We in the media are largely responsible. The insistence that sporting stars must be clean-living citizens developed during the 1980s and 1990s, along with the rise of a “gotcha” reporting culture. The theory makes for the odd prurient, page-turning scoop. But is it logical? Not especially.
No-one ever pursued Alice Cooper or David Bowie to complain about their cocaine habits. No-one said that boozy actors like Oliver Reed or Richard Harris were setting a bad example. But Paul Gascoigne’s night swilling tequila shots in a Hong Kong dentist’s chair? That was morally reprehensible and a betrayal of sporting values.
For a watershed moment, see The Sun’s front page of May 30, 1996. The photo of a half-cut Gascoigne under the headline “Disgracefool” and the sub-heading “Look at Gazza – a drunk oaf with no pride”. Never mind that this was one big night out at the end of England’s far-eastern tour.
Never mind that Darren Anderton – hardly a noted hellraiser – would later say that the drinking session “created a team club environment which is what you need”.
There are several possible explanations for these double-standards. Do sport’s origins as a moral force in Victorian public schools still resonate? Do we resent rich athletes for their privileges and youth? Do we feel entitled to pronounce judgement on anyone who plays under the national flag, on the basis that – like politicians – they are representing us?
Whatever the answer, a sportsman is as much an entertainer as Katy Perry or Robert Downey Jnr. And the policing of off-field behaviour has produced an ironic consequence: modern sport is much less entertaining than it could be, or would be, given a full and varied cast of characters.
I am sure that the monochrome impression is illusory. And that there are plenty of picaresque goings-on under the surface. Wealthy, testosterone-fuelled young men will find ways to entertain themselves. But they all know the importance of keeping everything under wraps.
Here was the joy of 1970s sport – not just in football but across the spectrum. It was the time of James Hunt, Ian Botham and Ilie Nastase (the Wimbledon finalist whom Worthington cited as his favourite player in a magazine Q&A). These men never pretended to be shrinking violets. What you saw was what you got.
As a member of the Fourth Estate, I should perhaps pull back from blaming newspapers for everything. We mustn’t forget social media, enabling every punter with an iPhone to make an online citizen’s arrest. Nor the sponsors who will drop an athlete at the first hint of a transgression, plus the governing bodies who legislate for off-field activities such as recreational drug use. Some even punish crimes as victimless as the tennis racket smash.
So yes, like Agatha Christie’s passengers on the Orient Express, we are probably all guilty. But the upshot is that the likes of Worthington shine all the brighter in hindsight, birds of a different feather. Our obsession with sporting “role models” has a lot to answer for.