Australian sport should carry a social health warning
The first siren sounded on the Australian Football League (AFL) grand final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and we were eight kilometres away at the Classic cinemas in Elsternwick, watching The Martiawan, a story of survival, of a man alone in a strange land.
‘Not watching the footy?’ said the ticket seller. An amused, knowing statement rather than a query. We shook our heads.
We had chosen not to attend yet another barbecue organised around a major sporting event where the social cost of lack of interest is steep and the pressure to follow a particular team, and the loyalties and labels this entails, is high. Apart from discussions of real estate and home renovations, is there anything more mundane than listening to small talk about game predictions or players’ form and injuries? The cinema would be a quiet football-free destination.
In the largest cinema in the complex were 21 people dotted on seats, some together, some alone. One man nodded and said hello. At the end of our row two women turned to us and smiled. It was a tacit shared knowledge—we cinemagoers knew exactly what we weren’t doing. We belonged to a small but clearly defined tribe: Major Sporting Event Escapees.
Towards the end of the film, three-quarters into the AFL grand final, our decision to watch this particular film took on added meaning: Matt Damon’s character has to take extreme care of the air he breathes lest he is squashed to death by the hostile Martian atmosphere. This is what living in a sport-saturated culture feels like. Sport floats through the air we breathe. When Matt Damon’s character says, ‘I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,’ one of us whispered to the other, ‘Australia sports the shit out of everything.’
A form of perceptual distortion afflicts those whose lives and emotions are invested heavily in sport. Australian Rules football is a prime example: who’dyougofor? can only mean one game in Melbourne. It is, we are told by some of the sport’s storytellers, ‘our Great Game’, with a rich history stretching back to pre-Federation Australia. They forget greatness is a claim open to debate given the rest of the world continues to show little or no interest in the game, reducing it to a cultural curiosity or a distraction for homesick expats living and working overseas. The antediluvian antics of AFL media figureheads such as Eddie McGuire and Sam Newman also make it unlikely that this provincialism will shift anytime soon.
For those living inside male-dominated myths it appears impossible to process the idea that others feel differently about team line-ups, the sportsmen who achieve celebrity status, and the trivia about the league and its clubs paraded as news. Life in Melbourne on grand final day is indicative of this myopia. Fans who watched every bounce and kick of the ball probably felt the rest of the city was right alongside them following the flow of the game. The fevered build up to the grand final perpetuates this notion, buttressed by a traffic-stopping parade, a (new) public holiday, ever-multiplying promotional banners and advertisements, and hunks of news space devoted to pre-game predictions and discussions. Yet less than half of Melbourne watched the game. According to the television ratings, 1.23 million viewers in a city of 4.4 million people tuned into the Channel Seven coverage. To this number can be added those who were at the MCG watching the game, those who followed on radio, watched online or on mobile, or wanted to watch or listen but were unable to for reasons of ailment, work or unexpected circumstances.
Like us, a significant number of people were otherwise occupied during the grand final, avoiding the game and the banalities of its coverage. Rather than sit and watch ‘heroic’ men at play, they did other things—garden, read, shop, eat, drive, walk, paint, fuck, drink, sleep, chat, play, watch a movie with their family. These are not choices valorised by ebullient football commentators as sanctified expressions of national identity. But this does not mean they are any less significant in capturing the rhythms and realities of Australian life.
This is not an anti-AFL or anti-sport manifesto. Neither of us has been tempted to join the Anti-Football League. The sneers of self-styled aesthetes who openly disdain sport are of little interest to us, particularly when they mask a self-conscious inability to run, catch, throw or kick. To the contrary, we have played multiple sports with degrees of skill and success. We are also the proud parents of a 13-year-old who spends his summers and winters on playing fields, and we enjoy attending major sporting events when the mood or obligation takes us. One of us once sat through the equivalent of a long-haul flight over three days of a Boxing Day cricket Test and the other is a frequently bemused member of a professional soccer club. We happily invest this time to foster shared interests with a son for whom sport is but one passion among many.
