But that leaves a lot of leeway as to where exactly the line of fair play should be drawn. Baseball isn’t any less moral than cricket just because it places different expectations on fielders catching the ball. In the end, fans who dislike sports just because they have variant codes are little different from people who look down on foreigners because they have different table manners.
Different conventions, in sport and in society in general, can be equally morally acceptable. But it does not follow that there are no immoral conventions. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” only gets us so far. After all, the Romans practiced slavery and crucified enemies of the state. Many modern societies still maintain immoral customs. Qatar prohibits homosexuality and lacks basic labor rights. These may be traditional elements in the Qatari social structure, but that doesn’t make them right.
It’s the same in sports. Some practices are clearly beyond the moral bounds. When “Bountygate” exposed the NFL’s New Orleans Saints in 2012 for paying player bonuses for injuring opponents, they didn’t try to defend themselves on the grounds that everyone did. Deliberately attempting to injure athletic opponents is not like framing a field. It is not something that could be integrated into healthy sport practice any more than slavery could be integrated into healthy civil society.
I feel the same when soccer players flop to get their opponents in trouble. It’s not just the deception. It’s the wickedness of having someone punished for what they didn’t do. Players can become very adept at fooling the referee. But we don’t admire them for that. Their cheesy style of play only belittles the outstanding sporting skills of the top footballers.
In the earlier generations of international sport, local conventions could create friction. Long-distance travel was less common and players from different regions didn’t always have the same expectations of fair play. Football was particularly exposed to this danger. At the 1966 World Cup, the quarter-finals between England and Argentina were famously in a bad mood. The English players were unprepared for a series of provocations and delaying tactics then common in South America. After the game, England manager Alf Ramsey referred to the Argentines as “animals”.
However, nowadays everyone generally knows what to expect. The top players from all over the world usually play in the same European leagues, so football culture is now largely homogenized. Some will argue that this must lead to a decline in standards as more dubious local practices become more widespread.
But it doesn’t have to be a race to the bottom. Men’s tennis provides a positive comparison. In earlier decades of professional tennis – think for example John McEnroe in his prime – tantrums, arguments and insults became the norm. Thankfully, that’s largely a thing of the past now. We don’t expect Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or even Novak Djokovic to treat their opponents and officials with anything but respect.