The Season Sport Went Soft

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With society becoming more woke, and demanding everyone follow in such footsteps, what chance did it have? But it’s been coming and, despite knowing what was next, the heart, the stomach and the brains were long since ripped from what we love. Ewan MacKenna looks back on the summer of 2021 when the warning signs of disappointing change were already there.

It was during the Portugal-Uruguay game at the World Cup that a bubble of noise and excitement burst through the flat and weary crowd. For anyone that has watched such mundane encounters, a reaction like that tells you what’s next, even before the TV cameras cut away and the commentators tut-tut from a position of faux-moral superiority. Someone had invaded the pitch in Doha. Not quite with the braveness of a streaker in these strict desert lands, mind, but what happened next was as interesting as telling.

It soon became clear that this was the right type of protester and photos were quickly doing the rounds on the same networks that had blocked the initial footage. BBC even called him “heroic” by night’s end. Little wonder, for there was the LGBTQ+ flag, the message to Iranian women, the Ukraine support, and the tattoo of Africa. Looking on, it was hard not to feel that there was surely room for some climate change cries, and a vaccination message on his person and garments too. A missed opportunity, perhaps?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with any of these messages in and of themselves. But grouped together, and hailed from behind the initial veil of blackouts, it spoke to something more. The virtue signaller. Covering all en vogue bases. Ticking all acceptable boxes. But what if it had been an Israeli flag, or a Yemeni banner, or an anti-US war machine message, or a pro-oil sign?

That’s the problem here, that show this for what it is.

A scream about the latest thing, rather than a belief in what one feels is the right thing.

Throughout this World Cup, it’s been hard to get away from the social justice warriors. Dimmed down jersey crests. Armbands that never appear. Western reporters cornering the Iran manager after a press conference to talk politics, and Iranian media responding by quizzing US players about black lives mattering. Kneeling. The almost desperate attempts to get rainbows confiscated on the way into stadia for a tweet about it. BBC running net zero segments at half-time and much more media on their radio shows too.

Just the other day, while one of the two biggest football podcasts in English was talking about Wales letting down because Ukraine could have been there, the other was talking about the need to stop being negative towards footballers as we don’t know what’s up in their personal lives. And two days later the initial one was getting touchy-feely about laughing at players who make mistakes.

But while it’s hit like a thud around the biggest tournament in sport, you shouldn’t be surprised.

It’s been coming for some time now, block by block being built into an interminable sphere of soft.

So let’s rewind. Let’s go back to the ripple before the tsunami…

It was the tail end of 2020, and with just 13 minutes gone in Paris Saint-Germain’s home Champions League clash with Istanbul Basakeshir, what became major news grew out of the smallest of seeds. After trouble on the Turkish club’s bench, Romanian fourth official Sebastian Coltescu called for the referee and recommended that a red card be issued. Asked to identify whom for, he referred to Istanbul assistant manager Pierre Webo as “the black one”. Both sides walked off and wouldn’t play until the next day under new officials.

We know football, sport, and beyond has a racism problem. But how many – as they jostled for position at the front of the mob, as if the likes there would provide a quackery-style cure for their illness – asked if this was it? And when they didn’t, did they ask how this was it? Of course not, for in this era of the instant and in this age of the outrage, there was the predictable and boring eruption towards the go-to of shock and horror, of ire and fury.

Yet what exactly is insulting about referring to someone by their colour? Isn’t it an obvious differentiating factor if a name in a group escapes you? Wouldn’t you identify “the fat one” to separate them in a skinny crowd, “the ginger one” in a group of blondes, or “the white one” in a group of black people? For our stand-out physical features are the natural place to provide a quick and easy reference when under pressure and time constraints. This wasn’t racism, it was the description of trait differentiation.

That was crucially the context.

The late, great George Carlin used to do a sketch on these words and their meanings which was all about such context.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those words in and of themselves,” he said of terms that offend many. “They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent. I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad.”

However such wisdom doesn’t get in the way of those hollering loudest anymore.

Nor does logic, or reason, or consistency, or even basic and proven science at times.

Instead, the rules these folks set on a whim and in a frenzy essentially comply to their narrow and closed-off outlook and, by extension, what they think should be yours. All demanded of everyone else, as they grovel in the Church of Woke at their random and fluctuating definition of political correctness. Worst of all, they don’t discuss and debate and even disagree at the end of it, for their motif instead is to ban and to silence and to bully.

This is where we’ve reached folks. We’re in a bad place.

Therefore sport is too.

So much so that, in the hours after that December 2020 game in Paris, these people got their way again as, by the end of it, Coltescu was suspended and ordered to attend educational retraining. It was a sorry precursor for what was to come as when you give an inch to this modern-day cult, you might as well give every mile.

