Sakho and the Everbright — A Reflection on Ethics in Football

Do we like our sporting teams because they are made up of good people or do we like our sporting teams because they win?

Plato believed that people should practise calisthenic-style sports in a gymnasium. This was in order to develop virtues and insightful ideas about one’s self, a pursuit that he believed would be achieved in aiming for the perfect cooperation between reason and body. It was the belief of the Ancient Greeks that sport presented a simulated and safe environment with challenges for us to overcome; some that were physical but also some that were psychological and moral. The understanding was that sport was exemplary of overcoming the more bodily desire of comfort and it was this virtue that could then translate into daily life and society broadly. It was meant to highlight the importance of ascetism — a lifestyle of discipline that foregoes bodily and worldly indulgence — and how it would build a strong sense of self.


But now, we face new moral challenges in sport that are truly a world away from the times of the Ancient Greeks. With the disputed furor over Mamadou Sakho’s professionalism and drugs case, and the mixed reactions to having a government-backed Chinese consortium as a stakeholder in Liverpool Football Club, there are direct and indirect moral challenges that have seemingly become a natural part of the sporting climate now. It’s like they creeped up on us and became part of the furniture, leaving little in the way of surprises. In the contemporary world of competitive elite athletes, social media and results-thirsty sporting fans, we are driven to lower circumstances away from these former proverbial and philosophical ideas, to current consumerist, institutional ones.

Mamadou Sakho

Know this — one cannot realistically set a standard where a sport or a sporting institution is inherently ethical. In The Republic, Plato reasons that we never encounter the perfect forms of moral systems. Perhaps, this is because systems are always fallibly dependent on human individuals, who are themselves flawed and conduits for unreliable ideas and unreliable actions, especially when under the duress of influential lobbying groups and unremarkable regulatory bodies, which holds especially true for football. This melting pot results in the creation of dynamic footballing systems when it comes to ethics; dynamic in the sense that these systems circumstantially ebb and flow between the moral and immoral. This leaves fans in a perpetual state of changing expectations when it comes to how players and clubs react to new moral challenges that arise. So speaking sensibly, either we should stop asking athletes, clubs and football associations to be role models and cease holding them accountable to high standards, or we should allow for these ebbs towards immorality and accept a certain level of corruption in football. But if we accept this corruption, it is important to then ask are we tragically letting go of our control over the game and all that it means to us?

Fans around the world should at the very least try to hold onto their proprietary sense over sports, whether that’s football or otherwise, simply because they are much of the things in our lives that indulge us with a personal comfort and pride. They indulge us in a strong sense of chemistry and protection that humans instinctively thrive upon; one that is created by belonging to a collective identity greater than our own. As a result, it is a huge, almost necessary part of our lives and so we must retain control over it, to ensure it is free from corruption in how it brings us these benefits.

Liverpool F.C. fans celebrate in Istanbul against AC Milan in the 2005 Champion’s League final. A collective identity greater than the individual.

But in considering the above ideas, we draw closer to the crux of the argument. The crucial question that arises from the far-ranging considerations of Plato’s philosophies to the culture of sport now — do we like our sporting teams because they are made up of good people or do we like our sporting teams because they win? As foreign as they may seem, you can probably appreciate all the aforementioned moral sensibilities Plato had towards sport, wholeheartedly knowing that you identify as a well-meaning and good person. But you also know that the answer, your answer, to this question is likely a resounding yes to the latter; that we like our teams because they win and more importantly, because we want our teams to win at all costs.

For Liverpool fans, it ranges from the decisive ‘ghost goal’ of Luis Garcia that may not have crossed the line in that Champion’s League semi-final against Chelsea, to how Daniel Agger’s talent and health was objectified for the sake of results. It’s that dire position between a rock and a hard place that is there every match day, a place you can never really escape. It’s that dire position on Suarez and his actions against Nani and others, between questionable apologeticism on one side and a visceral moral unease and criticism on the other. For general football fans, it’s the dire position where with a flip of a coin, anyone can see the practice of ‘disallowed and unlawful diving’ become in equal parts ‘clever manipulation of dribbling,’ and only when it suits our circumstance, a circumstance driven by our inherent supporting value for our team to win at all costs. It’s that dire position from which you can praise a Wanyama-defined and stoic Celtic underdog to the tune of the average, empathetic fan who reveled in their famous win against Barcelona. And then simultaneously, you can easily assume the elitist who lambastes Sam Allardyce’s non-purist ‘non-football’ of long balls and deep defending which many refuse to allow as the norm. These grays of using very stark contrasts to describe the same issues, the same entities, the same coin, is telling in itself — not of our double standards, of which it actually does show, but more importantly of that one thing underpinning it all. It is that defining value in the world game that illustrates the ultimate objective of our fandom — for our teams to gain any and all competitive advantages to win at all costs.

