It’s well past time to reconsider our communal attitude towards professional sport. We’re subjected almost daily to scandals about drug cheating, gross and usually drunken behaviour by sports people, rorted salary caps and match-fixing by players colluding with bookmakers and associated interests.
As a starting point, can we all agree that sportspeople are not “role models”, either for our children or anyone else? They are physically talented and highly trained athletes, and have usually focused their lives from a young age on developing those talents and training their bodies to a peak of physical fitness. They have not been selected for their intellect, moral qualities or social skills, nor does their sports training focus on developing those attributes. Accordingly, talking about role models in a sporting context makes no sense unless your definition of a “role model” is someone who is ruthlessly obsessed with personal success/winning.
I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with elite sportspeople having those qualities in abundance, nor am I denying that there are quite a few of them who really are genuinely nice, thoughtful, moral and well-rounded human beings. But elite professional sport is not an obvious place to look for role models for the kiddies.
Nor should we necessarily banish sportspeople who fail to uphold the finest traditions of honouring the rules of the game. No-one even believes that any more. Gamesmanship or “pushing the envelope” of the rules is an endemic feature in just about all sports, with players, fans, coaches and commentators all accepting this as normal and expected behaviour. Rugby league coaches will continue to teach grapple tackles and “chicken wings”.
Most importantly, the key insight about professional sport is that it is quite distinct from the amateur versions of sport played by kids or by adults for fun. Professional sport is first, last and centrally part of the entertainment industry, run for profit by large corporations or wealthy individuals, broadcast for profit by large media corporations, and sponsored for profit by large corporations to increase their sales of goods and services. The sponsors may well be displeased by a sponsored player who gets caught on video having drunken simulated sex with a poodle, but it’s being caught on video and publicised that they dislike and not the behaviour itself. Even then they object only when the conduct might tarnish their product by association and adversely impact sales.
Now those insights may seem fairly trite, but they lead to a range of more surprising conclusions about how “scandalous” behaviour in professional sport should be treated.
First, there is no reason to ban performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports, at least ones like AFL and NRL where WADA compliance is largely irrelevant. The only requirements should be that the drug has been certified by relevant authorities as safe for human beings, that it is administered under suitable expert medical supervision, and that the club doctors give players accurate and complete information about possible side-effects.
Secondly, illicit non-performance-enhancing drugs are no business of clubs or sporting associations, unless a player’s drug habit begins impacting his/her training or playing performances . Clubs and leagues are not law enforcement agencies and players’ leisure habits should be regarded as their own business. Recreational drugs are so widespread among today’s 20-35 year olds that it is just unrealistic to expect that fit young men will refrain from using them in their off-duty time.
Thirdly, players’ general behavioural standards still need to be subject to club or association sanction, but only because it has the potential to impact the sport’s “brand” and therefore revenue from sponsors. Misbehaving players can be suspended or sacked because they’re potentially costing their employer money. Even then, some enterprising clubs might choose to make bad behaviour a key brand attribute. We might see the East Sydney Filthy Animals, featuring “bad boy” players renowned for defecating in hotel corridors or simulating sex with household pets when drunk. They could be sponsored by seedy nightclubs, strip joints, porn producers and online poker sites.
Nevertheless, we will still need to have stringent rules against colluding with bookies to rig games. World Championship Wrestling was always popular with a certain underclass of fans, despite its bouts and results being unashamedly confected. Fans were happy as long as they were entertained by wrestlers who outrageously hammed it up and played suitably caricatured hero or villain roles. There’s a place for a certain amount of that in any professional sport, but mass general audiences need at least to be able to suspend disbelief sufficiently to retain faith that most game results are kosher and that the best team on the day will usually win. We probably won’t be able to maintain credulity if too many kickers miss simple goals in front of the posts or fall over while “attempting” straightforward but try-saving tackles (yes Manly I mean you). We’re not naive enough to think that bookies will never corrupt individual players, especially less well paid also-rans, and most of us also accept that bookies’ lucrative TV sponsorships can’t practically be banned without adversely affecting a sport’s lucrative media rights deals.
Salary caps for clubs are also likely to remain a part of any league’s armoury in managing its sporting code. Ensuring that most clubs remain competitive and that most games aren’t totally one-sided is an important part of maintaining the sport’s “brand” as an exciting entertainment spectacle.
Lastly, there will still be plenty of room for displays of outraged moral indignation about all the above mortal sporting sins from pompous pundits on shows like Offsiders or The Footy Show. That too is part of the entertainment package. It’s a bit like contemporary politics really. Core members of each sporting/political tribe will remain passionately absorbed in barracking for their own team, while the rest of us savour the spectacle with varying degrees of interest or skepticism.