Little surprise then that what followed was a 2021 summer when this high-end granite block of supposed elite competition turned to sponge. That’s when you should have noticed what was building up long before this World Cup.

Here are the first couple of questions that were asked of Naomi Osaka at a press conference at the Cincinnati Open in August of 2021.

One: “People talk about mental health in professional sports, which I think is a big opportunity. So I’d like to ask if you are proud of being brave at that moment and about all the people you are inspiring?”

Two: “You’re not especially fond of dealing with the media, especially in this format – you suggested there are better ways, we might try to explore that. My question was that you also have outside interests beyond tennis that are served by the platform the media presents to you. So how do you think you might be able to best balance the two?”

This brutal combination saw the then world number one break down as the conference stopped. It was the zenith of a stint where the masses fawned over her supposed strength when in fact it was a weakness around a key component of her hugely privileged employment.

Before the knee-jerk, I get it. Mental health is a big deal. It deserves respect. It sometimes deserves treatment, but not to the point the world stops completely for it.

Granted it’s become like the scene in Family Guy at the local election where 9-11 is the perfect answer to all for Lois.

Mental health. Mental health. Mental health.

It also appears in this soft new era, though, that few understand elite sport. It isn’t about just the games themselves, but everything around that. It’s why the likes of Osaka earn far more than prize money and, while wealth is an upside, the extra responsibility is the trade-off.

Osaka initially complained of social anxiety at the French Open and, when organisers demanded she meet contractual obligations, she withdrew. Wimbledon followed. But do a quick Google and it’s odd that someone with such a fear of talking to media popped up across those months yapping away with Nike, Sports Illustrated, Vogue, GQ, CBS’s This Morning, and in repeated chats with Ellen where questions were far more awkward than any tennis press conference as she was probed about boys and crushes and personal details as if a teenager.

It’s almost as if a cheque removed her psychological issue.

If you want to give Osaka the benefit of any doubt, that’s absolutely fine. But this is bigger than how she feels or what troubles her or what is hard for her. For there are two good reasons athletes are asked to do media. The first is from a journalism perspective which allows for an accountability – granted, that isn’t the reason every sporting organisation on the planet demand athletes do media, despite every athlete finding the task a nuisance. That’s a money thing and that makes the sporting world work. It’s why Osaka isn’t just a sportsperson but a cog in a major business. There’s a huge naivety or perhaps a flat-out refusal to digest and accept this fact.

Playing tennis is only part of her job, and, if she didn’t do the rest, there may not be that level and luxury of tennis for her to play. Just take the money her media work earns the game. Without it, the business and thus the sport shrinks and shrivels and off court the lay-offs will come. Besides, six years ago when an 18-year-old Osaka was ranked 145th and had a decision to make if this slog in the shadows was for her, you can be sure it helped that she could afford to plough on. Those that went before, doing their job and making the sport money, therefore allowed her to become her best sporting self just as the money she brought in does for the next person who dreams of being like her. It’s the sustainable cycle.

That is merely reality which can comfortably co-exist with offering her situation sympathy.

All in all, this should have been seen as just another injury that stops her playing, and if it can be helped and fixed, then that’s great. Yet the truth is that not every job is for every person.

And still, so few get that. Indeed by the end of that August 2021 day, after Osaka had wept and then refused to carry on for the English-speaking media, her agent called journalist Paul Daugherty who asked her about her obligations “a bully”; other journalists turned on him for making it difficult on her; he received death threats; and later had to defend himself.

He was the bad guy for doing his job. She was the good woman for failing terribly at hers.

Meanwhile in the days that followed, as she appeared on the cover of Women’s Health talking about her struggles and selling herself and her sponsors, it was announced that the $60m she had earned across that year left her top of the charts for female athletes.

Not surprisingly, 90 per cent was via brand deals.

Say nothing though, it might upset some.

Back in June 2021, six years after his first-class debut, Ollie Robinson made his breakthrough to the biggest of leagues in his game. The 28-year old bowler reached the highest level of cricket, lining out for England in the first test of their home series against New Zealand.

Soon after, he took his first wicket as well. And then another.

It should have been everything to celebrate but by lunch, social media was lit up as the gang was out for blood. By that evening he wasn’t talking cricket, but was instead apologising.

It turned out that someone had spent their time going through his old social media posts on Twitter and found a series that were as stupid as they were offensive. In one, he badly quipped that “my new Muslim friend is the bomb”. In another he commented about the shape of Asian people’s eyes. Later he typed: “Guy next to me on the train definitely has Ebola”. Then there were his goes at women as he said females who play video games tend to have more sex, before suggesting that “a lot of girls need to learn the art of class.”

