All That's Bad in the English Game? Sports Scandals and Englishness

Curator's Note

Sports scandals in England are habitually constructed to suggest that celebrity excess undermines the imagined values of the nation itself. Recent popular historiography of sport in England has mythologized the ‘muscular Christianity’ of the Victorian period, during which values of decency and ‘fair play’ were learned on the playing fields of English public schools and coded as national virtues to underpin the British Empire. As such, contemporary sports scandals in England highlight the betrayal of these values, and media coverage is underpinned by an anxiety that the moral fabric of the nation is unraveling, or has already unraveled.

The English sports media has always lionized individuals who are assumed to embody the values of the nation in their character (honest, hard-working) and style of play (aggressive, utilitarian). This has become heightened in recent years as English sport has moved from cottage industry to big business. Structured by neoliberalism, English sport has become a hub for stars from around the globe (with different characters and styles), attracted by high-wages and fame. In the process, anxiety about the dilution of national traditions has led to the discursive reinforcement of these very traditions.

John Terry, the current England soccer team captain, is considered the archetypal English player in terms of his no-nonsense style of play and leadership qualities. His career, however, has been blighted by scandal. Currently under police investigation into alleged racial abuse of an opponent, last year he was temporarily fired as captain for an alleged extramarital affair with the girlfriend of a colleague (the subject of the clip). As such, his behavior betrays the captain’s traditional role as an ambassador for the nation – as did the behavior of the English team at this year’s Rugby World Cup, a competition defined by drinking binges rather than victories.

Post-devolution, as the separate nations of the UK assert their individuality, the dominant, idealized version of Englishness remains tied to an obsolete British imperial past. Hinging on conservative ideology and nostalgia, this discursive formulation is perfect fodder for neoliberal celebrity culture, and analysis of the sports scandal illustrates how the media both celebrates the stereotype and revels in ripping it to shreds. As such, the sports scandal also dramatizes the problems of formulating a relevant, forward-thinking English national identity in the twenty-first century.


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