Fair Play is a pillar of Coubertin’s Olympic Movement and his concept of Olympism coined in 1912. It involves philosophical and pedagogical prescriptions emphasizing humanity, honesty and integrity in competitions against the mentality of winning at all costs. The clout of Fair Play in sport also reinforces the idea that sport is inherently virtuous and can be employed as a tool in moral development. In fact there are multiple organizations around the world that operate with the mission of “utiliz[ing] the power and appeal of sport to create a just world…” Fair Play is a goal and an ideal in sport and its pillars are borrowed by numerous sporting associations including FIFA, the international governing body for football (soccer). Promoting the slogan “my game is fair play” FIFA explains this term in “ten golden rules” where Fair Play is morally, aesthetically, emotionally and socially praised through notions of respect, courage, grace, satisfaction and joy. It is also rewarded materially. Conflating sport with Fair Play is a strategy taken up by sporting bodies to naturalize an idealized notion of fairness and to hold all members of the sporting community accountable in this respect especially as sport gets incresingly competitive and commercial. I argue however that the conflation of sport with Fair Play fetishizes sport as an object of essential virtue. It further creates (non)virtuous subjects whose subjectivities are gaged through a limited understanding of fairness. This conflation also co-opts the notion of fairness positing it as a universally shared set of ideals by athletes, fans, referees, administrators and commentators alike. In contrast, my ethnographic research on Turkish football shows that fairness is a socially contested and negotiated concept which cannot be divorced from the situation-specific contingencies that contribute to its ever-emerging definition.
Euro 1996 – Turkey is eliminated and Turkish Defender Receives Fair Play Award
As anthropologists often tell, taxicab conversations provide compact moments of insight, humor and revelation in the field. As such, I begin this piece recounting one such interaction I had with a cabbie in Istanbul. Returning from dinner one September night, I seized the opportunity to strike up a conversation about football with the cabbie as he drove by the Beşiktaş Stadium. (Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray are the three most popular Turkish football teams, are all based in Istanbul and are major rivals.) Establishing his Fenerbahçe fandom and his children’s similar affiliations since “there is no bread in the house for those who don’t support Fener” I quickly turned the conversation to an incident vivid in Turkish football memory. With no cues I asked, “do you think Alpay should have tackled the guy down?” Even though this is an ostensibly random question with few overt references, the cabbie instantly responded: “Of course he should have. He is a son of a donkey for not doing so. We’re talking about the country here. Plus it’s probably because he couldn’t, rather than he didn’t.” I added, “and for that he received a Fair Play award.” “Nonsense,” he responded; “that’s not Fair Play, that’s not how you play football.”
In 1996 the Turkish national football team qualified to compete in the Euro Tournament for the first time. Their first match in the group was against Croatia and it was tied 0-0 until the 86th minute when Croatia scored severing significantly Turkey’s chances to proceed in the competition. The goal came as Turkish defender Alpay Özalan refrained from tackling down and fouling Croatian striker Goran Vlaović who consequently obtained a clear shot on goal and scored. At the end of the group stage, Turkey was eliminated and Alpay received a Fair Play award. Fourteen years after the Euro 1996, it still took less than five minutes of football conversation to recall this incident on my cab ride home. Fan forums characterize Alpay’s behavior as unintentional at best and stupid, upsetting, offensive and treacherous at worst. One might be inclined to think that fans who are structurally disposed to side with a team question fairness in sport and thus naturally oppose Alpay’s actions. I argue that this is not the case. It is not fans’ opinion that Alpay should have been unfair or should have acted to win at all costs. It is rather that his actions do not constitute what fairness is in this case, or as the cabbie told me, “that’s not Fair Play, that’s not how you play football.”
Negotiating Fairness – Calling upon Differing Criteria
Among the fans I interviewed, there is a strong sense of what “belongs” to the game and what does not. Accordingly, strategic fouling is integral to the game. It is accommodated by the game through its penalties. Evoking what sports philosophers call the “ethos” of the game (RL Simon, Fair Play, 2010), fans frequently reference the “unwritten rules of football” as opposed to official rules or the Fair Play code when determining what constitutes right, good or fair action in Turkish football. 30 year-old fan and blogger Bahadır tells me, “if he were smart, he would have tackled him down. As a defender, he should have brought him down…There are some tactical fouls…This is within the game itself.” Even though the UEFA characterized Alpay as having chosen the “sportsman’s option” Alpay has later been quoted complaining that he was labeled a “traitor” based on a “momentary impulse.” Moreover, in a 2011 interview, Vlaović interprets Alpay’s award as a “consolation prize” and admits to feeling like he has “denigrated” Alpay’s career. These reflections show that what appears like a calculated act of selflessness commendable through an idealized notion of sportsmen is in fact a contested act in terms of its fairness in social sites including fan forums, news stories, player interviews and taxicabs. The virtuous subjects targeted by Fair Play have more complicated notions of fairness than a straightforward adherence to the ten golden rules.
Another prominent discourse within which the football community evaluates fairness is that of love and war. Fans employ the “all is fair in love and war” saying to not only make and confirm their fandom as an embodied and emerging project intermingled with their “mad” infatuation for the team but also to decide what constitutes fair football. As Lutz and Abu-Lughod explain (“Introduction: Emotion, Discourse, and the Politics of Everyday Life” in Language and the Politics of Emotion, 1990), it is the discourse on emotions that must be explored to understand how emotions socially operate. As such, it is the discourse on love that conflates it with “madness” that allows fans to read as fair those actions that are committed for the sake of the team. In the case of Alpay, this sense of love for the team is layered with a sense of national loyalty where fairness is made not through the abstraction of guidelines but through the concrete presence of national priorities. A sports journalist explains to me, “I remember everyone was swearing at Alpay that day. Everyone said, ‘I wish he’d have fouled him.’ And I’m one of those people too… We were about to receive our first point in that tournament ever, as a country. If he had fouled him there, within the framework of football’s rules, we could not have called it anti-gentlemanly behavior.” Reinforcing the notion of “fouling within football” and its alignment with fairness, this journalist shows how an abstract consideration of fairness is irrelevant and inappropriate in this specific situation.
Identifying a universal right or good is but one way to approach ethics. This moral quest is justified by the assumption that humans must share an understanding of the ethical and that no situational or contingent factor may supersede that common understanding. In sport this conception is taken a step further to implicate and commit all parties to an essentialized perception of sporting sociability at the core of which supposedly flourishes unquestionable virtue and morality. These attributes are plastered on both glossy and well disciplined sportsmen’s bodies and disorderly, undisciplined fans’ bodies, fetishizing not only sport as an object of morality but also subjecting sportsmen and sports fans to said universal morality.
Mine is not an argument of cultural or ethical relativism. It is an invitation to reconceptualize fairness and to see it as emerging through negotiations of criteria and priorities. The principles of Fair Play and Olympism ethics exist in a tenuous relationship with alternative conceptualizations of fairness. It is futile and impossible to evaluate in isolation the components of the web in which fairness is couched because it is this socially shifting web which makes fairness on the ground in concrete social sites; through the mouths and practices of football actors, be them footballers or cabbies.
Yağmur Nuhrat is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Brown University and holds a BA in sociology from Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey. Nuhrat’s doctoral research focuses on the concept of fairness and Fair Play in and through Turkish football.