The hypocrisy of that last one was lost on him when typing clearly, but what stood out above all else was how immature and childish such comments were. Then again that was hardly a surprise as they were from nearly a decade earlier when he was a teen.

We’ve all been warned that what’s written on the internet doesn’t go away, and this isn’t to defend anything he typed for he wouldn’t dare try that himself. But it is to put his words in the perspective they deserve to be placed in, even if that makes them less salacious and would involve removing a meal from the sort of bottom feeding that sustains so many.

Rather than that though, when these things happen there’s a fear of such contextualisation, as if it might be mistaken for a defence. Indeed former England-captain-turned-pundit Micheal Vaughan said that day that it was “absolutely staggering” that the England and Wales Cricket Board did not know about the tweets before Robinson made his debut. As if all sporting people should have everything they ever said vetted in order to let them play.

Shouldn’t we realise that humans are flawed and thus make mistakes though?

That if someone many years later apologises and admits stupidity, that might be enough?

That we should admire someone for growing up from such nonsense and owning idiocy and achieving maturity?

What should have been most crucial was that Robinson quickly said sorry and spoke of his embarrassment and shame around the much younger person he once was. But that’s never enough for some, the sort that act as if they’ve attained what is unattainable for a human.

Despite his facing up to what he’d said, more was needed. He was shamed publicly to make some happy, and then banned for eight matches, with the last five suspended.

That day he’d lost out on the best moment of his sporting life.

All because so many don’t understand that nobody is perfect.

At the Tokyo International Forum, ahead of the Olympic weightlifting that trawled in interest way beyond the usual yet limited hardcore, a present awaited journalists on their desks.

It was a guide for such media covering LGBTQ athletes that addressed issues in this realm.

Inside, it had groups such as Fair Play Women listed under media misinformation, and went on in the terms-to-avoid section to suggest “born male/female” was a no-go as “no one is born with a gender identity”. Whatever about a supposedly apolitical organisation telling folk how to do their jobs, how to talk, and how to think, the rationale behind it was worse.

For this was complete emotion, not just over, but against all available scientific evidence.

Then again, the competition most people were there to see was already proof of that.

Shortly after, Laurel Hubbard took part in the women’s 87-kilo-plus division. A New Zealand athlete that had been born a man in February of 1978, she had crucially lived as a man until 2012. And if we are to move away from the feelings that cloud such an important issue – as we must – avoiding gender is best as this is a social construct. Instead this is about sex.

The concept of live and let live is wonderful, except it doesn’t apply here as giving her and other transgender athletes the right to live in women’s sport means women don’t have a place there. Some will mention rights, but such rights cannot co-exist with the rights of women who work for sporting fame and glory, careers and wealth.

In women’s sport they should have to come first as it was created as a safe and fair space for them to operate.

From the time Hubbard went through puberty as a biological male, she gained all of the athletic advantages and benefits of being a biological male. At this point those who don’t like such facts may well throw out the idea of phobias and -isms, but facts don’t care.

And here are those facts.

The testosterone levels generated as a biological male sees muscle size increase as well as strength and mass, a different development of the skeleton more suitable to most elite sport, an increased heart size and lung capacity, a lower body fat percentage, and more.

The counter to this is the rule that biological men who now identify their gender as female have to supress their testosterone before being allowed to compete in women’s categories but even this doesn’t add up. For while it removes advantages like hemoglobin levels almost completely, other advantages only slightly recede if at all. Thus the retention of benefits of biological males see a 30-to-40 per cent strength difference, a 30 per cent power difference, a 10-to-15 per cent speed advantage. It’s little wonder 48 per cent of untrained biological males are stronger than elite female athletes, and that’s the reason for different categories.

That gets lost in the noise of inclusion when this is now really about exclusion of women.

In fact, if the above wasn’t true from the more than a dozen studies done up to now, then we’d have a solution that satisfies everyone. But there isn’t one based on current science and that shouldn’t be forgotten until new science can disprove what we know at this point.

Sadly though, the counterarguments belch on, as biased as they are jaded.

By the end of Hubbard’s efforts in Japan, with her finishing the event in 41st, there were suggestions that she therefore didn’t have an advantage. But she’s just not that good of an athlete and age takes a toll. This would be like saying that giving San Marino a five-goal head-start in a football match against Brazil isn’t an advantage because they’d still lose.

It makes no sense but then again there is no sense to be argued in the face of science.

