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March 09, 2010

The Sexual Mores of the Wealthy Lower Classes - or Lincoln Allison on why footballers are no worse than academics or writers

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - author of The Global Politics of Sport and The Disrespect Agenda: How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy - argues that the behaviour of footballers isn't too bad when you consider that they are a bunch of dim, under-educated, very highly paid young men who have a lot of time on their hands and not much to think about except their next shag. And in any case much worse behaviour can be found among academics and writers of the author's acquaintance.

In case you haven't heard: the England football captain, John Terry (now the former England football captain) made love to Vanessa Perroncel, a French lingerie model and the mother of the child of the reserve England left back, Wayne Bridge. Mrs Terry has left for Dubai; Mr Bridge has publicly refused to shake hands with Mr Terry and has withdrawn his services from the national football team.

Meanwhile, England's first-choice left back, Ashley Cole, has been unfaithful to Mrs Cole who is, herself, highly marketable and independently wealthy, despite being a Geordie. They have parted and Mr Cole is said to be distraught; he cannot throw himself into his work because he is injured. The England team risk going into the World Cup Finals in South Africa with low morale and no experienced left back. Mr Carlos Tevez, an Argentinan footballer resident in England, has remarked that where he comes from Terry would have his legs broken or worse. (He is a porteňo from one of the poorer parts of Buenos Aires.)

You might think this is all terminally boring, a predictable sex-and-football saga dug up for the amusement of the tabloid-reading masses - and you would be right, except that I think there are one or two points here which are of considerable interest to the social theorist. The first is the persistent belief, promulgated by sports administrators and journalists, that "sportsmen" should be "role models".

In one sense this is preposterous, though I still come across it all the time. Unfortunately, there is a sense in which it is true: the only conception of the good life which is received by many dim young males is of a highly paid sports career in which celebrity and a bunch of cracking birds are the normal perquisites. Only a fraction of one per cent of those who aspire to this can have it - and often it doesn't seem to do them much good.

It isn't, of course, what the journalists and politicians mean in any case: they mean that the young should be looking up to the likes of John Terry and Wayne Bridge for their virtuous qualities. The only interesting thing about this absurdity is the question of how it came to be believed in the first place and I would argue that it is one of the legacies of our "amateur hegemony" which leads us to expect that athletes should be noble Athenian all-rounders rather than Roman gladiators.

I would also argue that the behaviour of footballers isn't too bad when you consider that they are a bunch of dim, under-educated, very highly paid young men who have a lot of time on their hands and not much to think about except their next shag and their next tattoo. Film stars aren't much different, but nobody suggests they should be role models - their cultural legacy associates them with prostitution rather than the Corinthian spirit.

The other interesting aspect is the posturing and melodramatic morality which is invoked during these events by both participants and journalists. Carlos Tevez talks about what would happen "if they were Argentinian", but they already behave as if they are - or, at least, Sicilian. John Terry, after all, made love to Wayne Bridge's ex-girlfriend, not his wife or current girlfriend.

I lived through the height of the "permissive society", the couple of decades between the pill and AIDS. I was fairly frequently in a sports changing room in which there was more than one team mate who had had sex with the same lady. At a city party in the 1980s my wife once asked the host to name the women in the room he hadn't slept with; his eyes slowly surveyed the room before he said, "Well, there's you . . . . ". We didn't make much of these things or talk of "love rats". And we certainly didn't cry, which everybody in this story is said to have done at some stage. Women were assumed to have options and to be capable of making decisions in the same way as men.

Whereas in the curious milieu of the super-rich lower classes these things become bound up with public insults, public symbolism and public debate. It's a kind of playground medievalism, more like Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere than the modern English upper classes. It lacks the kind of discretion which was exercised so well by the latter. We never had to put up with KING SHOULD GET HIS HANDS OFF COUNTESS SAYS EARL when Edward VII was on the rampage or MACMILLAN: BOOTHBY IS LOVE RAT.

It is not as if La Perroncel has much of a reputation for her men-at-arms (or feet) to defend: she is at least four years older than any of the other protagonists in this drama and has been associated, inter alia, with five other Chelsea players. And there, I must admit, I have the same snobbish reflexes as most other people. A lingerie model who puts it about a bit is a slapper, but an English literature lecturer (and there were some in my generation who were just as promiscuous as Mlle. Perroncel) is a jolly interesting girl who is likely to crop up on a lot of BBC discussion programmes. Yet the most extraordinary feature of this medieval playground morality is that John Terry has chiefly been castigated for what he’s done to Wayne Bridge rather than for what he’s done to Mrs. Terry and to his own children.

Which brings me to the final question: does any of this matter? These are not good people, but they aren't really evil either. Much worse happens in literary circles: remember Arthur Koestler, who certainly walked into Michael Foot's house in 1951 and raped his wife, Jill Craigie. He is suspected of multiple unreported rapes and of bullying his healthy 55-year-old wife into committing suicide with him.

I have presented the football saga as a mere prurient sociological curiosity, but as a consequentialist and utilitarian I do think there is one disturbing aspect. Who sleeps with whom doesn't really matter very much, but children being brought up by two parents who love them does. The people involved in these ménages are very few in number; even within professional football there are lots of ordinary, decent guys. Terry, Bridge & co. are a bad thing for society insofar as they provide role models that people aspire to. And they might be a good thing insofar as they provide an entertaining cautionary tale: all that money and they still end up in tears.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor of Sport and Leisure at the University of Brighton. His two most recent books are The Global Politics of Sport and The Disrespect Agenda: How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy. He is also the author of Amateurism in Sport.

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A very powerful and thought-provoking post: I've never heard that about Koestler and Jill Craigie.

Posted by: Frugal Dougal at March 9, 2010 08:50 PM
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