x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Old school hierarchy is still evident in sport

The bullying, backbiting and peer pressure we thought we had left in the classroom permeates sport at the highest level.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's manager, was in typically prickly mood this week, attempting to ban a reporter who had the temerity to ask a perfectly legitimate question at a press conference.
Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's manager, was in typically prickly mood this week, attempting to ban a reporter who had the temerity to ask a perfectly legitimate question at a press conference.

In graduation season, the planet echoes with commencement speakers instructing young people to aim high, think big, dream large, live well, hope hard.

Few if any impart a grimmer reality, perhaps because it might gloom up the day and irritate the parents: High school, or secondary school, or whatever various nations may call it, never actually ends.

It just keeps recurring in assorted settings and forms, no matter that they give you a nice document and send you off the premises.

Always there will be the bullies who never adapt to the human inability to control everything. Just last week, a reporter posed a soft but rational question about Ryan Giggs to Sir Alex Ferguson in advance of Manchester United's titanic tussle with Barcelona. Ferguson did not like the question even though decades of experience plus Giggs's presence in an outer issue should have foretold both the question's arrival and conceivable relevance.

Rather than devising some clever retort, the near-septuagenarian muttered a terse - if suitable - answer, then turned pitiable. Irked without a diva's totalitarianism and atremble with a fear of distraction, he turned to a media officer, used the phrase "get him" and commanded from on high that Manchester United should have the reporter banned.

He sorely lacked such power, with the Champions League somehow falling outside Manchester United's jurisdiction, but he demonstrated again that we should refrain from envying big-time managers, who so often tilt toward loony while residing perpetually with a deathless thirst for more and a constant dread of the uncontrollable. Riches aside, it must be one hard way to live.

Always there will be the busy types who run for adult versions of student government, think the whole world obsessed with their political plight and fill the air with huffiness. Just last week, the top election in all the world - that for the head of football - came to conjure Reese Witherspoon in Election, only with less maturity.

No, the snivelling never does subside across life, as reiterated in the case of a 75-year-old going against a 62-year-old with perhaps more bickering and backbiting than most cases of 17-year-olds going against 17-year-olds.

One got into trouble so dragged the other into the trouble. One claimed the other might have organised some sort of conspiracy. One told on the other until they all had to go before the principals. The other dragged out heavy words such as "ludicrous and completely reprehensible" (as opposed to partial reprehensibility) and accused the one of operating only out of jealousy.

Chatter flew. Two other officers just below, longtime friends, seem to have broken up. One told on the other and on one of the candidates. Why? Who might have aligned with whom, to help whom? Maybe one helped sabotage the other.

And through all the cycles - as that's just about all there is - always there will be somebody who says something about the popular guy that comes up shy of unadulterated praise, followed by people lashing out at the speaker, especially on Twitter. Just last week, the retired Hall of Fame and Olympic basketball player Scottie Pippen said on the radio that LeBron James might just be the greatest basketball player ever.

Now, a listener could interpret his comment several ways, including as mere excitement and hyperbole on the morning after James's stunning late-game performance that eliminated the top-seeded Chicago Bulls and flung James's Miami Heat into the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Instead, listeners got huffy in defence of the retired really popular guy Michael Jordan, whom everyone and conventional wisdom know is the best player ever.

Or else.

Fanatics bombarded Pippen with indignant Tweets in a manufactured drama. How dare he insinuate that Jordan might be the No 2 basketball player of all time. That forced Pippen to dig out the lame old saw that he played the game (most famously as Jordan's teammate in Chicago) while they only watched and cheered the game.

Facing such peer pressure, Pippen eventually backed off - you might say clarified - his statement that James might possess more on-court capability than Jordan, seeing as how James has zero titles and Jordan six, even though James at 26 has the same number as Jordan had at 26.

You do not mess with the most popular guy unless you want a whole barrage of guff, because while the settings and stakes do change, life beyond secondary school is still more secondary school, over and over and over.

Aren't you excited?