We need to talk about sports
Alright gang, today we're going to talk about sports.
After what had felt like a pretty nice year for sports in 2012 – what with everybody remembering how much fun it was to be ruled by England during the London Olympics – 2013 has started in a fashion that can really only be described as a non-stop meteor of unadorned shit. Lest we forget that we're only six weeks into the year that is, so far we've seen:
- The final disgrace of Lance Armstrong, formerly one of the greatest sporting heroes of this or any era.
- The implication of Essendon and perhaps one other AFL club in a full-blown doping scandal.
- The allegation that everything from local European soccer matches through to World Cup qualifiers have been the subject of match fixing.
- The release of a report by the Australian Crime Commission that suggests doping and drug use is rife throughout both the AFL and the NRL.
- A report put out this morning suggesting that our swimming team was cutting loose good and proper in London.
- Oscar Pistorius, perhaps the greatest living Paralympian, shooting his girlfriend four times on Valentine's Day.
- And, of course, Ricky Nixon declaring that he was getting out of the sports management business to take on stand-up comedy. This may be the worst of them all.
No matter how you spin it, that is quite the laundry list of woe. And has of course brought with it the requisite handwringing, declamations of innocence and portents of doom from the usual suspects, useless vacillation that claims either that: a) a few bad eggs are ruining it for the rest of us; b) sport is deader than Essendon's premiership chances; c) this is being blown way out of proportion; or d) won't someone please think of the children.
Much of which is actually true, but none of which understands the real problem here – namely that by turning sport into a genuinely profitable endeavour and a vehicle for celebrity we have changed the very nature of what it means to play sport. Sport has become a business, and if the business world has taught us anything over the past few hundred years of avarice and corruption, it's that if nobody sees you do it and it's going to help you win, then by god you just get out there and start doing it. Moreover, by binding success so inextricably with profit you raise the incentive to win (or, in match-fixing terms, lose) to a point where frankly I'm just surprised there's not more of this coming out. Although, it has been a fertile year already, perhaps this is just the tip of the drug-filled iceberg.
Much of the despair currently being felt by those who watch and comment on sport seems to be drawn from the ludicrous idea that sport is a somehow incorruptible institution, filled with men and women who are singularly dedicated to achievement for achievement's sake. Inspirational examples of what can be accomplished through dedication alone and people from whom the rest of us slovenly lot could learn quite a bit. And while I like sports, I really do, this brand of embarrassing sycophancy is how we end up in a position where kids don't grow up wanting to play for Collingwood, they grow up wanting to be Ben Cousins. Because he's a role model.
Now, I'm of the opinion that the concept of sporting role models needs to be taken out the back, put on a plane and deposited in a North Korean gulag for the rest of eternity. Sportspeople aren't role models. They're parodic exaggerations of what it means to be fit, who – outside of certain triumph over adversity figures like Armstrong or Pistorius (*cough*) – have about as much claim to moral superiority as does your average patch of moss. Truth be told, they're probably even more ill-equipped to stand in this sort of position than most. Think back to when you were 19. Were you a great person? Did you make excellent decisions? Would you suggest other people should act like you? Now take that picture, add a six-figure income and the unquestioning adulation of the public and try and imagine the sorts wacky hijinks you might get up to. Ain't no party like a non-consensual group sex party!
This isn't to suggest that all sportspeople are necessarily dicks. Indeed, I'm sure most of them aren't. But rather than acting stunned and outraged every time one of these young kids does something regrettable, it might help if we acknowledged that perhaps we have some part to play in fostering the ethos of unaccountability and victory-at-all-costs that runs through modern sports, team or individual. That by bestowing upon sportspeople such intense admiration (and vast sums of money), we're creating the conditions in which the very things we purport to abhor thrive. And that, by elevating it and them to the realm of gods, we diminish the idea that sports can be fun, something that we do as well as watch.
There is something fundamental and unifying about sports. Maybe it fills in our brains something vacated by religion or community. Maybe we're just vicarious adrenalin junkies. Or maybe it tells us stories we want to believe about ourselves and our capacities. But right now these obsessions of ours are slowly strangling it. And in order to save sport, perhaps we need to start taking it less seriously rather than more.