Injuring time

The first thing a sportsman learns is how to hurt others

One of the things I was taught at my basketball club was how to injure people. Our manager, a guy called Kampf - an otherwise decent man, a father of two girls, and a worried, affectionate husband; his only vice, so far as I could tell, was a disproportionate devotion to the game he coached - told us to press up against the backs of opposing rebounders by dipping our knees into the crooks of theirs. They won't be able to jump, he pointed out, if they can't straighten their legs. Besides, it isn't illegal - even if, as sometimes happens, a player can rupture his Achilles heel trying to jump without his knees. "Let's not use this in practice" was his only (smiling) warning.

Another time, Johnny, the star of our team, taught me how to "throw an elbow". We were scrimmaging and he'd just caught me in the face with one of his own. Johnny never missed a chance to impart a lesson. What he had done, he explained, wasn't illegal; it was a question of plausibility. If you just lash out at someone, the ref will whistle you for it. The trick is this: start with your elbows high, and then spin round. If you happen to catch someone, whose fault is that? The ref can't be sure of your intention. Besides, you've got a right to turn round . . .

It was an elbow that did for me, in the end - not Johnny's, though he played his part in it, too. He'd been riding one of our team-mates pretty hard all season, a fat lazy giant of a German, whom we all called Big Country. Big Country was the kind of player guys like Johnny, with dreams of better things and higher leagues, hated to play with - unathletic, unimpassioned, a basketball pro by virtue of cliché: he had taken up the sport because he was tall. Big Country was a constant reminder to Johnny of the company he kept, and Johnny, enormously more gifted, made him pay for it.

Albeit peevishly and pettily, Big Country was the only one of us with the guts to stand up to our American star; yet finally he cracked. During a scrimmage, in the middle of play, without the least pretence, he flailed an elbow at Johnny as the quicker man darted through the key. I was guarding Johnny at the time, and Big Country missed him but caught me. The first thing I saw was the little fizz around the edges of blackness, that ushered in returning sight. The first thing I felt was nothing. It was as if my face had been unplugged; I had nothing to feel with. I spent the night being sick and in the morning the doctor told me what had broken - the fragile inch of bone above the nerve. It should be said, in the sport's defence, that what Big Country had done was plainly illegal; or would have been, if I hadn't been playing, at the time, on Big Country's team.

The life of an athlete is nasty, brutish, well-paid and short. Everybody is out to get everybody. Team-mates especially, because they split one source of playing time and revenue. Insults, elbows, trips and lies are the currency they trade in. But there is a kind of working social contract: one of the skills a sport teaches is how to stretch them. Did Wayne Rooney intend to stomp on the groin of the Portuguese player? I'm not sure. He was being harried on all sides; he was going down and trying to dig in. I wouldn't put it past him. On the other hand, the doubts about his intention that remain show that he went about his revenge the right way.

It isn't a question of whether Rooney meant to or not. From the sporting point of view, the real question is whether he offered the referee a decent alternative explanation. He shouldn't have been sent off.

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