I find it interesting to hear that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has chosen the days following John Terry being found not guilty in a trial on racial abuse charges to express his dismay about swearing and behaviour in football.
Hunt may be a football man — he runs the Government department concerned with sport says he is a qualified referee, after all — but for him to say these things now, in light of what was revealed during the Terry trial, is just opportunistic. Picking up on footballers misbehaving is virtually a guaranteed headline for a politician. If he were that concerned about the perceived decline in conduct on the pitch, he could have spoken out or tried to change things any time he wanted before it became a front-page issue.
Few people would have been too surprised by what it emerged was said between Terry and Anton Ferdinand — notwithstanding the offensive three-word phrase which led to the trial in the first place, of course. Whether you watch football every week or couldn't care less about it, most people know that the football pitch is not a place where you can expect to hear genteel, cordial language.
Football is the national game, so when it is in the headlines politicians will always seek to capitalise on that. Just as they want to be associated with a winning team, politicians are also quick to be critical if they think public opinion is swaying that way strongly enough.
There is bad language and aggressive goading in plenty of other sports, but no one is interested in hearing about it in a cricket or rugby match because there is nowhere near as much media coverage, and it goes against what people expect from those players.
I'm not saying I approve of the way a lot of players conduct themselves, but footballers were effing and blinding long before there were 25 cameras at every match and microphones all around the pitch to capture so much of what they say. Do broadcasters really need to zoom in on a player's face every time they miss a chance or complain to the referee, knowing there is a big chance they could catch them saying something unpleasant well before the watershed?
I would say that the way players try to get a rise out of each other has changed considerably. Back when I was playing, it was how successful you were, or the greater size of your club, which provided the source of banter between players. It was a case of "show us your medals", whereas nowadays it's more about "show us your paycheque".
Obviously, back then players in the top flight were well-paid compared to your average wage, but nothing compared to the vast wealth that even the most average Premier League player gets nowadays. Perhaps that has given them a sense of invincibility, a feeling that they can act as they please without having to worry about who they upset. That is why you get people like Joey Barton bragging about how much he earns or Anton Ferdinand bringing up Terry's sex scandal as a way of winding up the opposition. Such vulgar 'banter' may not be very tasteful, but it has always been part of football and most other sports in one way or another.
For better or worse, footballers are role models for a lot of young people, but you cannot blame them if a child imitates their behaviour. If they didn't hear bad language in the stands or while watching games on television, they would eventually hear it somewhere else. Ultimately, it is up to the parents to educate their kids on such matters.