After ball-tampering. Whose spirit? Which rules?
The crystalline outrage that followed footage of members of the Australian Cricket team conspiring to tamper with the ball during the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town conceals the moral complexity of the situation.
Let's start with what is clear.
Television cameras caught Cameron Bancroft appearing to tamper with the ball - an act that, as is universally acknowledged, transgresses both the spirit and the rules of the game.
As if that wasn't bad enough, coach Darren Lehman was seen speaking on his walkie talkie, most likely to twelfth man Peter Handscomb, who promptly ran out on the field and spoke to Bancroft.
Bancroft can then be seen taking something yellow - a bit of sticky yellow tape used to scuff one side of the cricket ball - out of his pocket and shoving it down the front of his pants.
He is then approached by the umpires who, by this stage, appear to have been informed about the troubling footage. Bancroft, who seemed initially to panic while stuffing the tape down his pants, now calmly tries to persuade the umpires of his innocence.
But it gets worse still. On Sunday, Captain Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft fronted a press conference. They admitted cheating. They said that Bancroft, a junior member of the team, was acting on the orders of "the leadership group." No one can really say who belongs to this leadership group, but Bancroft's cheating is suddenly far more complicated. His actions are now part of a plan hatched at the highest levels. Bancroft, it seems, is just the pawn of Captain Steve Smith and other members of the "leadership group."
Playing close to the line may be tolerable to many Australians, and crossing the line may even, on occasion, be permissible; but the cowardly use of a junior member of the team to carry out the leaders' dirty work is clearly beyond the pale.
Back in Australia, all hell breaks loose. Cricket Australia's CEO struggles to hold back tears while a mob of reporters demands immediate action. The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull weighs in, saying it "beggars belief" that the team could be involved in cheating: "after all, our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play." Ex-players like Adam Gilchrist and Michael Clarke express their shame and disappointment. Social media is awash with indignation. Come Monday morning, both Steve Smith and Vice-Captain David Warner have stepped down.
This is all relatively clear. But if we look past the surface of event, we catch a glimpse of something far more interesting and complex. We see what happens when the moral code of past cultures gets overwritten by newer pieces of code, and the bricolage causes the system to crash.
International cricket emerged as a sporting epiphenomenon of the moral culture of the second half of the nineteenth century. It was a culture in which constitutive practices - like cricket - were seen as capable of shaping the character of people. The inculcation of virtues in players was, theoretically, the most important thing. Hence, for example, the umpire's decision was final, whether it was right or wrong. The stoical acceptance of the decision - training the character of the player in the virtue of forbearance - was more important than arguing the decision with the umpire in order to get the "facts" straight.
Of course, there was invariably massive hypocrisy and from the beginning many players flouted both the rules and the spirit of the game. Nevertheless, the game had a clear telos - the shaping of players in virtue - and its rules reflected as much. When this telos was jeopardized, even when the rules themselves were not transgressed (for example, in the "Bodyline" series of 1932-33), what followed was universal opprobrium.
But even though Douglas Jardine, the English Captain who devised the "Bodyline" strategy, broke no rules and Steve Smith has, Smith's situation is nevertheless far more complex. It is more complex because the moral codes of the past, codified and reflected in the rules of cricket, have been clumsily overwritten. The telos of cricket today is no longer the cultivation in virtue - how can it be when we can no longer agree on what is virtuous? - and the rules of the game have changed to reflect this.
For example, the umpire's decision is no longer final. It can be referred to an electronic system designed to get to the "facts." The argument for implementing such as system was often along the lines of: "what is most important is getting the decision right; there is too much (money) at stake." Cricket, it seems, has financially outgrown any governing morality. And so the moral practice of responding to the umpire's decision with grace and forbearance, even though you are enraged, is no longer deemed a coherent good.
Similarly, much of the outrage surrounding this latest ball-tampering incident has centred on "the spirit of the game." But I suspect there is diversity of opinion about what constitutes "the spirit of the game," even among those who invoke it. While "the spirit of the game" once suggested certain virtues that could be embodied by and reproduced among players, now it refers to a different set of rules - unwritten, perhaps, but rules all the same.
These "unwritten" rules form the backdrop against which the test series in South Africa is being played. Coach Darren Lehmann has been speaking about them throughout the last two tests. For him, South African players and fans had "crossed the line" in things they said about Australian players, especially David Warner. While abuse ("sledging") is apparently fine, and is ubiquitous among all test-playing nations, Lehmann has suggested that there is a line at which it must stop - and that line is "families." But, again, it's clear that different players from different sporting cultures have different versions of where the line should be drawn. And, of course, for most of cricket history the line was drawn very differently from the one Lehmann himself would support.
