It is interesting to observe how we expect our elite athletes to be superhuman. That is, we expect perfect athlete performance, or in other words, regularly beating the English cricket team, coupled with perfect behaviour off the field.
The profiles of our top professional sportsmen and women are extraordinarily high. Some would argue too high given that it is just sport. Consequently, the off field exploits of professional sportsmen and women are regularly reported in the media. This raises the question - do we expect more of our elite athletes because they are professional athletes? “More” in this instance relates to their off field behaviour.
Never before in the history of Australian sport have our athletes trained so hard in the quest for the ultimate athletic performance. They run, swim, jog, ride, lift weights, conform to meticulously crafted diets, sleep, rest and work according to cycles that are prepared in readiness for the next major event. Sometimes, the quest for victory is so intense that some athletes cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs.
Increasingly, our elite athletes undergo important personal development that aims to improve their presentation skills, prepare for a career and life after sport and generally access life-skills training not normally available to the wider community. They have managers, sports governing bodies and clubs that undertake tasks on their behalf so as to ensure happy sportspeople capable of consistent and sustained athletic performance.
In short, our elite athletes often live a life wrapped in cotton wool and protected from the vagaries of growing up. Moreover, many top professional athletes are cashed up, with earnings in the hundred of thousands of dollars, all this at an impressionable age of approximately 18 to 25. We are left to wonder how many young men and women would not succumb to life’s vices with spare cash and time readily available. Therein exists a paradox - the need and provision of personal skills development yet, at the same time, the need for protection minimising the application of these personal skills.
In the Australian context, the traditions of amateurism continue to influence the social expectations of sport, and consequently the expectations of our athletes. According to this tradition, athletes had participated in sport simply for the love of it, and so the term “amateurism” has become an enduring ideal dominating Australian sport.
Although the tenets of amateurism were adopted by many Western nations, Cashman in Paradise of Sport: The rise of organised sport in Australia found unique elements in the Australian attitudes towards amateurism and professionalism, with “greater suspicion and far less acceptance of professionalism in sport than in North America and even in Britain, and a corresponding deeper commitment to amateur ideals in Australia” (p. 69). Social expectations of Australian sport cling tenaciously to the historical tenets of amateurism.
Our elite athletes are viewed as role modes, a social role that many athletes are reluctant to accept. Our children idolise our very best, and even our more mature citizens marvel, admire and are in awe of superior athletes. But do we expect our superhuman athletes to be perfect citizens? If we do, we should not, as it seems an unreasonable burden to place upon them, and one that we do not equally expect of similar aged people. This is not to condone poor behaviour, but to put it in perspective, just as we would in the wider community.
It is true that a series of misdemeanours have been reported in recent times in respect to athletes from cricket, rugby league and the AFL. Although these behaviours are not condoned, looked at in perspective, these are behaviours undertaken by a minority of professional athletes, rather than the majority that media reporting would have us believe. For example, in the AFL there are approximately 600 contracted footballers and in any one season, the misdemeanours of a few muddy the water for all. We collectively share the disappointment of a talented athlete’s poor behaviour, and continue to extol the need for our athletes to exercise exemplary behaviour, because they are role models and influence the community. They are also easy targets when out in the community. Rarely, however, does our disappointment in off field misdemeanours convert to withdrawal of interest in the sport.
Despite well-documented cases of off field behaviour in cricket, the current Ashes series in England has piqued interest in the sport, particularly in England. Domestically, the 2005 AFL regular season has concluded with another attendance record. The evidence would suggest while we do not condone some of the more extreme examples of poor off field behaviour we have moved from the “old” amateur ideals of “gentlemanly” behaviour to be more accepting of the cut and thrust of professional sport, although for many this is an uncomfortable conflict.
Clearly, it is not reasonable to expect highly trained athletes of about 20 years of age to be highly trained individuals with higher moral codes than the community at large. Although on the surface it may not appear so, but participation in professional sport teaches young men and women a great deal about acceptable behaviour. It also encourages behaviours incited by team bonding, the need to prove oneself and to fit in.
On balance, our young athletes gain more than they lose in their development as individuals through professional sport, but the case for this is only evident when we are able to look beyond the individual high profile media reporting of poor off field behaviour. Do we expect a higher standard of behaviour from our professional athletes? Clearly we do and this is to some extent grounded in our traditional amateur ideals of sport. The more important question is - should we? Should we demand a higher standard? To some extent yes, as the rewards of being a professional athlete mandate a higher standard. But payment and meticulous training regimes should not automatically be assumed to produce model human beings.