Sportsmanship and honesty

I was asked recently: “is deliberately missing a penalty cheating?” This came in the wake of several discussions I’ve had about the morality of recent events in football.

A footballer (or any player in a team sport) is employed to play for his club and no one else. There is an implicit and explicit understanding between the player and his employers, and indeed between the player and the fans, and the club and the fans – that there are certain expectations to be realised. To deliberately withhold your obligations is an act of moral embezzlement, and under the right circumstances, perhaps even legal culpability (for example, being bribed to miss a penalty.)

But what if a penalty taker doesn’t believe the penalty has been awarded fairly? Should his conscience tell him to deliberately miss, or tip off the opposition goalkeeper how to save it?

I believe the moral course of action for a penalty taker is to always attempt to score, regardless of the circumstances or his opinions on the penalty decision.

For one, even a striker who genuinely believes the penalty was incorrectly awarded, for example if he saw a defender make a legitimate tackle – cannot be certain he observed the incident correctly. When playing football I have been fouled and got up believing the challenge on me was actually fair – even apologising to my opponent, only to be convinced by everyone including him that it was a foul. The reverse has also happened.

Secondly, by deliberately missing a penalty a striker is appointing himself as referee and moral executioner, something he has no right or authority to do. He is saying “I have considered the incident and decided that it was not a penalty” – a position that only the referee has the power to take.

Thirdly, it is not the duty of a footballer to compensate for a perceived lack of justice or accuracy on the part of the referee. The referee, and only him, is responsible for his decisions, and players should not try to balance scales. It’s precisely because the game needs an objective party with final authority and the best vantage point and advice that we have a referee.

To deliberately aid the opposition is not noble nor virtuous, but treacherous. Intentionally missing a penalty is an act of altruism.

Incidentally, broadening the issue of morality to all areas of the game, in particular deliberate acts of rule-breaking and foul play – illuminates some gross double standards. Diving seems to be the number one moral crime in the game to pundits and fans, but how is this any different to sneaking a few extra yards on a free-kick, or kicking the ball away to waste time, or dragging a striker to the ground if he is clean through on goal? If you deliberately pervert the natural course of a game by stepping outside what is allowed, you are cheating. It doesn’t matter how big or small the offence.

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