THE BLOG

Why Don't Sports Scandals Turn the Fans Off Sports?

02/27/2013 01:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

Sport is beset on every side by scandal. Some of our heroes are proving to have feet of clay, matches are being fixed, there are even child sex-abuse scandals and cover-ups.

The latest and most high-profile sporting scandal is obviously that involving South African sporting hero, Oscar Pistorius. Whether or not he is eventually found guilty of murdering his girlfriend, his image is badly damaged.

Tiger Woods will never again be viewed as the cool, clean hero of old, and Lance Armstrong is only the latest high-profile drug cheat to be caught.

Australia, which prides itself on its sporting prowess, has been rocked by a report revealing that its sport is riddled with corruption.

Earlier this month, the Australian Crime Commission released the findings of the year-long 'Project Aperio.' It found evidence of match fixing, widespread use of prohibited substances, and the infiltration of organised criminal groups in the distribution of performance-enhancing drugs. Illicit drug use by rugby league players and Aussie rules players was more widespread than expected.

Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, suspects drug cheating may also be widespread in soccer. At present only urine samples are taken from players. Wenger wants blood samples to be taken as well.

Why isn't this already happening? Is football's governing authorities scared of something? Wenger was commenting after a match-fixing investigation revealed that almost 700 matches worldwide, including Champions League ties and World Cup qualifiers, were targeted by gambling gangs.

None of these scandals, as bad as they are, obviously even begin to compare with, say the church's child sex-abuse scandals, except that sport has also had plenty of abuse scandals as well.

Here in Ireland, scores if not hundreds of children were abused by swimming coaches over many years. A blind eye was turned to what was going on.

Last year Frank Mulligan, a leading Irish amateur boxing coach was sentenced to eight years in prison for child abuse. He had pleaded guilty to two counts of raping a 14-year-old boy in 1998.

Over in America, a child sex-abuse scandal erupted in 2011 involving Jerry Sandusky, an American football coach at Pennsylvania State University.

The former President of Penn State, Graham Spanier, awaits trial on charges including perjury, obstruction, endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy on the grounds that he concealed the child sex-abuse allegations involving Sandusky.

Back here in Ireland, a prominent sports journalist who coached a girls' GAA team in his spare time also faces possible child-abuse charges.

Now, here is something very curious; these extremely serious scandals taken together do not seem to have done much damage to the popularity of sport.

Add them up. Children have been sexually abused by coaches. The authorities turned a blind eye.

Matches have been fixed so that we can no longer have full confidence that the games we're watching are being played honestly.

There has been one drug scandal after another so that we can't be sure as we'd like that the athletes we're watching aren't cheats.

And yet for all that as many people as ever seem to be watching sport on TV, going to matches, following it in the papers. As many as ever seem to be playing the major sports.

The contrast with religion could hardly be starker. The sex abuse scandals have enormously damaged the reputation of the Catholic Church, for example, and without doubt have led to some of the fall in Mass attendance.

Why the difference? One big reason is that when it comes to sport people make a clear distinction between sport itself, those who play it and those who govern it. Even if there are cheats, we reason that most players aren't cheats.

And if the governing authorities of the various sports are incompetent or corrupt, why should that turn me off my favourite sport?

Why should match-fixing scandals make me stop playing or watching football if I like football?

On the other hand, people can't seem to distinguish between religion itself and the governing bodies of religion. This leads them to think, 'I don't like the bishops and therefore I'm going to stop going to Mass.' They would never think, 'I don't like FIFA and so I'll stop playing football.'

But they would make this distinction if they really believed religion was very important. They couldn't possibly give it up.

This leads to the nub of the issue. The reason the sports scandals don't turn us off sport is because we believe in sport. We like it, value it and cherish it.

But the scandals turn many of us off religion because fundamentally many of us don't really believe in religion. If we did, we would clean up religion's act rather than turn our back on it.
To put it another way, the sports scandals don't turn sports fans against their favorite sports because sport to them is a sort of religion.

Mere scandals are not going to shake that sort of faith.

Cross-posted from The Irish Independent