Henry’s Hand

I’m no soccer aficionado, but in the spirit of truth in advertising, I am obliged to confess that my mother is from Ireland, and that may account for my particular interest in the Thierry Henry hand ball affair. (For those of you who haven’t seen it, here’s a 40 second You tube clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2D6LdNakzE)

As you can see, Mr. Henry clearly used his hand to create the goal that put France in World Cup. My Irish cousins aren’t known for getting over slights like this all that easily. You may have heard about “Irish Alzheimer’s”: it’s where you forget about everything but the grudge.

It goes without saying that FIFA, soccer’s governing body, should have required a rematch. That they didn’t simply re-enforces the notion that money rules the world – especially the world of sports. (New York Yankee fans will appreciate the fact that France is a significantly larger market than is Ireland.)

Now, I would like you to believe that, were I the French coach, I would have said something like, “We don’t want to win this way. We will either wave off the goal, or if the referees aren’t amenable, we’ll concede a goal to you to equalize things.”  But if I were completely honest, I would have to admit that I’d probably do the same thing the French did after the game. “Hey, we play the game. We don’t referee it. In FIFA we trust.”

All of this raises two questions for me:

First, what would happen if a coach made such a highly principled decision – especially in a crucial moment of an important game to actually give back an ill-gotten goal? Would this inspire soccer players to elevate their level of play? Might they refrain from diving to the ground after each and every touch? Would such a move inspire a higher degree of honesty and sportsmanship in other sports? Would basketball players, for instance, stop grabbing shirts as they rub off picks? Would rugby players, in turn, stop pulling one another’s ears when they are in a scrum?

I’d like to think that such a highly profiled and highly principled decision, an act of athletic and ethical generosity if you will, might just create an echo of positive karma that would reverberate throughout the sports world and beyond.

My second question is this: what prevents most of us from making such principled decisions? For the life of me, I can recall only one time when a single coach or player ever made such a generous move, and there must be a reason for this. I think it may have something to do with how much we value winning; let’s face it: winning means just about everything to us, and this may be especially true at boys schools, for better or worse.

A friend who works at another boys’ school told me about a student who had transferred to his school from a very, very progressive and thoroughly non-competitive co-ed school. Every once in a while the boys at his new school would ask him to sing his old school’s song. It went something like this, “We don’t care what the score is. We just want to grow…”

The boys found the song amusing because, at most private schools, it’s fair to say that while we are in favour of personal growth, we still do keep score, and not just on the athletic field. That’s part of who we are. We know the IB score, the SAT average, and the bonus points long before we know our own OHIP number.

Earlier I mentioned that I could think of one example of incredible sportsmanship that I had witnessed personally, and it took place at UCC almost five years ago. Here was the scene: The UCC grade 6 basketball team was playing a tournament final against Lower Canada College. There were seven seconds left in the game, and we were down by one. We inbounded the ball, raced down court and put up a good shot that didn’t go. Game over. LCC won. UCC lost. We will live to fight and compete another day, right?

But then someone pointed out that our timer, a UCC student I should point out, had gotten so caught up in the excitement that he had forgotten to turn on the official clock. According to the scoreboard, we still had seven seconds yet to play, even though everyone in the Lett Gym knew that we had already lost.

Incredibly, the referee suggested we replay the final seven seconds. And even more incredibly, the LCC coach agreed to the suggestion. We then ran the same play, and this time, our own Josh Green, who is now in Foundation Year, came up big and hit the game-winning shot as time ran out.

I have seen countless games since that winter afternoon, but the fact that I can still remember the time, the coach (Mr. Frazer) and the hero (Josh Green) suggests something about the impact of generosity and the long range and long-term repercussions of extraordinary ethics.

Perhaps that’s what prompts me to end this morning by saying – even as croissant sales dip in Dublin — “Bonne Chance, France!”





One thought on “Henry’s Hand

  1. I find it interesting that sports without officials, or without officials directly involved in the game, don’t tend to have these disputes. When we are all asked to be honest, we generally are, but when an official is given the control over a game we are willing to let their mistakes stand if they are in our favour.

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