Comment: Swearing in sport – should it be banned?

Hilary Sammuels 19 November 2012

Recently all F1 drivers were sent a letter warning them about swearing in interviews on live television, with the reason given being that the use of swear words “shines an unwelcome beam of adverse publicity on teams and sponsors, the sport and the FIA”. This has given rise to a re-consideration of the debate over the role of media in sport today, and the questioning of the impact and importance of swearing on television or radio.

Clearly, the immense growth of media involvement over time in sport has had enormous benefits, particularly in terms of support for sports in overseas competitions, including the tennis ATP and WTA tours and the football and rugby world cups; Ibrahimovic’s recent incredible goal has been watched on YouTube over 150,000 times! However, with the growth of media and live interviews, the issue of image presentation has come into question, particularly due to the celebrity status of sportspeople following the London 2012 Olympic Games. Is it appropriate, or even remotely possible to ban swearing from sport?

Some would argue against banning swearing, citing the importance of free speech ideologically, as well as drawing comparisons to hugely successful television series such as Hell’s Kitchen, where the banning of swearing would make the show frankly comical. In many situations, however, there is a stronger argument in favour of at least reducing swearing. For example, Jonnie Peacock’s immediate reaction to winning the 100m in the Paralympics this summer, while arguably entertaining and truly genuine, was watched by millions of young children, and therefore understandably provoked some criticism. That being said, the intense levels of emotion he must have been feeling are seen as making this excusable, which begs the question where the line should be drawn in terms of excuses. In 2003, in a particularly infamous example of this concern, Greg Rusedski, the British tennis player, was fined £1,500 for an ‘obscene outburst’ during a second-round defeat by Andy Roddick, and while this was barely questioned, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have all been fined over US$1,500 for ‘audible obscenity’ or ‘racket abuse’, thereby demonstrating the apparent lack of success of such punishments.

This links to the general importance of sports people as role models. For example, the recent crash of Bradley Wiggins, and his swearing at media upon his return home has been widely criticised on account of his inspirational role to many young cyclists. Most would agree that sportspeople should be aware of their public image and importance in terms of the London 2012 Olympic motto, ‘Inspire a Generation’, but in opposition to this argument, some argue instead that the intrusive and at times aggressive nature of paparazzi and media mean such behaviour is understandable.

Overall, clearly it would be preferable to reduce swearing in live television sport reports or interviews for the benefit of young people watching, but it seems unreasonable to try to control the instinctive emotional reactions to the high intensity of sport, and therefore there must be limits on the extent to which swearing can feasibly be banned; in particular, vocal abuse towards referees is universally acknowledged as unacceptable and worthy of punishment to ensure the high level of respect needed for organised sport (although Queen’s M1 and King’s M1 may disagree with me on this point following their £20 fines from Lent Bumps). That being said, the F1 swearing incident with Vettel and Raikkonen revolved around a total of 22 complaints out of over 3 million people watching the race online on the BBC, raising the question of how important it is in reality to control swearing in sport.

Hilary Sammuels