Saracens scandal shatters rugby union’s illusion it ever held the moral high ground

Marina Hyde
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

At last, some good news out of the Saracens financial doping scandal, as former England wing Ugo Monye declares rugby union has lost “the moral high ground”. This is an immediate positive in a story not exactly littered with them. That said, we must sound a note of caution, as the phrase “the loss of the moral high ground” implies that one of the other sports has won it. Unless, of course, the moral high ground is lying fallow for a year, which would surely be the best option. Or rather, the second best option, after lying fallow forever.

Modern sport is about as suited to dispensing morality as Michael Jackson ever was. Which, I concede, didn’t ever stop him. But a useful rule of thumb in the sporting money trench is: the bigger the fairytale, the bigger the fakery it’s trying to hide.

Related: Premiership Rugby urges Saracens to come clean over salary-cap report

Furthermore, it is arguable that the most tightly-fought contest in UK sport is the battle to be the worst of the governing bodies or administrators. Just when you think the FA or the Premier League can never be bested, the ECB will come back so strongly it takes your breath away. No, you think – there can now only be one true king. But you simply didn’t bank on a sensational challenge from the RFU, or British Cycling, or any of the other serial blunderers.

For the past few months, you’d be a fool not have handed it to Premiership Rugby. Being a bunch of total amateurs seems to be the only thing they do truly professionally. Indeed, you can’t really call the rest of it amateur hour, given it’s gone on decades.

As far as Saracens’ serial breach of the salary-cap goes, according to some reports, the club were given the choice of being relegated or opening up their accounts. They chose the former. And please don’t ask why they didn’t have to do both. Like the deaths of Spinal Tap drummers or things that happen in Chinatown, the mysteries of Saracens’ accounts are apparently best left unsolved. Having a look would only end up making things worse.

On the plus side, we’re all off the hook for a few sporting homilies. Not that these are limited to rugby, alas. My worst bit of any Olympic cycle is the bit where the Games themselves are over, and pundits haven’t got any actual sport to talk or write about, so perform the well-worn segue into explaining what those awful footballers could learn from the morally superior Olympians. This is often met by hugely self-righteous agreement from supposed fans, to which the only reasonable reply is: hey guys – if you like this stuff so much, you should watch it more than once every four years.

Once normal service has been resumed, and people have forgotten what handball or whatever even is (about 10 days), we return to the comfortable certainties that sustain us for the rest of the time. One of these is that rugby is somehow morally superior to football. It has long occupied this position, with both players and supporters frequently regarded as somehow a better sort than their footballing brethren.

In fact, this was what Monye neatly summarised. “For many years rugby was able to take the moral high ground,” he reflected, “and we’re not at that place now. People didn’t like football because it was governed by money, cycling because of doping scandals, athletics because of corruption – rugby has descended into that now. We need to regain people’s trust.”

On the other hand, a key lesson of the Saracens fiasco is that it would be much better if people didn’t trust rugby, and it would be even better than that if rugby didn’t nurse a fundamentalist belief in its own probity, or delusions of its own moral superiority.

Related: Nigel Wray’s gold rather than an ideology paved The Saracens Way to success | Jonathan Liew

As for Saracens, I am always transfixed by those who have managed to convince themselves that their form of bullshit – or their form of cheating – is doing God’s work. Some of Saracens’ Fleet Street cheerleaders also certainly fall into that category. They rather remind me of those journalists who think it is their job to shill for one or other of our main political parties. It isn’t.

Ultimately, it will do Saracens the power of good to bid farewell to the moral high ground, even though they never really knew it in the first place. Realism is far preferable to moralism.

Indeed, for my tastes, one of the best things about Premier League football is its hugely well-established moral vacuum. We don’t have to pretend that we’re being bettered in some way when we watch it, or take lessons from it, or go on some corporate away-day style journey of discovery using the mindset we’ve learned from it. We have mostly long discovered that those are fool’s errands, and that the people who run the sport are radioactive shits, so we don’t have to indulge the nonsense. We don’t have to get its cheerleaders in to lecture the NHS, as happened with British cycling, or commercially monetise its “way” as Saracens did. We can simply WATCH FOOTBALL – mad, I know - and shriek with laughter at anything else it tries to serve up to us.

It’s not such a bad way to be, and I strongly urge rugby to try it.