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April 13, 2006

Incivility on the tennis court: Theodore Dalrymple finds parallels between the lenient treatment of Andrew Murray for his swearing outburst and the lenient treatment of offenders by the criminal justice system

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

After losing a doubles match in the Davis Cup, young British tennis player Andrew Murray launched into a swearing outburst against the umpire. The British Davis Cup team were fined £1,400 for this. Andrew Murray himself has avoided censure from the Lawn Tennis Association. Theodore Dalrymple finds parallels between the lenient treatment of Andrew Murray and the lenient treatment of offenders by the criminal justice system.

A young British tennis player, Andrew Murray, swore at the umpire in the process of losing a Davis Cup tennis match recently against Serbia and Montenegro, and was criticised for doing so. The British team was subsequently fined £1,400 - a sum that I assume does not represent much of a personal deprivation for any of its members.

The chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association, Mr Roger Draper, came to Murray's defence, saying:

Andy recognises he made a mistake.
Mr Draper went on to say:
We are not in nursery school. We are in professional sport here and that is what happens.
The defeatist pusillanimity of this hardly needs emphasising.

I was reminded of what a burglar in prison once said to me when I asked him whether he was going to desist from burgling:

But I'm a burglar, burgling's what I do.
Mr Draper does not appear to recognise that children are - or used to be - sent to nursery school precisely as a means of socialising them, that is to say of overcoming their natural egotistic inclination not to control themselves when thwarted or frustrated: in other words, that self-control is a sign of maturity, not (as he appears to think) of immaturity. Children are not born well-behaved and have to learn to be bad-tempered as the business of life, such as making a fortune from tennis, gets more serious; to get everything the wrong way round is the hallmark of the modern apparatchik.

Mr Draper delivered himself of further pearls of pusillanimity, delivered in those beautiful cliches that so adorn contemporary British thought and speech:
Andy has made a mistake but, at the end of the day… it is that passion and controlled aggression which makes them the great sports people they are.
Let us leave aside the fact that Murray's uncontrolled aggression was precisely the burden of the charge against him, and overlook also Mr Draper's less than brave unwillingness to use the word "sportsmen" - a far worse offence, apparently, than merely swearing vilely at the umpire. He continued:
You can't condone it, but at the same time that is part-and-parcel of what happens in professional sports.
With Mr Drapers in charge, it is hardly surprising that grossly unsportsmanlike behaviour is part-and-parcel of professional sports. His remarks do condone certain unpleasant conduct, because they treat that conduct as inevitable, as inseperable from the context in which they occur. It is the same kind of thought that explains criminality by poverty, as if every poor person were a criminal. Mr Draper's remarks are an insult to all those tennis players who try to conduct themselves with a certain dignity of whom (I presume, since I do not know the sport well) there are at least some. Of course, under Mr Draper's spiritual direction, they will grow fewer.

A fellow British tennis-player, Greg Rusedski, said in defence of his team-mate (and who therefore had at least the excuse of wanting to be personally loyal to him):
You have to take into account Andy is only 18.
But this is odiously sentimental: if it is true that the conduct of the man is immature because of his age, now is the time to correct it. If instead of being fined a trifling sum he had been fined a very large sum, or prohibited from playing for a period that would have damaged his career not fatally but significantly, his capacity to refrain from swearing at umpires might have been miraculously reinforced. Moreover, the conduct of other tennis players might also have improved.

Tennis, which is a comparatively civilised sport, offers us another example of loss of control, apparently brought about by passion and controlled aggression. I refer to the crowds at Wimbledon, who for some years past have been unable to confine their enthusiasm to applause, but insist upon shouting and screaming. This is not "part-and-parcel" of anything, except an increasing loss of self-control by the population in almost all spheres of human existence, and particularly to be observed in this country. Shouting and screaming is not an intrinsic part of watching tennis (though Mr Draper would no doubt claim that it was), a fact that could easily be verified by comparing the conduct of the crowd thirty years ago with the conduct of the crowd last year.