Yet we also find the constant celebration of sport in the media objectionable. The claim that Australia is a sporting nation is a risible cliché. Lazy thinking of this sort excludes so many and so much, placing unnecessary limits on what people can aspire to do with their time and energy. The pursuit of a meaningful life—featuring social inclusion, curiosity, diversity of experience, nurturing relationships and an engagement with public culture—requires a great deal more than the win and loss calibration of competitive sport. We argue that the excessive features of sporting life—both playing and spectating—are worth avoiding, particularly given the perverse cultures and avaricious business practices that characterise many sports in Australia and around the globe.
One minute into a junior soccer match in the southern suburbs of Melbourne and a woman runs along the sideline screaming instructions at her son’s team. Her face puce with anger, she lobs verbal cluster bombs at the kids: ‘Man up, Sammy. Eye on the ball. Eye. On. The. Ball. Keep running. Come on, don’t be a wus, get in there. Come on. Get in there. Get. On. In. There.’ It was a performance worthy of a professional A-League coach of the Kevin Muscat variety—the only difference was she wasn’t working blue.
The woman, with her mid-range four-wheeler and son at a private school, wasn’t the team coach. He was standing half a pitch away wearing the team’s tracksuit top, as did the assistant coach pressed close to him on the sideline. Both of them ignored her and attempted to yell instructions over her while the ball was in play. When the ball wasn’t in play, she was a different person—smiling and tending to the toddler playing on the grass behind her. Unfortunately, being junior soccer, there were few breaks in play for the best part of 40 minutes. The skills required to waste time by faking an injury, falling over deliberately to attract a penalty, or pointlessly arguing with the referee are lacking among most young players. This meant that, bar ten minutes for the half-time break, that woman’s voice was heard for the entire time.
We were simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by this one-parent anthropological specimen. Her goading appeared to be treated as normal behaviour by the parents on their team.
‘White line fever,’ said the parent of a player on our team.
‘Yeah, but she’s on the wrong side of the line,’ another responded.
During half-time we overheard a conversation between a child and his father. The boy was promised ten dollars for each goal he scored. Another two parents discussed the relative merits of their children’s custom-made boots. We were told later that their coach was paid extra by the parents to secure his services, although this was never confirmed.
After the game, which their team lost by a goal, three fathers on the other team kicked water bottles onto the pitch. They complained that their ‘boys were robbed’. The kids on the team had learnt from their parents: in the line-up to shake hands, one boy mouthed ‘piss off’ every time he shook one of his opponents’ hands. Their coach took issue with our coach over a slide tackle that hampered one of their players mid-game, and an argument flared. Parents from both sides joined in, some aggressors, others peacemakers. The emotional and financial investment in competitive Saturday morning pre-teen sport can be horror-movie terrifying.
Unnerving experiences of this sort are easy to find on the sidelines of Australian junior sport, on a spectrum from the objectionable to the violent. Stories about parent and child aggression, explosive tempers, and abuse of coaches, match officials and players can be found across a range of activities, including tennis, cricket, swimming, basketball, netball and any of the football codes. There are some who comfort themselves by saying these are isolated incidents, although this belief denies the accumulated impact of repeated ‘isolated’ incidents.
A range of coordinated measures is now required to combat these problems, proving the existence of their intractable nature. Driven by the wisdom that ‘kids just want to have fun’, the Penrith District Junior Rugby League in Sydney pays trained security guards to attend games and discourage ‘anti-social and abusive behaviour on the sidelines’. More than 50 kilometres away on the other side of the Harbour Bridge, the Northern Suburbs Football Association is implementing a ‘Silent on the Sidelines’ program for junior competitions. This program discourages parents from sledging and using foul language, prescribes respect for referees, and encourages applause for good play irrespective of which side or player is performing well.
