The History of Fair Play

Fair play as we know it today took form and shape in Victorian England. The aristocratic English “Gentlemen of Leisure” regarded sporting competition as a means in itself. To the aristocrat, winning was not only unimportant, it was perhaps even something to be despised. To be mentioned and praised in the press (apart from the Royal Bulletins) was considered quite improper. The result of the game was much less important than the taking part in the game. This has become somewhat of a cliché in today’s modern game. The English sociologists Dunning and Sheard summarised the principles behind this amateur code in their book: A sociological study of the development of rugby, which was published in 1979. They stated the following:

  • The game is played as an end in itself, participated in simply for the joy of taking part. Attitudes which involve going for victory at all costs are totally despised.

  • Self-control and above all the control of one’s feelings whether one wins or loses.

  • The idea of “Fair Play”, ie. The equal chances of both sides, combined with a total respect for the rules of the game, and a knightly approach of “friendly rivalry” between the opponents.

Fair Play meant more than just keeping to the rules. In the ideal situation, sport had one simple aim: to provide one with fun, enjoyment, and pleasure. The overriding principle was the clear definition between work and leisure. It was believed that professionalism would turn a game that was ‘play’ into work, thus destroying its very reason for existing. The historical development of the Laws of the Game show how agreement on the rules was closely linked to a social control which was both strict and there for all to see. The “Cambridge Rules” which were published in 1848, were the ancestors of our present Laws of the Game, reflecting the social attitudes of the middle and upper classes of Victorian England.

The idea of a referee, as an external and effective social control, was only introduced in 1871 when entry to the FA cup was opened to all clubs, including those of the working classes. This required new forms of control. The “Honour of the Gentleman” no longer held for all concerned. Football was no longer played just for fun.

Success at the game became a part of the war between the classes. For the ordinary folk, it became a way to move up the social or economic ladder; for the nobility it became a way to demonstrate superiority in the political set-up. Obviously in this game, the new rules of fair play were no longer valid… Fair Play had lost its social foundations.

Later, due to more sporting competitions involving increasing numbers of media attention, the idea of fair play was reduced to the view of “an acceptable foul”, meaning one which avoided injuring the opponent. The idea of fair play moved from being a matter of attitude to a question of expediency, a weighing up the costs and effectiveness: how much can I (still) allow myself to play fairly? Sport had adapted itself to the norms and values of modern society, more precisely, to those of a society where success means everything. Standards for what is considered fair play had fallen dramatically.

The game had lost its gentlemanly standard that it once prided itself on. What was actually drawn up in the original fair play code was something as incredible as; “a fair spectator must be impartial”. So this really gives us an idea of what they considered to be fair play at the time, and how much things have changed, as everyone supports their own favourite team and would never act impartial. Even when two teams are playing and you don’t support either, you always favour one because it could affect your own team’s place in the league.

What Can Be Done to Improve These Dropped Standards and Enforce Fair Play?

To try and improve the standards for what is considered fair play, the penalties should be made so high that no one would dare to disobey the laws; For example: Awarding a penalty kick for bad attitude, as well as a red card, and possibly even a fine. But some might argue that if football became this strict it would lose its passion and people would begin to lose interest…perhaps this really underlines how moral standards have generally dropped in today’s modern society. However, even if F.I.F.A. were to introduce such penalties and punishments, it is not enough. What really needs to be done is to educate the children and youth of today’s society, for they are the next sporting generation and it can all change by teaching them correctly.