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Sports stars behaving badly

By David Rowe - posted Monday, 12 September 2005


Every time there is a sports scandal - and at the present time there are rather a lot of them - professional and amateur commentators tend to line up in the manner of opposing teams. Whatever the alleged transgression - drunkenness, fisticuffs outside a club, infidelity (including with team mates’ spouses), sexual harassment and assault, performance-enhancing and recreational drug-taking, financial malfeasance, or slapping a team mate who let the team down - responses are generally polarised.

The moral tales that flow from sports scandals often tell us as much about the commentator as the sporting transgressor. Partisans on the pro side tend to assume innocence or provocation, while opposing supporters of individuals or teams assume guilt and impunity. For the former, there are listed many mitigating circumstances, especially the vulnerability and naivety of the sporting offender. For the latter, the act is unforgivable and the perpetrator irredeemable. Somewhere in between are those seeking an explanation without, necessarily, exoneration or wholesale condemnation.

Of course, there are many complexities in celebrity sports controversies and a  wide range of transgressions are grist to the sporting scandal mill. Sometimes, stupid behaviour (like late-night boozing before a big match) is treated as if it were criminal, and criminal behaviour (like non-consensual sex) is regarded as if it were just an unfortunate misdemeanour, with the victim largely to blame. There are also the local sporting identities who, usually under the influence, assume an imagined celebrity’s immunity - and end up as small time losers.

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Sports celebrities are not demographically representative. The majority of sports celebrities are men. Therefore, for every Tonya Harding and allegations regarding an attempt to break the legs of an ice-skating opponent, there are scores of cashed up, feted male sports celebrities willing and able to be deeply anti-social. Without assuming that men are intrinsically more likely to behave badly than women, the current state of affairs is that most sport celebrities are men, and most of those who behave ignobly are also men.

These sportsmen also tend to be young - certainly the fresh side of three score and ten - and so it is youthful masculinity that is in the spotlight. The key issues concern youthful masculinity and the level of responsibility expected of those few young sportsmen who find themselves, often suddenly, in the spotlight and loaded with plaudits and cash.

Those who argue for the toleration of male youthful indiscretion - and call on critics whose personal conduct is perpetually above reproach to cast the first stone - have a tendency to infantilise young sportsmen. They are seen to operate within some kind of pre-ethical universe, incapable of exercising restraint. Indeed, if blame needs to be assigned, then these young men are said to have been manipulated, victimised by the pressures and unrestrained rewards of sporting stardom. On the other hand, those critical of celebrity sportsmen often tend to infantilise their fans, assuming the corruption of even younger minds and imitation of undesirable behaviours arises from the wrongdoings of their idols.

It is reasonable to assume that celebrity sportsmen have much in common with other young men, and it is unreasonable to seek to impose sainthood on them. However, it is astonishingly myopic to regard them just as “everyday Joes”. Celebrity sportsmen require a very clear idea of how that status was acquired, and a thorough education on the nature of industrialised sport.

In itself, sport is a meaningless display of certain physical skills and talents, but acquires meaning mainly through the emotion projected onto it. Sports fans give sport its heart and soul - without their passionate identifications and rivalries, sport would be a mildly enjoyable, if eccentric, pastime. Since the 18th century entrepreneurs realised money could be made by enclosing sports contests and harnessing the collective emotion that surrounds sport. With the development of the mass media, especially television, the boundaries of the pitch moved to the far corners of the earth, and sport went global. Its player reward structure similarly expanded.

Sport now generates a great deal of capital derived from many sources: paying customers, sponsors, advertisers, media companies, governments, sports goods and leisurewear manufacturing, merchandising, venues, travel companies, caterers, and so on. Without all this input, there could be no sports celebrity. Sportsmen might make a few bob from playing sport, but they would be much like previous generations of local heroes - holding down other jobs, living alongside sports supporters, and often left with little but memories and degenerative injuries after a short sporting life.

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Celebrity sportsmen are much better remunerated today - sometimes offensively so. As they have become separated - physically, financially, socially - from sports supporters, the media have increasingly bridged the divide with all manner of coverage and gossip. Surveillance of off-duty sportsmen, and stricter policing of their conduct, is part of the trade for the privileges of a celebrity life.

Sportsmen often believe that they can switch the media on and off as if they were taps, leaking exclusive stories (or getting their managers to do so), inviting favourable extracurricular coverage, endorsing products, making staged appearances (often with their families), and so on. But the media is not, despite often doing a good imitation, merely a wing of the public relations industry. Sometimes, not always reasonably, they break news or run campaigns that directly challenge the conduct of conspicuous others, including sportspeople.

Sports celebrities often seem blind to the preconditions of their own celebrity. Recently, for example, the best current Australian Rules footballer, West Coast Eagles’ Chris Judd, protested in his Juddy’s Jibe web column, “Let's be brutally honest, all I really do is play football and comment on it. I, for one, am still unable to see why I'd be viewed as anything other than a footballer. Yes, footballers are viewed as role models by young kids, but unless the kids know the player personally, this to me is silly.”

While it is perfectly understandable that Judd does not welcome the pressure to behave impeccably, it is his own position that is patently “silly”. Indeed, to be “brutally honest”, without the extensive web of institutions and people that create the vast edifice of contemporary sport, he could not be a footballer in the sense that he has come to understand.

Chris Judd probably could enjoy his footy at the weekends - but between long shifts of much less glamorous work. He would not be earning several multiples of the average weekly wage if indeed, as he complains, footballers are “just the same as everyone else in society, just with a different skills set”. Sports celebrities often fail to see the disjunction between their “skills set” and their remuneration and lionisation, and the brute fact that their labour market position can only be maintained with intensive media coverage that is often sycophantic, if sometimes savage.

Sport celebrities are not genetically or morally different, but it’s their milieu that makes them extraordinary. To believe otherwise is to be in worrying denial. Expectations of their personal conduct are so high because they receive more of the good things in life than most people, and take up a lot of their cultural space. There is a way out - retirement and self-imposed obscurity. Failing that, they can keep the dosh and the plaudits, while accepting that sports celebrity power demands a level of personal responsibility beyond their little patch of private turf.

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About the Author

David Rowe is Professor of Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney, and author of Global Media Sport (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Sport Beyond Television (with Brett Hutchins, Routledge, 2012).

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