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Saturday, 20 April 2013

On the Duty of Being a Pain in the Arse

When I recently invited people to share their views on the so-called Olympic legacy, a colleague tweeted that she hoped people would remain optimistic in their responses.  Another respondent worried that sports professionals had a tendency to be too negative about issues like legacy, and maybe it was time we all positive-up!

These comments struck me at the time as extremely revealing, entirely reflecting a certain way of thinking that finds a welcome home in central sports agencies and some national governing bodies in the UK, and sometimes elsewhere.

Perhaps it is a natural response to a policy environment that is so unstable.  Some times we are flush with cash, other times not.  Sometimes that cash is directed into the shiny, beautiful world of elite sport, justified with, let's face it, a series of ludicrous claims about benefits tricking down to the dirty, much less glamorous worlds of community sport and school sport.  At other times, sport is hailed as the new public health prescription.  And then, in the blink of a general election, it changes again.

So 'keep smiling and carry on' has become something of a motto in British sport, much as a sense of humour became a defence against the horrors of bygone Britain.  Who can argue with that?  A certain wilful hopefulness has characterised the sports profession for as long as I have known it.

The only problem arises when this chirpy optimism is incompatible with intelligence.  Positive thinking is a worthy strategy, but it should not be at the expense of reason and evidence.  Just as there is a vital difference between an open mind and a whole in the head, there is a difference between constructive optimism and truth-blindness.  And here lies a bit of a problem for sport in UK, and elsewhere.  Criticism of policy has traditionally been as welcome as a fart in a duvet.

Critics are trouble-makers.  Stirrers.  Awkward questions are spoilers.  One senior sport leader used to publicly condemn the 'yes but' folk who could not just accept new schemes and initiatives without piping up and pointing out their potential problems.  The way these poor fools were described and the laughter of derision they inspired made it perfectly clear that, in this context at least, a critical friend was a contradiction in terms.

No UK government in recent times has sought out expert opinion in sport in any serious or meaningful way.  And this applies whether that expertise lies in Universities, sports agencies or professional associations.  From time to time, and out of a sense of grudging obligation, new policy documents are waved at the professional community, and they are warmly invited to send their comments by last Tuesday.  Generally speaking, the people who run sport for a living are seen as obstacles to be overcome, rather than resources to be tapped.

There are many reasons for this situation.  For example, a great deal of money is invested in even the most small-scale schemes, and perhaps those charged with promoting them feel under pressure to defend them too.  A more plausible explanation is that sport suffers and benefits from being politically sexy.  All sorts of people, including the general public, have views about it.  So any sports policy carries with it expectations both of politics and public opinion.  So, some policies need protecting from criticism because they are bullshit (in the sense I have defined elsewhere in this blog: "The bullshitter does not care if he or she is lying or telling the truth; only whether the statement advances a particular objective.  The bullshitter makes claims to persuade, or sell, or convince.  Whether they are true or not is irrelevant.").

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s account of the most gifted bullshitter of recent history is helpful because it makes the art more real for us:

“Blair isn’t a liar, not in the sense that most of us are.    That is, most of us have on occasion told untruths, usually to get out of trouble of some kind or another .. but we crucially knew what we were doing .. By contrast, Blair is something different, and far more dangerous: he s not a liar but a man with no grasp at all of the distinction between objective truth and falsehood.”

A more recent example of policy bullshit is Education Secretary Michael Gove's repeated calls to increase the amount of competitive sport in schools.  One clue that this is the case is the fact that it was Mr Gove, himself, who was responsible for undermining one of the most effective competitive school sport structures in the world, when he attacked the PESSCL/PESSYP scheme, and especially the School Sport Coordinators role.  Apart from this, I am willing to bet my liver that Mr Gove has never given school sport a second thought since he was a pupil himself (I assume he failed to make any of the teams, and was forced to watch the matches with the wheezy children with notes from Matron).  But he must say something stirring about competition in schools because he is a Tory minister, and that is the sort of thing they have to say.

Of course, open discussion is not a panacea.  It may be that certain issues are too complex to be laid open to genuine discussion, although I have never come across an instance where this applies in sport or education.  Is the bases of ideas and schemes are made clear to everyone, and open dialogue on any problems or concerns takes place, those with greatest influence can be challenged to justify their views all to change them.  And, of course, it may well be that these ideas turn out to be entirely reasonable. The whole point of open discussion and dialogue is to allow all sides to detect errors and correct them, for the greater good. And also that, where changes need to be made, they must emerge from the discussion, and not be made in advance by those with power or control.

This is so radically different from the model assumed by most public agencies in the UK and elsewhere that it might seem naive. When I have asked why there is so little open consultation before new schemes are finalised, I have been told that it would not be practical, and that special interest groups merely slow-up the process of implementation.  In many cases, the special interest groups contain far more expertise then is held by the government and quasi-government agencies, so this position is clearly ludicrous.  Experts only cause "trouble" if they let errors or inconsistencies or nonsense slip by into practice.

If this is accepted, then we need to think again about the importance of discussion and criticism in public discussions of sport.  Those in control need to reflect a little on their own limitations. The rest of us need to step up and take our responsibilities seriously as active participants in the exchange and improvement of ideas.

And those people who we have been told are the most loyal and most supportive, who stand behind policy no matter what, should be exposed for what they are: freeloaders. There is a large numbers of people and groups in the current climate who have identified that compliance is a safe and secure strategy. There are outraged at criticism of any sort, and imply that those disreputable folk who criticise the creators of policy are not team-players. In fact, the opposite is true. These bland, cowardly individuals add nothing to the quality of public discussions. They contribute nothing to learning, and merely act as anchors, resisting change and progress.

Humans, all humans, make mistakes.  We are fallible.  Criticism is the best way we know to put those errors in check.  So criticism is vital.  It should not be merely tolerated; it should be invited, encouraged, and celebrated.  And those who seek to protect their ideas from criticism should be exposed and condemned.

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