There are moments in everyone’s life experience when the realization that natural justice, basic morality, have no automatic place in the government of an individual’s choices and actions, whether child, adolescent, or adult.
Mine own moments of clarity arose in two separate but closely interrelated happenstances that occurred during a couple of adolescent games of rugby football. Rugger is a game of controlled violence, the only boundary between fair and wholly unfair levels of physical contact between players is self-control and the respect mutual of participants to each other and the ethos of the game.
A less reliable restriction is the appointment of officials, referees. Individuals set above by the controlling hierarchy to ensure that infringements that fall outside the capacity of the teams to clearly observe or decide are pointedly and quickly arbitrated by an approved independent third party, whose power exists through the accepted consensus of all upon the field of play and beyond.
In my innocent opinion to this juncture in time an officials or players motives for their actions were entirely beyond suspicion or even the mildest question. Everyone was expected to play the game, play hard but fairly, without the slightest stain or even mild scent of bias or cheating.
The first incident occurred amidst a ruck, for the uninitiated a phase of the game involving a mess of players from both sides, arms bodies and feet flailing about in the hope of gaining possession of the ball. A prime moment when the self-control and circumspection of all ensure the physical wellbeing of the whole. After the ruck dissolved one of my team members remained hurt and bleeding from a nasty head wound upon the ground. He has had his face stomped upon purposefully by an opposing player. After a short stoppage for medicinal repair by the magical cold sponge, we all were surprised that no disciplinary action was taken by the referee against the rather obvious culprit, who was showing almost glee rather than remorse for his actions. A short huddle between the fourteen other players of our team and a clear plan of unequivocal retaliation was set in motion. The perpetrator was obliged to be replaced by a reserve but a few minutes later to ensure a continuation of his capacity to walk independently.
To their eternal credit his team mates made no effort to protect their stigmatized unsavory colleague, indeed in many instances apologized for his behavior and accepted his sufferings as wholly justified. This was my first taste of mob rule having to correct and superimpose justice over the breakdown of a legitimate authority.
My second ethics lesson occurred during a twice yearly fixture my school had with a nearby Catholic boarding school. I should mention here that referees, officials at schoolboy matches were provided by the home team, generally sports teachers or the like. Unsurpisingly Saint Ignatius’s sports teachers were priests, as were indeed the majority of their staff.
In general such officials are expected to be impartial, accepting that in a fifty-fifty scenario their preference is going to sway to their own colors, but straight down the middle is the accepted norm. Saint Ignatius’s official were without fail, to use a colloquialism, as bent as a nine-bob note. This was doubly shocking to my poor well rounded sensibilities, for referees, indeed adults, teachers as were, are expected to be honest and reliable as day is long, priests I would suggest doubly so. In compensation mine own fellows, and indeed myself, were obliged to connive, cheat, manipulate, in any way possible or practical just to level the playing field. In this process we were given the full and unequivocal support of our own coaches, instructors, masters. A lesson in complete opposition to every principal and code of conduct that had been so carefully and often painfully beaten unmercilessly into our collective hides.
Government is said ti be formulated upon the playing fields of Eton college; this absurdity is factual. Childhood sports, competitions, are the formulating petri dishes of moral and ethical acceptability, always were and ever shall be. Sixty years since these events I still bear the scars of these unseemly occurrences, numerous happenstances having been colored by them from then to now.