On that Olympic day, some will say Hubbard made no difference to women, but none considered the name of Roviel Detenamo, an 18-year-old from the tiny island of Nauru who didn’t make the Games because of Hubbard, having worked hard to achieve her goal in a category designed for those with similar traits based on biological sex. Just as they never considered when Hubbard won two gold medals at the 2019 Pacific Games, denying two others their place a top a podium.

And besides, this is just the beginning if the door is left ajar. Where it goes next and how it ends up is what should concern even more.

We choose to separate so we can celebrate two distinct groups. If not, Liu Shiying’s 66.34 metres in the 2021 Olympic javelin to take top spot would have had her a mere four metres above not coming absolute last in men’s qualifying. Elaine Thompson-Herah’s 100m-winning time of 10.61 seconds would have seen her 55th in the first round of the men’s competition. Katie Nageotte’s 4.90 metres to take gold in the pole vault would have had her 40 centimetres below last place in the male qualification. Malaika Mihambo’s seven metres to top the podium in the long jump would have seen her second from last in the men’s qualifying, a full 41 centimetres behind 28th place with only the top 10 advancing.

Men are stronger, faster, higher, longer.

We know this and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

It just is.

It’s not sexist. It’s not transphobic.

Besides, that’s just the fairness, and we haven’t gotten near safety.

For we’ve similar stories in contact and combat sports beginning to occur. In Aussie Rules, Hannah Mouncey has played a highly physical game. Despite the guidelines of World Rugby, French authorities not long ago gave the all-clear for transgender players to compete against females. Back at the start of summer 2021, the kickboxing union of the UK were even appealing for transgender women to take it up and fight in female categories.

That’s downright dangerous.

All because elements like the nervous system, muscle mass, and difference in muscles means that there is a 160 per cent difference in punching power between men and women.

We’d been warned.

On 13 September, 2014, transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox got into the octagon with Tamikka Brents and proceeded to dish out a concussion, an orbital bone fracture, and left her opponent needing seven staples across her head. “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night,” said Brents. “I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man because I’m not a doctor. I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.”

Meanwhile Fox just stated, “For the record I knocked two out. One woman’s skull was fractured, the other not. And just so you know, I enjoyed it. See, I love smacking up Terfs in the cage who walk to transphobic nonsense. It’s bliss. Don’t be mad.”

Except you should be mad in the face of this ongoing and growing madness.

Instead though, more and more cheer this nonsense on.

There’s long been an odd sort who think sport and politics don’t mix when they’re intertwined.

Most accurately, much of sport is just another arena for politicians to politick.

It’s why it was so strange to see those that booed players taking the knee across last summer’s European Championships and on into the club seasons blaming it on not wanting politics in sport.

But if they do believe that this is about the Black Lives Matter political movement and it’s far left origins and ideals, rather than the far more obvious idea of black lives actually mattering, then isn’t it their right to think it, no matter how wrong you believe it to be? Is it not their right to boo what they disagree with at for whatever reasons are behind it?

For some it’s laughable, so they can and should laugh.

For some it’s disgusting, so they can and should be angry.

That’s their right too in expressing a reaction to what they see and feel.

Some want to take it further though.

Listen back to a BBC podcast right before those European Championships where the notion of banning such people was raised and agreed upon. A notion that was popular and gained positive attention, but the sort that needs understanding as to the dangers.

What if some of these people are booing because they believe it’s Trotskyite? Do you ban them because they don’t like the far left? Or do you ban them because they’re mistaken? When did being wrong automatically become a crime?

Ultimately some want them banned because they don’t think the same. And these are the same people screaming about discrimination, equal rights and respect who are behind this. It’s not a great example they’re setting.

But it’s why they think that way which is most troubling for why didn’t black lives matter to so many before? Where were their voices and concerns then and where were they as they sat on Sky Sports with John Terry or eulogised about Manchester City?

The reality is that it’s a fad and a trend to many, worn by middle-class white people who started caring when this became so popular that they could get something back out of joining in. It’s why suddenly TV presenters on several major networks have BLM pin collections to match their suits as it has literally become a fashion label for them and their key partners.

Ridicule those booing as it’s your right, but it’s their right to see this as they do as well.

That attitude won’t happen though.

As culture wars consume sport, at this rate, soon, we’ll be left with a transsexual getting a walkover in a female final because their opponent said the wrong thing in adolescence, with a half-empty stadium cheering it on, and half the crowd missing because their views didn’t fit in with thought control masquerading as kindness.

So long as it’s not in Qatar though. A place and a stage that has seen the worthy highlighting of many terrible wrongs.

But a place and a stage that didn’t see the beginning – rather the continuation – of this terrible wrong.

8 December, 2022.


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