O n April 2 an English international said the words 'fuck off' into a television camera. The general media consensus across the water was that this was a disgraceful act, a reflection of the debased culture of the player and of the game he plays and the most significant sporting story of the month. Every half-baked tabloid moraliser fell over himself to express his outrage.
On the same day another English international attempted to injure an opponent by gouging his eyes. The media coverage since then has included assertions that the nine-week ban received by the player is too harsh and repeated mentions of the fact that the attack was untypical of the man involved.
Not once was it suggested that this act of violence reflects badly on the perpetrator's background or is the inevitable result of the moral bankruptcy of the sport he plays. The England manager even sent a letter in support of Player B to the disciplinary hearing. Had the England manager done the same in the case of Player A there would have been calls for his resignation.
Any sane person can see that attempting to gouge someone's eyes is a far more serious offence than shouting 'fuck off'. (If you don't believe me, carry out both actions some weekend and see which gets the worst reaction.) Yet it is Player A who has been pilloried as a menace to society whereas Player B is largely regarded as the unfortunate victim of a momentary lapse of reason.
How can we explain this strange turn of events? Well, Player A, Wayne Rooney, plays soccer. And Player B, Mark Cueto, plays rugby. And rugby, apparently, is different.
You may recall, for example, last year's furore over the news that a Mr Terry of Stamford Bridge, London had enjoyed consensual sexual relations with a Ms Perroncel, lately of France, the ex-girlfriend of a Mr Bridge of Eastlands, Manchester. Looked at from this distance, the media hullaballoo which surrounded this not particularly bizarre love triangle seems more than a little lunatic. Yet at the time many putatively sane journalists detected matters of grave importance surrounding what in reality resembled a somewhat uninspired storyline in EastEnders.
Remember all those rants explaining why Terry was unfit to be skipper of England and commending Fabio Capello for bowing to the wishes of the tabloids and stripping the Chelsea man of the captaincy? Remember all the hypocritical screeds expressing sympathy for Bridge amid the horrifying revelation that the player felt unable to travel to a World Cup he mightn't have been selected for anyway? And remember, above all else, the repeated claims that Terry's swordsmanship exposed the rotten soul of soccer?
In reality, players cheating off the pitch shouldn't really concern sports fans. Cheating on the pitch is a different matter. And the most spectacular recent example of this phenomenon remains the incident back in April 2009 when Tom Williams asked Dr Wendy Chapman to cut the inside of his cheek so that they could cover up the faking of a blood injury designed to get drop goal expert Nick Evans back on the field in the closing stages of the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster.
Bloodgate remains breathtaking for its chutzpah and cynicism. Yet there have been scores of articles in the English papers making excuses for Dean Richards, then director of rugby at the club, and suggesting that he and Harlequins have been hard done by. The howls of moral outrage which greeted John Terry's indiscretion have been notable by their absence in the case of Richards.
Yet it's pretty obvious which one of them committed the more serious offence against the spirit of sport. And no one, but no one, suggested that the Harlequins trick shows that rugby is a game played by a pack of cheating bastards without a sporting bone in their body.
Why would they? It would be ludicrous to condemn an entire sport because of the actions of one club. But it's exactly what the usual suspects would have done had, for example, a soccer team been spotted opening a cut on a player's head so that an opponent would get sent off for using an elbow.
It takes very little to whip the moralisers into a frenzy when soccer is involved. Take the laughable attempts to find something sinister about Stephen Ireland and Leon Best's stomach-baring antics in a nightclub a few weeks back. It was as though we had suddenly been transported back to the Victorian era where the sight of a couple of inches of bare flesh was sufficiently shocking to merit public discussion.
Of course, Best and Ireland had also committed the cardinal sin of being seen drinking beer in a nightclub, an act so heinous it inevitably moves some hack to mount his pulpit and preach about how much better things were in the old days when players were happy with the maximum wage and the likes of George Best and Jimmy Greaves ruled the roost.
There are, of course, a few rugby players who've got into hassle recently after overdoing the gargle but the media attitude is a much more relaxed 'boys will be boys' one in their cases.
There wasn't an eyelid batted either when Andrew Flintoff reeled drunk through the English Ashes celebrations in 2005 or when the European Ryder Cup team celebrated victory in 2006 by immediately getting stuck into the booze on camera. It's as though so much moral outrage is expended on soccer that there's nothing left for other sports.
Things are slightly different in Ireland where it's the GAA which tends to attract the opprobrium of the moralists. Take the perpetual criticism of the Association for accepting drink sponsorship, something which would be fair enough were it not for the fact that the self-appointed watchdogs who raise the issue seem to have no problem with the Heineken Cup or the Magners League.
The same double standard applies to behaviour on the pitch. Look at the tale of the two Pauls. Paul O'Connell, one of my favourite sportsmen as it happens, comes back from injury and straight away clobbers Jonathan Thomas of the Ospreys and gets sent off. Almost everyone who wrote about the incident stressed O'Connell's generally sportsmanlike attitude and expressed the hope that he'd escape a lengthy suspension.
It wasn't the worst belt ever struck on a rugby pitch but O'Connell's swing at Thomas was a far more serious clatter than the niggly blow by Paul Galvin against Eoin Cadogan a few months earlier. Yet, while the O'Connell incident quickly dropped off the radar, Galvin found himself portrayed at great length as a bogey man and a thug.
And you can't explain this disparity in treatment by focusing on the different public images of the players involved. When Alan Quinlan, a player who does have a small bit of form in the realms of foul play, gouged Leo Cullen, sportswriters fell over backwards to find an excuse for the Munster man. Meanwhile, any small dust-up in a GAA match brings the lunatics on to Liveline and into the pages of the papers to tell us that they're scared to let their children play hurling or football. In Ireland, it's the GAA that gets hit with the 'Debased Culture' stick.
I'm not arguing that people should start highlighting the bad things in rugby. I'm saying the opposite. Because rugby journalists, administrators and fans have got it right. They know that sometimes young men will drink too much, that sometimes players will lose the head and do silly things on the pitch and that there's no point panicking about these things. And it's not their fault that their game is often used by charlatans as a stick with which to beat soccer and Gaelic football.
It's time to stop moralising about soccer and to cut the GAA some slack. Because the truth is that no sport has a morally superior 'culture' to any other. And no sport is played by a better class of people. Arguing otherwise is merely the worst kind of snobbery.
And that's a game nobody should be playing in this day and age.
Sunday Indo Sport