IF IT’S a sign of ageing to be confused as change whizzes around you, consider my wrinkled hand to be up, high above my thinning, spinning head. Having said that, Twitter and Facebook don’t baffle me as much as the changed mores their existence sometimes reveals. As we learnt last week, a dumb, retaliatory tweet fired off to an anonymous provocateur could – would, if the AFL had its way – have an athlete suspended from the field of play.
These days, of course, it has become standard practice for different administrations, different sports, and different subsections within a sport – such as AFL clubs – to consider themselves guardians of off-field behaviour. This is done, apparently, to satisfy public and media demand. Yet it is hardly a recipe for consistent and coherent justice. It can also fly in the face of a legal system in which people are considered innocent until proven guilty in courts overseen by experienced legal elders.
Today’s sports stars are a relatively well-behaved lot. And it’s not as though they’re hell-bent on storming the establishment barricades. That rebellion ended long ago. Dawn and Raelene, McEnroe and Jimbo, Chappelli and Lillee … they are now a breed and a generation apart. And we generally only saw, or heard, what happened amid the theatre of the contest. Heaven knows what it was like after-hours.
It is now, for better or worse, a far more decorous sporting world than that of decades past. Yet the expectation of sportspeople continues to grow. No longer is it enough for athletes to conduct themselves impeccably within their workplace; they must also do it after clocking off. Although their careers are usually played out in the years between adolescence and mature adulthood, their behaviour is scrutinised more closely than that of would-be doctors, lawyers, engineers and others.
Is this a well-intentioned and well-calibrated reading of the requirements of the time? Is it the uncertain grappling of officialdom with a rapidly changing landscape? Is it an over-reaction to excesses of the past? Is it the work of goody-two-shoes, modern administrators who are turning the world of sport into a nanny state? Is it some combination of these?
The last possibility – the least black and white – is probably nearest the pin. The motivation is shaped, consciously or otherwise, by a range of experiences from the distant and recent past as well as by the imperatives of the moment.
And while there’s cause for scepticism at the sanitisation of modern sport, those who have watched over a long period will acknowledge that much from the past was undesirable.
Without irony, the Superbrat himself, John McEnroe, blames tennis’ administrators of his time for not reining him in. Even he couldn’t rationally seek to justify abuse of umpires and linesmen in such delightful terms as “pits of the world” and “fat turd”. And while McEnroe was the culprit, you have to wonder at the lack of courage of those who let him run amok.
Cricket’s “Ugly Aussies” of the 1970s and early-1980s remain somewhat less contrite than McEnroe. Yet Dennis Lillee’s physical confrontation with Javed Miandad, his aluminium bat-throwing tantrum, the underarm bowling catastrophe, and much else was symptomatic of an era in which officialdom had lost control.
It is understandable that today’s administrations, domestic and international, ensure a far more stringent code of conduct should be strictly applied.
Football has been absolutely correct in dealing as sternly as it has with the issue of racial and religious vilification. There was a time when players assumed it was their right to do and say whatever it took to help their teams win games. This attitude was confronted – not without difficulty – during the 1990s, and today’s players are now proud to be standard bearers for a game that champions racial harmony.
But today’s administrators, having cleaned up the on-field part, have become intent on demanding new standards of off-field behaviour. The idea that sportspeople might be typically flawed humans whose mistakes in life – unless they lead to incarceration – shouldn’t prevent them going to work, has been made redundant.
Last week, the new moral guardianship even extended to an attempt at controlling how footy fans express their support – or otherwise. The rounding on those Melbourne supporters who creatively expressed a view on Tom Scully is surely the last straw.
Without the fans there is no theatre, and sport has already surrendered much of its theatre. Look and listen as old recordings of games from suburban grounds are occasionally replayed on pay TV. Compare today’s sombre audiences with those of the 1980s World Series cricket matches.
One day, as play was due to resume after tea during an MCG Test in the mid-1970s, two men in black slacks, white jackets and white hats strode through the umpires’ gate and walked in step towards the middle. The crowd applauded politely. It was only when a television shot revealed one had shoulder-length hair, and neither looked anything like Robin Bailhache or Tom Brooks, that a creative hoax was revealed.
Everyone loved it. Yet if it happened today, the impostors would probably be flattened by security guards, taken away at gunpoint and locked up.
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