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Is there room for intellectuals in sport?


Devon Malcolm

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Paraphrasing the title of this excellent article from former England batsman Ed Smith:-

 

WG Grace thought reading books was bad for your batting. "You'll never catch me that way," he scoffed. The story serves as a metaphor for sport's suspicion of intellectual life. Thinkers, readers, curious minds: do we really want them clogging up the supposedly optimistic, forward-looking atmosphere of a cricket team?

 

Cricket is still grappling with the terrible news that Peter Roebuck - one of sport's genuine intellectuals - jumped to his death from his hotel balcony as he was being questioned by South African police about a sexual assault charge. The circumstances of Roebuck's death were clearly atypical. Nonetheless, his life - especially those parts of his life that belonged to cricket - fit the pattern of an intellectual who never quite settled into an easy relationship with the sport he loved.

 

Other sports are arguably even more anti-intellectual than cricket. Football never entirely understood Pat Nevin. Graeme Le Saux was subjected to homophobic chants and abuse. He wasn't gay, of course - his "sin" was to read serious newspapers such as the Guardian.

 

In Ball Four, the New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton's wrote the first great expos

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I have to admit that I've never thought that much about it outside of footballers, who I routinely imagine are generally thick as shit both because of their general demeanour in interviews and the way the majority seem to conduct their lives outside of the game. It's interesting to see where Joey Barton's recent pseudo-intellectual outbursts fit into that article, though he's always been a contrary twat.

 

Does anyone feel like, as footballers are getting thicker, the managers are getting brighter? It takes a hell of a lot of application and intelligence to compile the sort of tactical dossiers that AVB used to do for Mourinho, and the Special One himself is clearly as smart as a whip, for his brilliant collection of catchphrases and analogies if nothing else. I think Martin O'Neill is qualified as a barrister, and even Steve Bruce is an accomplished author of crime fiction (chortle).

 

I wonder if it's any coincidence that the most apparently cerebral managers (Jose, AVB, Wenger) only played professional football to a very low level. You could argue that it takes a certain type of intelligence to be very successful in football - the likes of Xavi and Zidane are fascinating to listen to in terms of their insights on tactics and footballing philosophy - but I still can't see the likes of Rooney or Terry stringing together anything more insightful than a series of grunts and roars should they ever move into management.

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I won't have a lot to add to this debate, being that I don't follow any sport beyond MMA, but here's my take on it.

 

In school, the lads who were good at football were always the bullies and the little shits. They fucked around in lessons, did nothing but disrupt everyone else, but got away with it because they were on the school team. To a man, literally without exception, the worst idiots from school - who incidentally all grew up to achieve absolutely nothing but look 50 by the time they were 30 - were all the sporty, louty football players. They were on weekend teams too, the local under 11s or under 15s or whatever, which possibly fostered that laddish mentality even more.

 

For kids who are really, really good at an early age, and signed to youth teams of proper clubs, you probably take that attitude and work it outwards with even more intensity. For their parents/teachers/whoever there's no point being fussed with all that learning stuff, because football is their thing, and when you get 20 of these kids, each with that mentality, there's going to be a real environment of laddishness. That's not even taking into account the regular gifted-child-arrogance that comes with being told how great you are by everyone all the time, because of this one thing you can do better than most people, with promises nowadays of crazy salaries and WAGs, the former of which doesn't help the pushy parent aspect one bit.

 

Graham Le Saux was bullied for being gay, the evidence being that he read the Guardian and was interested in antiques, but when you think about how bubbled that whole culture is, there's really not a lot of room for literature or learning to creep in for one lad, without the others all rounding with "You some sort of poof, mate?" In short, footballers are thick as fucking shit.

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They fucked around in lessons, did nothing but disrupt everyone else, but got away with it because they were on the school team.

Really? That sounds like something from America. Lads on the football team at our school were largely idiots, but they didn't get any special treatment in any lessons except maybe PE, and I didn't notice any there beyond them having an aptitude for the subject.

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I'd also be interested to see if the increased professionalism that has come into sports like Cricket in particular over recent years sees it become more similar to football and affects the kind of athlete that takes part.

 

With the increased physicality needed it seems to favour the younger man and combined with the greater time needed to practice the extra skills and fitness work needed now the time to focus on anything else academic or intellectual would seemingly be reduced to accommodate this.

