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Who will speak for Andrew Symonds?

By Michael Gard - posted Friday, 6 February 2009

My guess is that Andrew Symonds is perfectly capable of talking for himself. In a sporting universe, such as the one we currently inhabit, where the spoken word is impoverished, feared and censored into a meaningless gruel, he is a beacon of intelligible, honest communication.

I would give my back teeth to know what sense he makes of the bewildering moral outrage that has accompanied his every mis-step. Trouble is, we are not likely to find out any time soon. Being what it is, Cricket Australia has no doubt instructed Symonds to say as little as possible so long as he is an actual or potential international cricketer.

For the moment, then, others might be forgiven for presuming to speak on his behalf.


First, a little history. Famous sports people have been heroes for a long time. The earliest photographs and film footage of elite sport shows crowds, old and young, delirious with excitement. That the deeds of a talented athlete might lift the spirits, or at least serve up some healthy escapism, is not new.

What is new is the idea of sports people as “role models”. The sporting role model - someone whom children might “model” themselves on - was born at the same time as sports began to corporatise themselves. This happened because athletes and sponsors realised, simultaneously, that a sportsperson’s face could be worth a lot of money; put it on a cereal box or a can of deodorant and the product was likely to sell in greater numbers than without it.

Of course, sports fans have always been uncomfortable with the sense that their favourite team or player was just another money making enterprise. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the 20th century sports fan could tolerate anything except the discomforting thought that modern sport is primarily a form of prosaic commerce.

And so it was, in the second half of the 20th century players and sponsors went to greater and greater lengths to convince us that professional sport was still worthy of our affections. They did this through PR spin and by inventing the sporting role model; a person we could still love despite the fact that they were taking home an inordinate amount of our money.

It was no longer enough for them to be good at what they did; sports people had to be nice people as well. Of course, their niceness had to be proved and this meant using an utterly compliant sports media to get this lucrative new message across.

Let me be clear. Bradman was a hero, not a “role model”. Nobody cared much whether he visited sick children in hospitals or was kind to his wife. Miller, Cuthbert, Messenger, Dyer; heroes all but never “role models”.


So, there developed a perfectly proportional and symbiotic relationship between sporting money and sporting role models. Every extra dollar that flowed into sport in the last 50 years raised the importance of the sporting “role model”, not because children modelled their lives on sports people. They don’t. Never have. No, the role model’s “role” has been to act as crucial PR for an industry that has simply never wanted to be seen as an industry.

The sporting world that Andrew Symonds inhabits is so commercialised that the sporting role model is no longer the exceptional individual, he/she is now the rule. Apparently all sports people, not just the very best, have to be role models. This is sanctimonious rubbish.

What is so startling about the Symonds saga is how little he had to do to be so reviled and ridiculed. There will come a time when the idea of constant meetings for elite sporting teams will be seen for the pompous waste of time they are. So Symonds missed one to go fishing. Three cheers him, I say, and a big raspberry to Michael Clarke who chastised Symonds in public, sounding and looking like nothing so much as a private school head-prefect.

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About the Author

Michael Gard is a senior lecturer in dance, physical and health education at Charles Sturt University's Bathurst campus. He is the author of two books, The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology (with Jan Wright) and Men Who Dance: Aesthetics, Athletics and the Art of Masculinity.

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