Daniel Keenan looks at ethically ambiguous incidents in sport, and questions whether or not sportsmanship is still alive and kicking

“It’s a harsh free kick” is a phrase that has been added to the lexicon of commentators’ clichés. Surely a free kick is a free kick? However, it’s never as black and white as the rules suggest, since so many variables have to be taken into account by a referee; everything from where initial contact took place, to momentum, to a player’s shoelaces. God forbid the same foul takes place in the penalty area, since a new, unwritten rule has developed among referees: an incident has to be worthy of a penalty to give it. What’s a free kick outside the box isn’t necessarily a penalty inside the box.

Rules in sport are a grey area. They are often so ambiguous that they are left to the discretion of the referee.

The trend continues in many sports: the breakdown on a rugby pitch is well covered in the rules of rugby, but is refereed in countless different ways. While in cricket an LBW decision is down to the sight of an umpire, in rugby, it all comes down to the judgement of a referee.

Rules in many sports are fallible, so open to interpretation that they can hardly be called a rule. So how, in a world where laws governing so many games are shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, can ethics exist in sport? How can somebody be right or wrong when there is no definitive right or wrong?

Defining ethics in sport is not about the rules however, just like personal ethics aren’t about obeying laws. It is about what is right and wrong, and that is not dictated by a predetermined set of regulations. Ethical treatment in sport is not about morals but about sportsmanship.

Possibly the most shining example of rule-breaking for the sake of sportsmanship comes from an unlikely source, ex-West Ham striker Paola di Canio. The man who is as famous for pushing over a referee as he is for his bicycle kick against Wimbledon, had one his finest moments on a football field against Everton in 2000.

When goalkeeper Paul Gerrard went down outside his box injured, di Canio opted to catch the ball instead of shooting into an open goal, to allow treatment to get to Gerrard. While di Canio broke the golden rule of football, not to use your hands, there’s no doubt that what he did was right in the context of the game.

FIFA have tried to encourage acts like this. A previously unspoken and rarely obeyed courtesy among players was to kick the ball out of play when another player was in distress; possession would then be given back to the team who kicked it out of play. FIFA’s Fair Play initiative urged players to do this more often, making it all but a written rule in football; all in the name of sportsmanship.

However, FIFA’s attempt to bring sportsmanship into football has ironically led to even more unethical acts. Players taking advantage of the act by feigning injury to wind down the clock are all too common at every level of the game. Faking an injury in order to stop play was as regular a sight at the 2006 World Cup as vuvuzelas were at the 2010 tournament.

In 1999, during an FA cup tie between Arsenal and Sheffield United, Arsenal’s Ray Parlour went through the motions of giving the ball back to United after they had kicked it out of play, so that one of their injured players could receive treatment. Arsenal’s Kanu however, latched on to the ball and squared it to Marc Overmars, who tapped it in for the winning goal, to the outrage of the Blades players, who stood watching in disbelief. Incidents like Overmars’ goal are just the high profile occurrences; these events are not uncommon in lower leagues.

In a completely contradictory act of sportsmanship, Arsenal boss, Arsene Wenger, offered to replay the game, which Arsenal won 2-1. Gestures like Wenger’s go some way to restoring belief that a Corinthian spirit still exists in football, but don’t pave over the underhanded gamesmanship of others.

Cynical fouls are another ugly area of football, which highlight the unsportsmanlike conduct so prevalent in the game. Unlike kicking the ball out of play for an injury, there are no official rules governing these offences.

Players who illegally stop the opposition scoring a goal, whether by purposely fouling an opposition player when in a goal scoring position or otherwise, are liable to be given a straight red. The rules are there in black and white, yet it is a relatively common thing for a player to do, and is encouraged by managers.

Luis Suarez marred his World Cup reputation by stopping a goal in the 120th minute against Ghana with his hand, during the 2010 World Cup quarter-final. He was sent off, the ensuing penalty was missed by Asamoah Gyan and Ghana went on to lose the game on a penalty shootout.

Suarez was rightfully blasted as a cheat, but despite his complete disregard for sporting rules and etiquette, was lauded as a hero in Uruguay; a martyr who sacrificed playing a possible semi-final so that his country could get there.

Irish fans need no reminders of Thierry Henry’s infamous assistance to France’s winning goal in Stade de France in 2009. No sanctions were ever imposed for Henry’s cheating, but his reputation was tarnished for denying Ireland the opportunity to qualify for the World Cup.

One further example of breached ethics in sport is West Germany’s famous game against Austria in the 1982 World Cup, where both sides let the game play out for a 1-0 win for the Germans, meaning both sides progressed to the knockout stages, at the expense of Algeria. Once again no rules were broken, but it fell just short of match fixing, and once again showed football to be an unethical sport. The game is known simply as ‘Anschluss’ in Algeria, such is their anger at the performance.

Like so many incidents, Floyd Mayweather’s cheap shot at Victor Ortiz was technically legal. The referee stopped the bout in the fourth round and deducted a point from Ortiz, who had headbutted Mayweather while the two were tangled up. As Ortiz went to hug Mayweather, which would have been his second apology for the incident, Mayweather swung out, delivering two knockout blows to the face of the American.

Mayweather may have had grounds to do so, but to swing out at a boxer with their guard down while he is attempting to apologise is about as unethical as one can be. Mayweather defended his position after the fight, but broke down emotionally as the ring filled up.

Talking to boxing commentator Larry Merchant, a clearly agitated Mayweather said: “We touched gloves and we were back to fighting, then I threw the left and right hand and that’s all she wrote. In the ring, you just have to protect yourself at all times. I was victorious. If he wants a re-match, he can get a re-match.”

Mayweather then snapped when Merchant hinted that what Mayweather did was wrong, accusing Merchant of being biased against him, and stating that HBO needed to fire him. Mayweather’s post-match mood, despite his comments, indicates that even he knows his actions were ethically questionable.

Mayweather certainly didn’t live up to his pre-match comments that he would “go in there with class and will leave there with class”. Much of the boxing world has turned on him for his unsportsmanlike behaviour, though the fallout will only last up to his next fight, when all is sure to be forgotten.

By all letters of the law, Mayweather was right. Ortiz, if anybody, was the one to break the rules. The head butt, for which he was deducted a point, and the second apology weren’t necessary. Whether it was mind games, or a genuine showing of sportsmanship and remorse, Ortiz was punished for attempting to apologise to his opponent, while Mayweather now reigns as the WBC Welterweight Champion.

High-profile incidents of breaches in sporting ethics, which all sports should abide by, can be written off in some ways by the sportsmanlike actions of Wenger and di Canio. It is also worth noting that the media is the force which leads an incident to be high profile, and acts of unsportsmanlike behaviour are always more newsworthy than a sportsmanlike incident. If rules are the grey area of sport, ethics are the blacked out spot.