-fetched to call this a quest for cultural meaning? . . . and in a very English tradition? The record of that quest is to be found on the kind of websites which describe Hereford's visit to Exeter.

I wrote also about cricket. There is a tradition , represented in Dickens and A.G.McDonnell and in the speeches of Stanley Baldwin and John Major, of regarding village-level cricket as a microcosm of English society. In Condition I was able to contrast the yobbish pseudo-professionalism of amateur football with the remaining gentility of cricket. Much has changed since then and in 1996 I ran a survey of experienced cricket officials about changes in the game. The overwhelming themes were of vastly increased competitiveness and a decline of etiquette. These are also my own experience. Nevertheless, I don't think the game would survive to the degree that it does without the rituals of tea and congratulations to opponents and competitiveness dissipated into little jokes. There is an underlying assumption, in short, for cricket to aspire to be something more than just a modern game and this aspiration may define its survival.

Social scientists have mercifully abandoned aspirations to predict the future. It is not out of the question that by the end of the twenty-first century there will be more cricket than ever with cakes and courtesy as important as ever. Hippolyte Taine and Pierre De Coubertin discovered in the most modern of nineteenth century societies a surprising aspiration to honour and chivalry. Specifically, they found it in the public schools. Am I being too optimistic in claiming to discern a yearning for these values in the twenty-first century?

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001). His thoughts on the use of drugs in professional sport can be found in The Guardian: Faster, stronger, higher.


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There is a general disaffection with the bloated carcass of big time sport. In fact, the scaling down the Champions League in soccer from 2 group stages to one seems to have marked a possible turning point. The powers that be in football realised that fans were increasingly apathetic to "big time" but increasingly meaningless games. Perhaps the Olympic movement will soon scale down the bloated games, first I suggest by only featuring sports in which a Olympic gold is the undoubted pinaccle of an athletes career (thus removing soccer and tennis for starters)

Posted by: James McQueen at September 11, 2004 10:46 AM
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