Such initiatives reflect the widespread growth and development of detailed parent/guardian ‘codes of conduct’ by national, state and regional sports organisations. Designed to create safe environments, these codes aim to regulate behaviour, protect those who voluntarily officiate and organise, and discipline any adult who ‘would ridicule or yell at a child for making a mistake or losing a game’ (NSW Netball). In a disturbing reversal of roles, it is the parents who need disciplining and education, with codes of conduct supported by posters and signs placed alongside venues to encourage appropriate spectator behaviour. The woman barking on the sidelines described earlier obviously missed the sign that read:
1. These are kids.
2. This is a game.
3. The coaches are volunteers.
4. The refs are human.
5. This is not the EPL or the A-League.
Books such as Mark Hyman’s Until It Hurts and the 2013 US documentary Trophy Kids provides clues as to why obsessive behaviour and intermittent aggression are features of junior sport. Contributing factors include misguided parental ambition, compensation for their own failed sporting dreams, perceived unfairness, ignorance about the impact of overbearing ‘support’, and the sanctification of winning. To these can be added the seductive dream of their progeny as a wealthy professional athlete, appearing on television with their name known by cheering (and jeering) crowds. Yet it is estimated that only a small proportion of the population—around 1.5 per cent—has the potential to become an elite athlete. Unless the other 98.5 per cent are to be consigned to servicing the needs of a tiny elite, to be worthwhile sport needs to offer alternative outcomes and values beyond winning and setting records.
According to resources compiled by the Clearinghouse for Sport, an information- and knowledge-sharing initiative of the Australian Sports Commission, participation rates in sport tend to decline as children and teenagers age. Negative factors that contribute to non-participation include travel, expense, inconvenient training times and, notably, ‘an environment that is “too competitive”’. Factors that support continuing participation include constructive parental and family support, peer interaction and a positive environment. In explaining why children choose to play organised sport, interactions with peers and the expansion of social networks rank highly.
Perhaps children understand sport in a way that many adults forget as they age and retreat from playing sport to watching it on television. When the emotion of misplaced parental ambition and over-identification with their child’s successes (and failures) is removed, the logic of sport is straightforward. Games are designed to produce winners and losers, and no matter how determined they are competitors must experience both as they play over time. This inevitability makes all the things that happen alongside the game—fun, friendship, socialising, learning through play—the main objectives of participation. Sporting cultures unable or unwilling to support these qualities produce an unavoidable by-product: children who choose to avoid sport and find more satisfying things to do with their leisure time.
In the world of sport and big business, leagues, teams and their sponsors know that tribal identities are articulated through corporate signals: a Nike swoosh on a T-shirt, the three white stripes on a pair of Adidas sneakers, or an insignia on a baseball cap. Unlike the woollen guernseys of yesteryear, the sponsors on playing strips sold to fans of all ages are now sublimated into microfibre polyester ‘technology fabrics’, with advertisements woven into the fabric of team allegiances. Fans buy the jersey and sell back to the crowd a brand, a lifestyle and an identity.
The recognition of certain advertising categories and logos is inextricably tied to sport. The relationship between the AFL’s Geelong Cats and car manufacturer Ford dates back as far as 1925. The Commonwealth Bank is a feature of the Australian cricket summer and has sponsored the Australian women’s team, the Southern Stars, since 1999. The National Rugby League (NRL) features less palatable associations between clubs and gambling operators. The jumpers of the Melbourne Storm and South Sydney rugby league teams advertise gaming and entertainment group Crown Resorts, with the Crown logo emblazoned front and centre. The Brisbane Broncos’ jerseys testify to the virtues of the stock exchange–listed bookmaker William Hill. Of course, it was possibly worse in the 1970s and 1980s when tobacco companies such as Benson & Hedges, Winfield, Dunhill and Peter Jackson vied for sponsorship rights across a range of high-profile sports. The tobacco industry waged a public relations war to maintain the visibility of their brands until the federal Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act 1992 imposed serious restrictions on its sponsorship of sport.