I would argue, then, that the actions of Smith and others in this ball-tampering scandal needs to be evaluated in light of differences in understanding just where that " line" should be drawn. Warner has played this most of this series in a dark place. South African players and fans have been sledging him about his athlete wife, Candice, who was filmed, long before meeting Warner, in a bathroom with New Zealand rugby star Sonny Bill Williams. This abuse has clearly hurt Warner and it shadows him psychologically. The coach has spoken out about this abuse and it has helped inform a siege mentality among the leadership group. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why the leadership group was willing to fight back in such a transgressive way.
This further illustrates the complexity of the issue. All parties speak about "the spirit" and have invoked the importance of ethics and integrity. But no one has a clear, shared idea of what "the spirit" of cricket represents today. Cricket emerged in a culture which had a clear sense of what constituted the good and held that through practices people can come to represent and participate in that good. This clarity reinforced both virtuous practices (forbearance, prudence, charity and so on) and certain social horrors (by reproducing the racial and class prejudices of its time). These days, there is no such clarity.
So on what might a comparable clarity today be based? Some quaint model of virtue like in 1870s? Or a form of ethical value peculiar to 2018? Or simply the quest to make more money? Next year's World Cup is being reduced to ten teams so that the financial powerhouses of the cricketing world won't have to compete alongside smaller nations (like Ireland, who have beaten England, Pakistan and West Indies at past World Cups). The International Cricket Council (ICC), ever faithful to the goal of money-making, is prepared to sacrifice growing the game internationally. Economics - rather than the inculcation of virtue, which now seems impossibly quaint and impractical - is the criterion by which actions are deemed rational or irrational, ethical or unethical.
Steve Smith and the Australian "leadership group" others took a gamble in Cape Town. In doing so, they were acting relative to a clear end - winning. Admittedly, it's not the purest end. But the laws and practices of cricket administrators, from the ICC down, seem aligned with end of financial growth. This is not a pure end either, despite the tearful hand wringing of cricket administrators in disgust and despair over the players' actions.
So, which end - virtue, money, winning, or something else - should inform how we understand and express the laws and spirit of the game? These are the most pressing questions raised by the ball-tampering scandal, and yet these are questions that will not be addressed. Instead, we will express our anger and disappointment, the players will receive some penalty and will most likely be quickly rehabilitated, and everything will continue as before.
And so the sport lurches on, like a computer program with bits of code from previous iterations combining with newer bits of code all causing the system to bog down and, from time to time, crash.
This most recent crash has had serious consequences for Steve Smith, David Warner and possibly Cameron Bancroft. Neither the public, nor politicians, nor Cricket Australia want to get mired in the messy work of ethical reflection, working out what constitutes the "spirit" of cricket, and where the line, for everyone, should be drawn. We want to sacrifice the most conspicuously guilty so that the shame can go away, and face can be saved. We want heads on spikes so that we can praise the governing bodies for their prompt, decisive action, and go back to enjoying the game.
This scandal has thus followed a typically twenty-first century pattern: a transgressive act occurred; there immediately follows mass public outrage, invoking high-minded ethical principles (in this case, "the spirit of the game"), however incoherent or ill-defined those principles might be; politicians, former greats and self-interested administrators all join in the moral grandstanding, whose seeming end is more the enhancement of their own reputation than it is the purported "good of the game"; but nothing, really, of substance comes of it all.
What is most desperately needed, precisely now, is a serious public conversation what we understand the goal or telos of cricket to be, and how in turn that telos informs and shapes the rules of the game, both written and unwritten.
These rules, and their undergirding telos, would then need to be expressed in the conduct and decisions of the administrators of the game (who all too often have changed the rules and altered competition formats in the interests of money-making, but at the expense of the game), as well as players (who all too often have done shameful acts in the interests of winning, but at the expense of the game) and spectators (who all too often have verbally abused players in shameless, despicable ways in order to benefit their side, but at the expense of the game).
This is what is necessary: a coherent conversation about what constitutes the nebulous "spirit of the game" and how that might then shape of ethical norms governing all participants. But such a conversation would be difficult, not to mention time consuming. It would force all interested parties into a tough deliberative process around how we understand "the good" of the game. But with so much money to be made, wouldn't it be easier just to express outrage, punish a few scapegoats and continue on as before?
This article first appeared on ABC Religion & Ethics and is reproduced by kind permission of the author.
David Deane is Associate Professor of Theology at the Atlantic School of Theology. He is the author of Nietzsche and Theology: Nietzschean Thought in Christological Anthropology and "Resisting the Tyranny of the Banal" (forthcoming from Lexington Books).
He is perhaps best known in Ireland for his cricketing prowess with Trinity and Ballyeighan.