We are all responsible for our actions as well as our reactions.

The chances of the Pope featuring in my column were probably quite remote — until he waded into the complex discussion about freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

We’ll get to how all this relates to sport in a moment. Much of the debate about freedom of speech—Je suis Charlie—has focused on our right to say whatever we like. Of course, we have never had an unbridled right to do that (nor do the French).

More important than what we say, however, is how we respond to the words and actions of others. It should be obvious (but worryingly, for some, isn’t) that murdering people with whom we disagree is wrong, but that is a different argument to the one about how far we should be allowed to go in expressing opinions.

While condemning the killings, Pope Francis made a serious (and potentially dangerous) mistake in saying that it’s understandable that people will be provoked if their God or religion is ridiculed. He went further, suggesting that if someone criticises his mother they might expect a punch on the nose.

Leaving to one side the tragic fact that a simple punch can lead to death, the pontiff is virtually condoning “the provocation defence”: they made me do it. The courts are filled with people who blame all kinds of things for their crimes and too often magistrates accept it.
We hear and see it in sport as well. One player does something and another reacts. They then use the initial action to justify that response. He punched me first. He called me names. Increasingly (and wisely) judiciaries aren’t buying that rationalisation. Instead, unlike the Pope, they are insisting that athletes take responsibility for both their actions AND their responses to the actions of others.

Australian cricketer David Warner should learn from this. Warner was recently fined and handed a suspended sentence for yet another ugly on-field incident.

Warner’s behaviour is an affront to those who value the qualities that underpin sport. His anger is always just below the surface and it doesn’t take much to let it loose. Can Warner keep saying he’s been provoked, or should he accept the responsibility that comes with his choices? It was not the opposing player who caused his latest poor reaction (as he claimed) — rather, it was his choice.

I’m not sure the national coach, Darren Lehmann, helps matters when he says Warner is an aggressive player and that’s how Australia plays. Lehmann speaks of a line that his players need to get close to but not cross. What on earth does that mean? If the players stick to time-honoured laws and customs they will never be anywhere near some mythical ethical line.

Perhaps it would be helpful, to that end, if players stopped saying “what happens on the field should stay on the field.” Does it drive you crazy, too? Warner, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith, Chris Rogers and MS Dhoni have all used the term of late. That’s a lot of stuff to be leaving on the field. Too much. Besides, it can never be simply left on the field. For starters, we all see it … and we’re not even on the field!

Standards erode, attitudes change, respect disappears and young players learn all the wrong lessons from their idols. These are important and timely issues for athletes and administrators. Oh, and for popes.

Connect with Greg at gcary@bmedia.media.

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