Cheating at sport is, well, unacceptable. Yet it happens every day with no sport immune. There will always be one individual in the tournament or player in the team or coach on the sideline who will succumb to the pressure to win, the stress to perform, or simply base instincts.
This is why each sport has rules that sets the frame for what is acceptable, what’s on or close to the nose, and what is simply cheating. Equally, most sports have a fair bit of trouble either defining or enforcing the rules even with umpires and referees present to observe and, where required, intervene.
So if the soccer forward dives in the box at the slightest hint of a nudge from a defender then the referee has to decide. Is this a penalty or not? Some forwards dive. Some don’t. Sometimes it is actually a foul. Altogether a gray area of the rules.
Messing with a cricket ball is similar.
It is against the rules at all levels of the sport but it happens every now and then. Most of the time unnoticed and most of the time to no material effect on the outcome of the game. But it is against the rules. Players who do it are cheating.
So what is different in Australia right now?
A player in the national cricket team roughs up the ball with sandpaper. National outrage. Incredulity and anger. A failure of leadership because the captain of the the Australian cricket team sanctioned premeditated messing with the ball.
In short, cheating surely.
But, on the face of it, nothing.
All it took was a player, the vice-captain, with a history of volatility who was under a lot of pressure from the opposition and the crowd, his captain also under strain, and a compliant junior team member making a really bad choice when the team was losing.
Nothing more than a dive in the box.
Well the face is not the story at all. The response of a nation is always more. It reflects real needs. In this case leadership in the way that the society wants and needs.
The public frenzy over a misdemeanor that the international sporting body punished with a one match ban and a match fee fine, is the release of feelings that are simmering under the surface, a deep anxiety that has been there for a very long time. And it has something to do with a lack of direction. An uncertainty in the collective moral compass of not knowing what to stand for or against. And until a cricketer did something really stupid we did not realise how bad this feeling was or where it comes from.
Here is one possible source.
People mostly have no idea what the rules are in politics and business so they can’t really tell if societal leaders fail or not. Most of us have an inkling that they do but we cannot be sure. When they transgress with their secretaries it is one of the few times we see the line we want them to keep behind. The rest of the time we just have a hunch. So when they fail asylum seekers or spend way too much on submarines or let the energy grid fall over whilst carbon emission go up we don’t really know if they are cheating. They are not strictly breaking the rules, just dancing on the line through omission.
On the sporting field, however, we do know.
We can see the cheat. And when that is a premeditated act not only sanctioned but organised by the leadership, we are appalled. It triggers our real need for leaders to be better than us. They are not supposed to cheat, not even to dive in the box. But we know that they do. Seeing it starkly in our leisure time is shocking. It tweaks our subconscious to the truth that this is also happening in other leaders, the ones that really matter to our lives. It freaks us out.
The difficulty is that the leaders that matter stand up and lament the errors of the sportsmen, neatly deflecting from their own vast inadequacies. Until we call them out on their equivalent of ball tampering that they indulge in almost every day, and we do it with the same fervor we have for a national sport, then we will have to live with leadership failure everywhere.