It seems to me unlikely that the explanation of the change has anything to do with the way tennis is now played, compared with how it was played then; it is the character of people that has changed, and not for the better.

I do not claim, of course, that swearing tennis players and shouting crowds are a major social problem, demanding our immediate attention; but in fact an analogy could be drawn between the way Mr Draper thinks about Andrew Murray's behaviour and the way certain sociologists, criminologists and Home Office bureaucrats have thought about the criminality that makes life a nightmare for so many people in Britain, particularly at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

They have sought to persuade us that crimes such as burglary and robbery on the street, car theft and assault, are but inevitable consequences of modernity and inequality, the latter being our fault. Such crimes are part-and-parcel of something else, and never the consequence of the decision of the perpetrators to commit them, decisions taken in large part because perpetrators have no adequate reason not to commit them. Like the young Mr Murray, they are constantly making mistakes because of their passion and controlled aggression (the violent person could, of course, always have been more violent than he was). Like Mr Murray, they find their apologists, and like him are punished with little more than a slap on the wrist. We don't condone burglary, but at the same time it's part-and-parcel of what happens in British cities.

How did we disarm ourselves in advance so comprehensively against bad behaviour? I confess I do not have the complete answer, but I suspect that the expansion of tertiary education has something to do with it.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor.


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Mr Draper should also realise that, contrary to his idea that "Andy's" swearing is some kind of expression of his sporting greatness, it is a sign of loss of control and of ineffectiveness as a player. Federer, certainly the greatest tennis player of our time and quite possibly all time, curbed the occasional petulance of his younger self as a necessary part of becoming the player he is today. Rather than hinting that incivility is price of superior sporting ability and acheivement, Mr Draper should realise that this is a far from negligible indication of how far Murray has to go.

Posted by: jim mcqueen at April 15, 2006 06:56 PM
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What Mister Draper meant to say is that while he opposes such crass conduct, if there's a quid in it he will put up with anything. This makes him equal to the vast majority of people in Britain today, starting with the Prime Minister.

Posted by: s masty at April 17, 2006 03:28 PM
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Golf has also become uncivil. The bellowings of "IN DA HOLE!!!" and "YOU DA MAN!!!" just after the player hits are cringe-inducing. I disagree with the enforced quieting of the crowds during golf and tennis - I think they should be free to cheer and encourage in a civil manner at any time during play, as they do in any other sport. But the vulgarity spoils the spectator's experience.

Posted by: Robert Speirs at April 18, 2006 02:53 PM
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Draper and Rusedski essentially leap into a (nicely calibrated) defence of one of their own - Murray is a great young player so let's not be too hard on him. Frustratingly, those that should care the most about the standard of conduct on the tennis court exhibit a curious mixture of apathy and something queasily approaching approval (the use of obscenities taken to indicate a genuine passion for the sport and the desire to win). Half-heartedly censuring Murray sends out a signal that this kind of behaviour is not a major concern. There is a much wider point to be made here too. Respect for referees, umpires, linesmen etc. is not at an all-time high, to put it indirectly. Neither is e.g. the younger generation's respect for teachers and the police. Neither is respect for one's parents (parent in all too many cases*). Umpires, the police and parents all have something on common - they enforce - (or should enforce) things on individuals. They act as a corrective. They discipline and punish. They challenge someone's behaviour. But no one wants to be challenged anymore. Their immediate gratification / pursuit / feeling / desire is all that matters. "F**k you" to any notions of self-control is the mantra. When the philosophical, never mind practical absurdity of this vile egotism is mentioned, we have a softer-edged mantra neatly prepared -"whatever". Many years ago I abandoned football due to the almost total lack of civility on and off the pitch. Draper et al will quietly help tennis suffer the same fate. May I add that I am well aware who John McEnroe is.

* this is a prime, if not the prime generative force in creating a rotten society.

Posted by: Richard Nalty at October 1, 2008 07:02 PM
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