PROFESSIONAL sport is a world where the transition from hero to villain can be brutal and immediate. 

The tiniest of margins — missing a kick to touch at the end of a Test match — can transform first-choice to fourth-choice. 

It is an accepted part of sport, this carousel that builds up and then breaks down careers and dreams.  The fine print in the quest for glory, stardom and wealth is the acceptance that it can all be taken away in an instant, given the fickle nature of coaches and the “wisdom” (or stupidity) of crowds who drive perceptions. 

The fishbowl of sport amplifies failures as much as it does success, and we accept the former because we so badly want the latter.

What is less clear is how off-field discretions should be managed in sport, and hypocrisy abounds.  From South Africa to America, sport grapples with issues of crime and punishment on a far more severe scale than dropping a player for poor performances. 

Oscar Pistorius is the one we cannot seem to escape.  He orbited in the company of Beckham, Bolt and Djokovic in the sporting solar system.  Sponsors were lining up to give him money.  It all vanished in the time it took to fire four shots into a door to “neutralise” a target he neither considered nor identified in the early hours of February 14th 2013. 

Last week, he argued that a mitigating factor in his sentencing for culpable homicide should be that he has been harshly punished by the loss of sponsorships and damage to his reputation, that he had somehow become the victim in the aftermath of his negligence. 

Less severe is the case of Ched Evans, a Welsh footballer who played for Sheffield United until his 2012 conviction for rape.

 Having served half his five-year sentence, he was released last week into a storm of debate over whether clubs should now look to sign him. 

This includes opinion from within the sport advising clubs to “listen to the fans” before they consider adding him to their books. 

The point is, we get into real trouble when we view moral and ethical matters through the fishbowl of sport.  The cases of Pistorius and Evans share the conflation of sport with “real life”, creating a convoluted ethical and moral debate.

This is to delegate matters of principle to a crowd of people whose passions and vested interests often make them far from ideal arbiters of accepted social behaviour. Luis Suárez, for instance, thrives in football because of fan “democracy”.

So too, Floyd Mayweather banks billions thanks to fans (and media) who pay to watch him assault a willing opponent in a boxing ring, but who willingly look away when he assaults unwilling opponents in the form of five women, including his wife. 

Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back, was captured on film knocking his fiancée out cold, but it took public pressure before his contract was ended terminated, leading to a firestorm of accusation, blame and avoided accountability.

The point is, we get into real trouble when we view moral and ethical matters through the fishbowl of sport.  The cases of Pistorius and Evans share the conflation of sport with “real life”, creating a convoluted ethical and moral debate. 

The judicial system exists to protect society and to rehabilitate offenders after punishment, but would a teacher or banker with ruined career prospects receive compassion in sentencing and career redemption after violent crimes?  Perhaps.  But in matters of sport, there’s a loss of perspective that obscures thinking.

Do sports teams have a responsibility beyond what happens in their stadiums?   Some argue that once the judicial system has run its course, sport should not impose a second punishment on the athlete, implicitly arguing that losing out in sport is the equivalent of serving time in jail.  Others say that sport should reject violent criminals even after their first punishment, and that sport can set a moral example.

My opinion is that as long as athletes and teams want to leverage success into lucrative rewards and glamorous lifestyles, they cannot also want to ignore the flip side.  If athletes launch themselves into the stratosphere by playing on their hero status, they cannot plead for compassion when their own actions turn them into villains.  For the legal system, this should be irrelevant.  For sport, having heroes and role models precludes you from tolerating real-life villains. 

The fall should be proportional to the rise, not mitigated by it.

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