The announcement that England cricket coach Andy Flower has ushered Kevin Pietersen back into the squad is a comprehensive nail in the coffin for anybody who believes that morality is more important than success in sport. Allied with the continued presence of John Terry as Chelsea captain, the sporting world has offered the proverbial two fingers to those who believe that the desire for success should be outweighed by the need to punish serious individual transgressions.
Pietersen has never been a popular figure in the England dressing room; the eruption of controversy in August, when it emerged that he had been sending text messages to members of the South African team during the series between the sides, was simply waiting to happen.
Pietersen’s egocentric attitude has clearly proved disruptive, and his character is unlikely to have mollified in his brief absence from the national side; in terms of promoting team ethic, his return is unlikely to prove constructive.
However, what Pietersen’s return will do is give England a greater chance of success; there is simply nobody else in the side with his ability to win games. The greater probability of victories with him in the side means he is back: pragmatism reigns supreme.
Given his offensive remarks about the hugely popular former captain Andrew Strauss, and the fact that nobody knows what was said in the text messages, Pietersen should not be back in the set-up. Had Ravi Bopara, for example, behaved in the same way, he would almost certainly never be seen in an England shirt again as he is easily replaceable on the field.
Indeed, Flower is in an awkward position: his loyalty to Strauss, and the teamwork ethos that the duo promoted, clashes with his requirement to select the best England side possible. The decisive steps taken to rebuild bridges with Pietersen suggest that Flower has chosen the latter: the lure of success has triumphed over morality.
A similar attitude prevails in the case of Chelsea captain John Terry, who was last week found guilty of using abusive language towards QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. Terry has been involved in myriad unsavoury incidents during a chequered career, yet because of his footballing excellence he continues to lead Roberto Di Matteo’s side. The Chelsea hierarchy have clearly decided that his personal indiscretions, immoral as they are, do not affect his sporting prowess or leadership. Former England manager Fabio Capello implicitly agreed with this, resigning from the job in February because the FA judged that Terry’s alleged behaviour influenced his ability to lead the national side on the pitch. Indeed, although Terry stated that his retirement from international football was because the FA made his position ‘untenable’, it is telling that he was allowed to depart on his own terms: Roy Hodgson’s disappointment was acute, for the England boss was clearly prepared to continue to select Terry.
Perhaps none of this is surprising, given that the ‘win at all costs’ attitude in sport now seems to trump any notion of sportsmen as role models.
Pietersen and Terry’s indiscretions are incomparable in many senses, but the message to wider society is that gifted sportsmen are exempt from punitive measures, simply because they are very good at what they do. At best, Pietersen has a fragile relationship with his team-mates; at worst, he has incontrovertibly breached their trust.
At best, Terry has been revealed as foul-mouthed and threatening; at worst, he holds racist attitudes. Despite this extremely significant uncertainty, they will continue to be allowed to represent their sides, purely because of their ability.
Will this attitude of success over morality ever change? Probably not. In a sporting world increasingly dominated by financial incentives and an insatiable desire for immediate success, coaches and team-mates want to see the best players in action, regardless of any issues aside from pure ability. In my view, sport has missed the opportunity to show that its moral compass is still in full working order.