One of the most widely used and socially destructive drugs in Australia, alcohol, contributes another brick to the sponsorship edifice of many sporting codes. Carlton Draught is a major partner of the AFL. The Australian rugby union team, the Wallabies, has both an official beer (Hahn Super Dry 3.5) and wine partner (Taylors). And who doesn’t know the Victoria Bitter (VB) logo? It is the NRL’s preferred drop, while the Australian one day international cricket shirt looks more like a colourful backdrop for this beer brand than a uniform. Shown on television between breaks in play, VB advertisements are a reminder of the seventies ideal of Australian white masculinity, with hefty hardworking men showing the joys of knocking back a cold beer with their mates. However, when a drunken fan gets thrown out of the Transport Bar in Federation Square following a long day of Test cricket at the MCG, advertisements for the glories of beer consumption trump repeated community announcements that alcohol is best enjoyed in moderation.
Alcohol advertisers cannot sell their products directly to young people, although they can use sport to ready their appetite for the day they come of legal age. A summer visit to the MCG saw us walking past teenagers wearing the replica one-day national cricket shirt mentioned above, parading a beer brand they are not old enough to access. Our eucalypt-tall son loves cricket and wears a man’s size jersey, but we do not want him advertising VB for the Australian cricket team (a stance he thankfully agrees with). What else is available to him? Perhaps the national T20 cricket shirt with the fast-food logo of KFC emblazoned across the front? The tricks of advertising and a lack of corporate social responsibility by sporting organisations make for complicated but necessary conversations when parents and their children confront these questions.
The symbols and insignias of Australian sport raise the question of what elite level (mostly men’s) sport communicates. The term ‘communication’ used here does not signal the practised patois of league executives, club spokespeople and hired public relations professionals. Media-trained corporate communication is a skill that combines clarity of expression with obfuscation of meaning. It is characterised by an adaptable lexicon that conflates a wide range of competing interests that can be rearranged depending on the needs of the day and news agenda. Clever talk of this sort fuses words such as community, fans, leadership and brand in a way that conveys sense but not always substance. It is what allows the AFL’s chief executive, Gillon McLachlan, to speak of the league’s ‘huge business mandate’ and significant ‘leadership role’ in the community in the course of a single interview. Upon closer inspection it is apparent that community is only an integer factored into larger economic equations. For instance, the AFL lists a prominent online betting platform as an official corporate partner, despite the social cost of problem gambling to the community being estimated at $4.7 billion per year.
Instead, we focus on a type of public communication that is impossible to ignore—the commercial messages and symbols that saturate the visual and aural landscapes of sport. Mass exposure through relentless repetition and reinforcement naturalises an excessive form of spectacle-driven commercialism, making it difficult to imagine sporting cultures that place human and social needs firmly at their centre. The extraordinary pervasiveness of business interests is obvious when watching almost any major event, including soccer, Australian rules, the rugby codes, netball, basketball, golf, tennis or motor racing. Stadiums are named after banks, telecommunications carriers, airlines, insurance providers and catering companies. Player and official uniforms, equipment and balls, playing surfaces, sideline and track signage, scoreboards, goal posts, corner posts, stumps and even mascots are display spaces for corporate emblems. The on-field action is a backdrop for the main game of target markets and advertising.
The values and priorities communicated by contemporary Australian sport are hyper-commodification and super-charged consumption. Sport is an entertainment vehicle that powers the advancement of national and global corporate interests and whose primary function has become the creation of brand awareness. The relationship between sport and the market has existed for as long as modern capitalism. But the intensity, scale and sophistication of their interpenetration have never been so great or unavoidable.
Sport can change, although the process is often slow and uneven. Experience shows that determined long-term advocacy or intermittent acts of overt resistance are needed to affect the policies and decisions of national sports organisations. For example, while the consistency of their enforcement is questionable, codes of spectator behaviour in junior sport were created because of calls for change by conscientious administrators, parents, coaches and referees. Women’s sport has made advances in recent times. The influence of the national Sex Discrimina-tion Commissioner—formerly Elizabeth Broderick and now Kate Jenkins—is directed towards the achievement of greater gender and sexual diversity in sport and recreation at all levels.