But it’s not entirely our fault as fans and we are not solely to blame for letting good ol’ Plato down, because this value itself is also reciprocated by the institutions of sport we consume in.

In public medicine, the value system of healthcare providers is to resolve the physical and mental burdens of our patients. This is all with the aim of enhancing and optimising their overall well-being. In professional sports medicine however, the dominant value system is to optimise an elite athlete’s physical readiness to compete and win. There is no final frontier to each of these value systems, as the frontier itself is constantly readjusted to match the pace of the latest research and innovations so we can push further towards fulfilling these values. In the former case, it is to do unheralded amounts of good towards the health of millions of people. In the latter case, it is in order to further nose-dive towards that value of optimising one’s ability to win at all costs, and this is exercised through the onus and psyche of the sporting institutions that we support.

Here we have different contrasts. It’s that dire position from which we can accept certain levels of evidence-based and subjective-based sports science and how it brings modernity to physical optimisation, before we benevolently outlaw the autonomy for athletes to use unconventional injury treatments, as we mark blood doping and supplementation as illicit. It’s the dire position from which tactical innovation is praised as intelligent footballing practice, and then in the same ninety minutes, we can be cynical of managerial instructions for players to commit professional fouls and waste time, which many see as an intelligent bending of rules to stifle threatening opponents. Moreover, the unscrupulous desire for financial strength by sporting clubs, lies in the idea of capitalising on undervalued markets and diversifying revenue streams. This vitally occurs through the manipulation and exhaustion of their brand’s marketing power. It’s a place where agents rule under a masquerade of non-transparent transfer dealings; dealings that would make even Jay Gatsby envious. It’s a place where loyalty and regulation, do not really exist. And if it does, it comes with a profit margin for someone to reach and the associated influence a high bidding lobby, as opposed to some evidence-based, moral arbitrating body. Like in public medicine or sports medicine or any field of innovation and research, this is all to continually shift that final frontier forward while we simultaneously chase it. In football, we chase it like a mutt, rabid with a burning desire to win at all costs. So isn’t it sensible to say that when we open Pandora’s box and start readjusting the final frontier, we should be prepared for what we may find and hence what we are then willing to accept?

The Pandora’s box of changing final frontiers in football brings ethical challenges in a quest for fans and footballing institutions to win at all costs.

It is fair to say that these issues, after all is said and done, is fundamentally a personal and private issue to each and every fan about what they are comfortable with accepting. However, it is important to understand and identify how there are these vague ‘golden rules’ about ethics in sports that fans seem to draw a line at, a line that cannot be crossed. Some of them have been mentioned above and are now under re-examination. But it is worth asking the following questions; who are those fans that instate these overarching ‘golden rules’ and do you find yourself with them or just standing from the outside looking in? What are those ‘golden rules’ in the first place and are they evidenced in any way and come from a valuable place of reason? And where is this line that fans have set and that cannot be crossed? I finish by asking myself and to fellow fans, should we readjust this line, just as the final frontier for sporting institutions and fan values do too? That only makes sense right? Or do we not allow it, for risk of losing a sense of morality we carry in every other walk of our lives?

People say, don’t hate the player, hate the game. But in football we — the fans — made the game. With drugs in sport and ethical issues over ownership, we are caught in a vicious cycle that we have helped to propagate with our unique sporting values as fans and the changing value systems of competitive and commercial sporting institutions that reciprocate us. There is a chicken or egg debate to be had here but no matter the answer, we cannot step out of this cycle whenever issues we face in sports become difficult or whenever they inconvenience us. So continue to engage in informed and civilised discourse and ask the uncomfortable questions, even if that means coming to terms with a part of your sporting values — and possibly a part of your sense of self — that you have maybe tried to falsely validate or even hide from entirely.

Interested in history, footballing innovation and Liverpool F.C.? Check out the two-part series LFC — Revolution of The Boot Room. Find Part 1 here; LFC — Revolution of The Boot Room — Pt. 1. The History & The Truth. Find Part 2 here; LFC — Revolution of The Boot Room — Pt. 2 The Present & The Youth.

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