What’s the difference between an outright cheat and someone who tries to push the boundaries without being caught? This is the moral debate raging after Thierry Henry’s handball gave France their win against Ireland in the world cut playoff game on Wednesday. [The photo is Henry playing for Barcelona.] The story has moved from the back pages to the news and editorial sections, with politicians and pundits weighing in. Perhaps this moral questioning is heightened by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the financial sector.
Is Henry a cheat? He has confessed to handling the ball, but claims it was an instinctive reaction in the heat of the moment. So if cheating means consciously breaking the rules and trying to get away with it, then it’s grey. We are into a debate about whether we are responsible for our instinctive reactions, and whether it is the job of the footballer to referee himself.
In some areas of life the fact of not being caught is enough to make something acceptable. The classic example is the card game ‘cheat’, where you have to put down as many cards as possible, telling your competitors which cards are in this hidden pile, and hoping that they won’t call your bluff and catch you out. The very point of the game is to get away with as much as possible.
But say you are playing poker, and you hide an extra ace up your sleeve and use it to your advantange. If this comes to light after the game you’ll be disgraced, have your winnings taken back, and be branded a cheat and a liar. No-one will think you clever or audacious. Poker, despite the deceptions and subterfuge, is an honest game. The same is true in golf, if you ‘accidentally’ kick your ball into a better position without anyone seeing it; or in cricket, if you tamper with the ball illegally.
Football is grey. Diving in the penalty area and deliberately handling the ball are generally considered immoral – like cheating at poker. But trying to edge past the defender against the offside trap and getting away with it is considered legitimate – if it goes unseen. No-one really expects a striker to put his hands up after a goal and say ‘sorry ref, I was six inches behind the last defender, but unfortunately the linesman didn’t spot it’.
The problem in politics and business and finance, and in much of contemporary social life, is that more and more people think they are playing ‘cheat’ instead of poker or golf. There is no ‘inner accounting’ – to the idea of sportsmanship, or to the voice of conscience, or simply to one’s own integrity. There is only the ‘outer’ accountability of whether we get caught or not. There has always been dishonesty, but the question now is whether this dishonesty becomes so built into the culture that we become unaware of what we have lost. [See Henry Winter's article in the Telegraph for an example of righteous indignation at Henry's behaviour; and see the comments below the article for the view that he was just playing a tough game and doing all he could to bring his team to victory.]