Playing Cricket in Compton

A gentlemen's sport trumps guns in a badass L.A. 'hood

| July-August 1999

For those who believe that sport brings out the best in people, the past several months have been unsettling. The Olympic Games have been tarnished by allegations of bribery and corruption; the National Basketball Association season was shortened by a dispute over player salaries; Mike Tyson, the ear-biting former boxing champion, was cleared to go back into the ring, only to be convicted of another assault and sent back to jail. Here in England, Rupert Murdoch tried to buy the Manchester United soccer team for something like a billion dollars—amid claims that he would rig television schedules to make sure his money had been well spent.

Even cricket, the sport I play for a living, has endured its share of scandal. The international cricket establishment held hearings last winter to deal with charges that several senior Australian cricketers had taken bribes and placed illegal bets.

Back in the Victorian era, cricket and other sports were seen as a civilizing force, a way to encourage leadership, teach teamwork, and form gentlemen. Ungentlemanliness, let alone cheating, was considered almost as bad as treason. In a sense, it was: Britain needed honest civil servants to sustain its empire, and sport was to provide them. To bend the rules was to miss the point. Sport was about honor and duty; winning without them was not winning at all.

To sustain their self-image as carriers of law and decency to the darkest corners of the globe, the Victorians needed moral reassurance from the playing field. Sport was believed to forge national character, so if the boys were cheating in their games at Eton, what might the adults be up to with the tax returns in India?

Much has changed since then. Today's athletes make money—often, lots of it. Now sport is a career: an end in itself, not just a way of becoming a better adult. Athletes, like doctors and lawyers, are "professionals," but the rhetoric of professionalism has undermined sport's moral purposes. Sport is now entertainment—and in entertainment, almost anything goes.

But many of us would like to believe that sport remains a force for good; as a result, we continue to have mixed feelings about its commercial excesses. Is it right, our Victorian conscience pipes up, for athletes who already earn millions to hold out for more? How should we weigh glory against honor? Has sport really become just another branch of the entertainment industry, subject only to the rules of the free market? Or can it still have a moral purpose?

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