The AFL now has a new elite women’s league (although the excitement of the launch was dulled shortly after when Colling-wood president Eddie McGuire engaged in live radio ‘banter’ about forcibly holding journalist Caroline Wilson underwater). Ranked number five in the world, the Australian women’s soccer team, the Matildas, has edged closer to earning a living wage after striking over the pitiful wages paid to them by Football Federation Australia. The response to this long-overdue pay increase was consistently positive, with even the A-League’s most irascible player, Besart Berisha, saying he was ‘behind them [the Matildas]’.
Progress of this sort is welcome, but it does not alter our view that Australian sport should carry a social health warning. Like the alcohol and fast food brands that sponsor it, sport is best consumed in moderation. It is imperative that we think beyond the model of elite sport, prising open the spaces where rewarding experiences are built on factors other than win-at-all-cost competitiveness and economic calculations. Let us channel serious energy towards celebrating non-competitive play and disorganised sport—the likes of kick-to-kick, scratch matches in parks, street soccer and backyard cricket where the main game is undisciplined skill, camaraderie, good-natured banter and laughter. Conflict and competition between players still occurs in the world of discarded jumpers doubling as goal posts and hand painted wickets on wheelie bins. But when sport is divorced from the excesses of spectator barracking and custom-made boots, more space becomes available for differing ages, genders, backgrounds and abilities, including those who are living (or reliving) their glory days.
‘Go hard or go home.’ This blunt choice printed on the front of a popular Nike T-shirt encapsulates the tunnel vision of sporting environments in which ultra-competitiveness, hyper-commodification and ubiquitous branding are considered virtues. Seen on courts, playing fields and running tracks, the T-shirt is worn by people whose competitiveness has transcended the psychological and taken form as a corporate-designed challenge. Reflecting the circular logic of competition for competition’s sake, the slogan is symptomatic of a sporting culture in which leagues and clubs are in the business of manufacturing athletic spectacle at an exponential rate, while also competing fiercely with each other for sponsors, spectators, audiences, players and juniors. Given the power and influence of this elite, it is unsurprising that lower levels of sport seek to mimic it to the detriment of standards of conduct and community values.
Once the media hype, corporate brands and myths are stripped away a stark picture emerges about Australia’s relationship with sport. Sport reveals a great deal about the need to shield children from temperamental adults who claim to be supporting them, the hypocrisy of sporting codes that speak of community leadership while shilling for the gambling and alcohol industries, and the privileging of ‘winners’ and dismissal of ‘losers’. These truths demand that we contemplate alternative—even alien—ways of thinking about, doing and funding sport in this country. Given the deficit of imagination in these areas, avoiding sport and finding meaning elsewhere on a regular basis is a vital corrective to the excesses of a sporting life.
AAP, ‘Berisha backs Matildas strike but warns against A-League following suit’, The World Game, SBS, 15 September 2015.
ABC Radio National, ‘Inside the Matildas’ Strike’, Background Briefing, 16 October 2015.
ABC Radio National, ‘Sports Wars’, Background Briefing, 16 March 2008.
Australian Government, Problem Gambling—the Facts, Commonwealth of Australia, 2016.
Clearinghouse for Sport, Sport Participation in Australia, Australian Sports Commission, 2015.
Phil Gould, ‘New Penrith District Junior Rugby League Initiatives’, 22 March 2015.
Mark Hyman, Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, Beacon Press, 2009.
Samantha Lane, ‘Elite sport CEOs committed to promoting women in leadership’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 2015.
Netball NSW, Parent/Guardian Code of Behaviour, November 2013.
Ninemsn, ‘Fairfax Media journalist Caroline Wilson responds to “venomous” comments by Eddie McGuire as fallout over “drowning” sledge continues’, 20 June 2016.
Play by the Rules, Making Sport Inclusive, Safe and Fair campaign, <http://www.playbytherules.net.au>.
John Stensholt, ‘Gillon McLachlan’s 2016 challenge: How to spend $2.508b’, Age, 29 December 2015.
Sydney Morning Herald, Editorial, ‘Silent on the sidelines please, for children’s sake’, 20 May 2016.
Trophy Kids (prod. Bad Larry and Film 44), available on Netflix Australia.