What is ‘respect’ in sport?
Barcelona forwards Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, and snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan, have recently been accused of showing disrespect while playing their respective sports. But when it comes to sportsmanship, respect towards opponents, fans and the game itself, few things are black and white; so did any of them really do anything wrong?
When Lionel Messi stepped up to take a penalty for Barcelona against Celta Vigo, there was little doubt that their 3-1 lead would increase. The shock, however, came when instead of striking the ball directly at goal, Messi casually knocked it sideways, allowing Luis Suarez to run forward and put it into the net. The move was described joyfully by the Sky Sports commentator as ‘exhibition football’, but received criticism from other areas, as fans elsewhere claimed it was disrespectful showboating in a competitive match.
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A day later, Ronnie O’Sullivan was also 3-1 up and had already scored enough points to seal the final frame he needed for victory. As a contest, the snooker match was over, but the spectacle remained, as having potted thirteen reds and thirteen blacks, O’Sullivan was on course to make a 147 break, the snooker equivalent of a ‘perfect game.’ The feat, had he achieved it, would have earned him £10,000 pounds, a comparatively small figure to a player who has made millions of pounds in career prizemoney. With this in mind, to the shock of the commentators and the spectators, O’Sullivan chose to pot the pink instead of the black off his fourteenth red, and proceeded to clear the table with a break of 146. The schoolboy grin on his face showed that he was all too aware of the controversy of what he was doing.
Unlike Barcelona, O’Sullivan cannot be accused of disrespecting his opponent. A 147 break has nothing to do with the opposition player; it is very much a battle between a player and the game. Instead he has been accused of cheating the fans who paid money to see him. For them the 147 would have been the ultimate spectacle, something above and beyond the norm and which few fans are lucky enough to witness live. In many ways, being there for a 147 would be like being there when Messi passed the penalty. But optimum performance is never a guarantee with sport, and all paying fans know this. Nowhere on the ticket did it say O’Sullivan would make a 147. Nowhere on the ticket did it even say he would play well. All fans did was buy a ticket to see Ronnie O’Sullivan: and frankly the whole thing was a very Ronnie O’Sullivan thing to do.
In the aftermath O’Sullivan has also been accused of ‘throwing away’ ten thousand pounds. Several people have suggested that if he didn’t need the money for himself then he should have won it and gave it to charity. It would have been a nice sentiment, but O’Sullivan, in the fortunate position his career has got him too, doesn’t have to worry about money. Rather, fellow professional Neil Robertson described O’Sullivan’s actions as a genius having fun with the game he loves. Yes, the prizemoney nature of snooker makes O’Sullivan’s decision stand out as odd, makes it seem like ‘throwing money away’, but he is not the first elite athlete to make decisions which their accountants wouldn’t advise.
This issue of respect is a theme that football and snooker have shared this week, however that is where their similarities end. Whereas the nature by which Barcelona scored that penalty escalated it as in isolated incident, the club and the sport as a whole do not need the advertising. The actions of Ronnie O’Sullivan on the other hand have propelled a relatively small snooker tournament into the headlines, and for that reason, intentions and reasoning aside, snooker shouldn’t feel disrespected by him, it should feel thankful.