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They fucked around in lessons, did nothing but disrupt everyone else, but got away with it because they were on the school team.

Really? That sounds like something from America. Lads on the football team at our school were largely idiots, but they didn't get any special treatment in any lessons except maybe PE, and I didn't notice any there beyond them having an aptitude for the subject.

 

 

Actually, yeah, I worded that badly. The getting away with it only applied for PE, which was of course, the worst if you were a nerd. Probably. Like Lord of the fucking Flies, it was, what with PE teachers just being the adult version of those kids. But still, if you did a venn diagram of 'bullies/kids who'd use a book to roll a big biffa lol' and 'kids who were good at footy' the two circles would be directly overlaid.

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Some of the stuff that was in that England rugby report that got leaked did nothing to dispel the notion of the meathead sportsman - particularly, the business about the more senior players calling the younger guys "uncool" because they wanted to train harder. Bear in mind we're talking about 30/40-year-old-men who play professional sport at the highest level possible, and they're acting like dickhead playground bullies. In fact, it's more extreme and bizarre than that - it's not like they're bullying people for reading a book or acing a maths test, they were taking the piss out of people who wanted to work harder at playing rugby, the very thing that everyone concerned here loves so much that they do it for a living.

 

I guess the only encouragement we can take from that is that it shows that we're moving away from such idiocy towards a more professional outlook - which, given that most successful rugby players I've encountered are total meatheads*, can only be a good thing. If you can drag focus and dedication out of guys like that, you're doing the rest of the world a favour by finding their absolute best qualities.

 

 

* = except Geordan Murphy, who was very polite and friendly to my 12-year-old self.

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I won't have a lot to add to this debate, being that I don't follow any sport beyond MMA, but here's my take on it.

 

In school, the lads who were good at football were always the bullies and the little shits. They fucked around in lessons, did nothing but disrupt everyone else, but got away with it because they were on the school team. To a man, literally without exception, the worst idiots from school - who incidentally all grew up to achieve absolutely nothing but look 50 by the time they were 30 - were all the sporty, louty football players. They were on weekend teams too, the local under 11s or under 15s or whatever, which possibly fostered that laddish mentality even more.

 

For kids who are really, really good at an early age, and signed to youth teams of proper clubs, you probably take that attitude and work it outwards with even more intensity. For their parents/teachers/whoever there's no point being fussed with all that learning stuff, because football is their thing, and when you get 20 of these kids, each with that mentality, there's going to be a real environment of laddishness. That's not even taking into account the regular gifted-child-arrogance that comes with being told how great you are by everyone all the time, because of this one thing you can do better than most people, with promises nowadays of crazy salaries and WAGs, the former of which doesn't help the pushy parent aspect one bit.

 

Graham Le Saux was bullied for being gay, the evidence being that he read the Guardian and was interested in antiques, but when you think about how bubbled that whole culture is, there's really not a lot of room for literature or learning to creep in for one lad, without the others all rounding with "You some sort of poof, mate?" In short, footballers are thick as fucking shit.

 

I went to a school where they didn't play football (if I'd known that beforehand, I wouldn't have gone because they made us play fucking lacrosse instead) so I wasn't really exposed to this as much as some but it does unfortunately ring true and it was apparent across a couple of other sports.

 

It is interesting, though, if you take away the issues regarding the professional game as relates to cricket v football, which is mostly how I frame the debate because those are my two favourites, to look at it at this school level. The members of the cricket team at my school were never the twats that I actually imagine the football lot would have been if we had played football at ours. You don't hear of kids being bullied at school because he can't bowl left arm spin very well.

 

I find it interesting as well the reactions you get in football when someone is revealed to be quite well spoken and thoughtful about stuff. The wide reaction to Gary Neville being, shock horror, really quite intelligent and analytical since moving to Sky, has been one of surprise and shock - but it's like that whenever you get someone who brings a slightly more intelligent edge to football media debate.

 

Magnum's point is a good one about certain managers but I guess on the flipside of that you would say that perhaps those he mentions HAD to have something special mentally about them to make it through to the top because as he points out, their qualities as footballers were quite low. Jobs are flung at big name players even when they are clearly not up to the job - they're less likely to be chucked at a guy who has been a journeyman lower league player, so they have to stand out.

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