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Businesses seek profit and sportsmen chase victory, but there’s still hope for morality

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Stuart Broad.
Stuart Broad, whose controversial decision not to "walk" when he edged the ball to first slip has been a point of controversy. Photograph: Getty Images.

There are times when a columnist, conditioned to take a firm line, feels pressure to pronounce about a controversy – but what if he knows that logic and evidence can be marshalled to make an equally strong case for both standpoints, even though they are perfectly opposed? The temptation is to pick a side and be done with it. Yet if two opposing views support such convincing defences, the hinge of the argument must be in the wrong place. Instead of summoning rhetorical conviction, perhaps we should try to redraw the debate along more helpful dividing lines.

That is how I’ve felt watching the rows about fair play that have flared up throughout the Ashes. The most controversial was Stuart Broad’s decision not to “walk” when he edged the ball to first slip during the thrilling first Test match at Trent Bridge.

Two clear-cut columns write themselves all too easily. First, the disgusted moral one: “Sometimes a batsman is unsure if he hit the ball and may rightfully stand his ground. This was not one of those moments. Cheating is a strong word but when a batsman is 100 per cent sure that he hit the ball and still doesn’t walk, it is hard to pretend that ‘gamesmanship’ is the accurate term.” So thunder the moralists.

It is just as easy to defend Broad by arguing that he did what everyone does, only better: “Modern batsmen do not walk. They let the umpire decide. So a batsman who doesn’t walk for a thick edge is no more ‘in the wrong’ than a batsman who doesn’t walk for a slight deflection. Broad should be congratulated for his professionalism and his poker face.”

The problem is that neither column captures my conflicting emotions. As a batsman who did not always “walk”, I sympathise with Broad. I also know that watching him get away with such an obvious edge felt wrong. It looked silly and demeaned the day.

How did we get into this mess? Ironically, it was once assumed that professionalism would eventually negate the need for moral judgements. Accepting the umpire’s decision would replace the moral imperative of doing the right thing. The advent of new technologies, too, encouraged the delusion that players would never have to think morally in the heat of battle.

However, umpires make mistakes and technology has proved inadequate and unpredictable. We have moved from one grey area, based on a player’s word, to an increasingly precisely calibrated grey area, determined by a Byzantine system of technical apparatus designed to clarify the matter but serving only to confuse it.

If we substitute the words “umpiring” and “technology” with the word “law”, we see how the everyday professional working world has encountered similar problems. Narrowly “legal” behaviour is often shown to be morally wrong. Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance was entirely legal but rightly caused public indignation. The letter of the law be damned – a rich man should pay a decent amount of tax, even if none of us knows exactly what proportion that should be. The same point applies even more strongly to the tax-avoidance strategies of Starbucks.

We can never reach such an evolved stage of technological or legal precision that the question “Does this feel right?” stops being central to a professional code. Matthew Parris has argued that the pages of small print tacked on to employment contracts paradoxically only encourage dubious behaviour. A long list of prohibited actions merely suggests a further list of (presumably) unprohibited ones. In contrast, the assumption that they shouldn’t “do anything that feels wrong” encourages employees to think for themselves.

When businesses seek profit and professional sportsmen chase competitive advantage, what hope is there for morality? The answer is more likely to reside in culture and conventions than in law and technology.

In her 1994 paper “Bourgeois Virtue”, the American economist Deirdre McCloskey argued that modern society was stuck with outdated conventions. We fall back on old ideals – the honourable aristocrat, the plucky worker – but we lack ethical models for professional or bourgeois virtues.

The history of modern sport fits McCloskey’s model. At first, sport was obsessed with the honourable gentleman who was above the fray. The Corinthians football team declined to score from penalties on the grounds that the opposition’s foul must have been accidental. The second phase of modern sport, the early years of professionalism, emphasised hard work and industry – the plucky worker who kept his head down and stuck to the task. Not for him moral grandstanding and “walking” when he edged it; he had to put food on the table.

Sport is now – uncertainly but distinctly – entering a third phase. It may prove a happy surprise. The relentless determination to win, founded on scientific training and ruthless planning, does not inevitably lead to moral collapse. Today’s snooker players own up when they faintly touch the cue ball, even though it is entirely against their self-interest and rarely visible to the referee. Rugby players in a scrum, driven backwards on to their try line, could halt the disaster by pretending that one of the players was suffering a neck injury. It never happens – faking serious spinal injuries is not part of professional rugby culture. Tennis players are more respectful and courteous than they were 20 years ago.

Cultures are always in flux. An extreme example of questionable behaviour, one that pushes an accepted convention beyond common sense, can tip the culture in a positive direction. Broad’s successful stand may encourage more batsmen to walk.

Professional sportsmen are groping towards McCloskey’s “bourgeois virtues”. But as the third phase crawls forward, spare a thought for the players. If you are confused in the comfort of your armchair, imagine how they feel in the white heat of competitiveness, with the roar of 30,000 people in their ears.

Get more sports news and views over at Fast News Release.