Monday, 18 May 2015

Dear Reader,

How do you feel about football in the playground?

If your school is anything like ours, football plays a pretty significant role.  It’s a topic of conversation in and out of class, the subject matter of many a serious-faced card swap session, and easily the most prevalent form of entertainment in the playground.  I’ll admit, I’m not particularly knowledgeable about football, and I struggle to find common ground with my pupils when they express passion for it.  But I am a gamer, and the more I see of football, the more I am becoming convinced that it is one of the worst representations of a ‘game’ around – and not only physically, but also morally dangerous.  Strong words, but a discussion of the subject with many teacher friends elicits similar responses, along with groans and eye rolls.  Others perk up visibly, citing their enjoyment of a shared interest with pupils and a great way for them to ‘let off steam’. Why does it divide us so, and what makes it, in my view, such a poor example of a ‘game’?

I am a real board games aficionado, with a passing interest in most sports and a delight in statistics. When I teach (with or through) board games, we begin with a reminder that the game should be fun, we win or lose gracefully, and we don’t cheat because ultimately this reduces the experience for everyone.   Of course, sometimes pupils do cheat or react emotionally to the result of a game.  I deal with this immediately, trying to send the message to everyone else that this is a safe space for play and fun where fairness is an imperative. 

Then the breaktime bell rings, and in the playground I am struck with the differences in the way the same pupils play together the moment they grab a ball and form teams.  Play becomes wilful, passive- aggressive, sly.  It seems that in football, if no-one sees you cheat, you can get away with it.  I see this in professional football too, where pro players commit acts of aggression or clear rule violations but, because it was unseen by the referee, no sanction is given.

 It doesn’t have to be this way.  In cricket, there is a culture whereby a batsman dismisses him or herself if out (or if nearby players see, they become involved in the decision) and the umpire is called only if the decision is unclear.  A player tends to know if he or she has violated the rules of the game, and referees or umpires should only be necessary to provide an outside view if help is needed.  In board games with my friends and family, it is assumed that if a player realises they have made a mistake, they tend to voluntarily retract their move or take an appropriate, agreed penalty.  This is, surely, one of life’s most important lessons: be honest, regardless of whether anyone is watching.  Instead, with football, it seems to be implied that it only matters if you get caught.  The parallel paradigms here?  Either morals or are imposed externally from an authority or system, or come from within the individual.  I know which of these I would like to encourage amongst tomorrow’s adults.

The outpourings of emotion evident in football when a goal is scored or a decision taken can be startling to an outsider.  This seems to be a cultural tradition - learned behaviour - and passion and enthusiasm are not to be knocked.  But the outrageous displays of bad grace and egotism amongst footballers and fans, well documented in the media, seems an unnecessary  and sad addition to the game for youngsters.  Winning is thrilling, and losing can be devastating.  But learning to deal with those emotions in a dignified way is all part of playing a game, and something even adults may tend to forget.  Rubbing someone’s face in it, performing an elaborate victory dance, throwing a tantrum,  jeering and mocking – are these behaviours we are comfortable encouraging in our children?  Leaving them unchecked in the name of what is normal for football seems to suggest so, and yet we don’t tolerate this behaviour in the classroom for a moment.  As Rudyard Kipling extols: ‘if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same’ then you’ve learnt a fine lesson in humanity, and one which I passionately advocate amongst pupils.

The sad thing is, we are ignoring an opportunity here to teach some amazing lessons outside the classroom: that skill and talent are not as important as honesty, that a conscience is up to the individual; that emotions should sometimes be controlled.  A game where one party plays by the rules and another just succeeds by moving the goalposts is for me, an inferior example of a game.  One of my favourite definitions of a game is coined by Bernard Suits, who describes it as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” He also explains that games have rules, and “rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity”. Teaching children to play games well is teaching them to deal with adversity as an interesting challenge, not a disaster; an opportunity to display skill and the chance to get better at something; but crucially this happens within agreed, not imposed, rules.  By agreeing to play the game, players implicitly sign themselves up for the shared experience of something enjoyable but also respectful.  Every player matters. Every player is a worthy opponent, and deserves fairness.  Winning is therefore deserved (provided the game itself is well-designed), and losing is without shame or degradation.  These are the concepts I feel football is currently missing out on, and so are the children playing it.

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