Hayes in the House: Protect grassroots sport at all costs – by MP John Hayes

MP John Hayes.
MP John Hayes.

The poet Robert Graves once said that “in love as in sport, the amateur status must be strictly maintained”.

At its purest, sport is a noble contest between opponents who compete for supremacy, whilst respecting their adversaries – in essence adhering to time-honoured values of fair play and straightforwardness.

Grassroots football remains a popular pastime precisely because it’s enjoyed by those who love the integrity and fairness – the purity – of sport and appreciate its importance to communal wellbeing.

This ethic underpins sport whether it’s played by children in the park, amateurs who make up our local club teams, or professional athletes who perform in stadiums viewed by millions via television.

The advanced professionalism of many sports is mostly a recent phenomenon, but the age-old integrity of sporting contests must remain as important as it ever has been. The moment it is sullied, the whole popular connection with sport risks being undermined as we lose faith in its fairness; any compromise risks making sporting competition meaningless. That’s why the revelations from the World Anti-Doping Agency that Russian athletes have been involved in widespread doping in recent years are so damaging.

Anything that challenges the honesty of sport must be quashed, with zero tolerance for the guilty. So we should all welcome Seb Coe’s commitment to rebuild trust in international athletics. Trust – the notion that, in any given contest, each side could meritocratically triumph – is fundamental to our appreciative enjoyment of a sporting contest.

The passion and excitement that sport inspires is enormous. Even though the England team crashed out early, the recent Rugby World Cup was a thrilling tournament with fans packing grounds across the country. Its real legacy will be felt over time, by those who were inspired to pick up a rugby ball for the first time or perhaps support their local team.

Take our national game; whereas once the Saturday 3 o’clock kick-off meant a temporary respite from the daily grind of hard lives -a sort of elevating sanctuary for working class men, like my father, who recognised themselves in their football heroes like Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves and Jackie Milburn- today’s professional football is a paean to globalisation, dominated by sums of money beyond the wildest dreams of people like my Dad. This preoccupation with millionaire lifestyles and celebrity excess could barely contrast more with the game’s amateur origin.

Thankfully, however, most people’s interaction with sport comes through support for their local team or taking their children to play on a muddy pitch on a Sunday morning.

Watching the Tulips at the Sir Halley Stewart Field, or Holbeach Tigers at Park Road, is a world away from £90 Premier League tickets or £200,000-a-week wages. Grassroots football remains a popular pastime precisely because it’s enjoyed by those who love the integrity and fairness – the purity – of sport and appreciate its importance to communal wellbeing.

Let’s make sure that never changes.