Sport

A new book that holds Australian sport up as inspiration for a better society ignores its lavish history of drug abuse,  assault and racism. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The Aussie hoax of the fair game

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If you’re up early enough, you might see the assistant treasurer, Andrew Leigh, cycling or running on the tracks of our bush capital. That’s how he starts most days. Leigh has competed in ironman triathlons, won the Canberra bush marathon and finished all six of the world’s major marathon races in under three hours each. He raced in the Chicago marathon recently, recompeting because it was the only one of the six in which he hadn’t kept within the three-hour mark.

Now, Leigh – a former professor of economics at the Australian National University – has published a slim book called Fair Game: Lessons from Sport for a Fairer Society & a Stronger Economy. In it, he leverages sentimental attachments to sport to make arguments for economic reform – namely, improving equality, productivity and competitive fairness.

The problem is that there is not a commensurate analysis of the administration of sport to match the economic analysis. Instead, sentimental moments from sport are cherrypicked to superficially garnish the economic arguments. Cheerful bromides recur throughout the book – “At its best, sport embodies egalitarianism”, “Sport can bring out our finest qualities”, “Every year, through a combination of ingenuity, grit and teamwork, Australians smash sporting records like plates at a Greek wedding” – and the overall effect is the suggestion that sport is some paragon of decency and moral instruction.

Reading the book was surprisingly jarring, given my recent brooding on scandals and the things that bind them.

 

The West Coast Eagles’ florid drug cult of the noughties might not have occurred without the club’s denial and selective indifference while the team excelled. As well as two grand finals and one flag, there was also death, flatlined hearts, psychosis and jail. There were players who had contact with those involved in underworld shootings, and others heard by police on the tapped phones of major drug traffickers. Ex-players’ crimes included arson, assault, armed robbery, domestic violence and the forging of prescriptions. An investigation by the retired Victorian Supreme Court judge William Gillard, and kept secret by the AFL until it was leaked in 2017, found that little was done by the club: “[Chad Fletcher’s case] exemplifies the attitude which had persisted for some five years previously, and that was to ignore any suggestion of drug-taking,” Gillard wrote. “The official line was there was no evidence of drug-taking … The club, as far back as mid-2004 and probably earlier, failed to address a burgeoning drug problem.”

Essendon’s competitiveness – that witless search for the “extra edge” that transforms titans of industry into credulous morons – allowed a grifter to insinuate himself into the club. Coupled with an immature coach and negligent governance, the club profoundly failed its duty of care to players and brought upon itself a punishing ignominy from which it’s never quite recovered. And as much as the AFL wanted to cauterise the supplements scandal – to suggest that it was unique to Essendon – the ingredients for it existed just about everywhere.

This competitiveness and credulity could be seen too in the Adelaide Crows’ decision to employ a dubious outfit to run “leadership performance” programs and, most destructively, a boot camp designed to improve the team’s “resilience” but which in fact dissolved it. The 2018 camp – which for some resembled a simulation of CIA black sites – also involved the weaponisation of intimate disclosures from players about their childhoods, including stories of abuse and parental estrangement. Eddie Betts detailed his experience in his recent memoir, and said it left him badly depressed, anxious and paranoid. He was not alone, and soon the club experienced an exodus of both players and staff.

Now, there are the chilling allegations made by former First Nations players at Hawthorn.

These examples aren’t discrete – they’re tied together by the moral and procedural failings that follow from hyper-competitiveness and its destructive, child-like lapses of perspective. As such, the fan is not removed from them. Their expectations have influence and help contribute to the febrile atmosphere of club-land. “We prize honour and decency in our sports stars,” Leigh writes, but I suspect these virtues rank lower than performance. (Between 2001 and 2007, the period examined by Justice Gillard, West Coast’s membership grew every year.)

“Sport isn’t utopia,” Leigh writes, “but for all its flaws, it has much to teach us about creating a fairer society and a stronger economy.” But his cherrypicking of moments – and the bizarre elevation of the “Mexican wave” into proof of our national irreverence – gives the impression that it might be close.

Sport doesn’t exist in some magic realm, separate from the basic contingencies of human psychology and politics. In fact, the scrutiny and stakes of professional sport incline to intensify them, and a fair inference might be that the moneyed circus of elite sport is badly corrupted and filled with too many glory-seekers who lack the perception, patience and decency to resist its various pressures.

Leigh offers the example of the AFL draft as a desirable form of competitive fairness – one which can see “a team at the bottom quickly rise to the top” – and to be sure, we prefer this to European football’s oligopolies. But the AFL is a closed system with a unique labour market, and it’s run by a vain and defensive administration that fully owns five clubs and has always shamelessly reserved the right to investigate itself. It is not enough to praise the “equalising” mechanisms of the AFL, without also considering who runs it – and how.

For Leigh, the competitive dynamism of the AFL, encouraged by its draft system, offers a counterpoint to its absence in our own economy. We are not a particularly innovative country, he argues, and a list of our largest companies – banks and resources – is basically unchanged from the 1980s (the United States’s list is almost entirely different).

All correct and important, but nowhere in Leigh’s book does he acknowledge that representatives of these old “corporate behemoths” run so much of sport. Club boards are filled with former banking executives – it was National Australia Bank’s former boss, Andrew Thorburn, heavily criticised by the banking royal commission, who only recently served for a mere 24 hours as Essendon chief executive. Gina Rinehart’s influence – and money – is all over netball and swimming.

When Leigh writes that “the true spirit” of cricket can be found “embodied in the game that the Australian soldiers played in Gallipoli in 1915”, I had to laugh. Malcolm Turnbull, as prime minister, had described the game with similar piety when news of the sandpaper scandal broke. “Cricket is synonymous with fair play,” the prime minister said. “Integrity is written into the heart of this game,” Guardian Australia’s sports editor wrote.

They were describing the sport of Bodyline and underarm. The sport that has inspired an Asian leviathan of illegal gambling, so vast and influential that murder, not merely match-fixing, is attributed to it. The sport where the quiet doctoring of the ball, via zips, lolly-spit or sharpened fingernails is common practice in all grades, everywhere. The sport where our national team toured apartheid South Africa, and our former coach called his Sri Lankan opponents “black cunts”. The sport in which our team had long perfected the violent sledge and lost its inhibition about bowling chin music to bunnies. When news broke of the sandpaper caper, the cricketing world was united in schadenfreude, and from everywhere came testimonies about the obnoxiousness of our team.

So it’s brave, or rhetorically convenient, to isolate the 1915 Diggers as containing the “true spirit” of cricket. And it’s curious that Leigh cites the scouting of the foster-care child and future US gymnast Simone Biles as proof of the benevolent far-sightedness of American coaching, without mentioning her later abuse by the team doctor, Larry Nassar, a man whose multitudinous sex crimes were institutionally concealed.

Elsewhere, Leigh writes that, “As with racism, sport has been at the cutting edge of public debate around homophobia.” When I query this with him, noting that in the two largest codes in Australia – men’s rugby league and AFL – only one man has ever come out as gay, Leigh hopefully suggests that that’s because it doesn’t matter as much anymore. I’m unconvinced.

To make reasonable arguments about improving equality and competitive fairness, Leigh betrays his own intelligence by desperately conscripting sporting analogies. A Mexican wave, and the popularity of Roy and HG’s fat-arsed wombat, don’t, I’d suggest, tell us much. And, if they do, it’s that our trite affections disguise the smallness of our spirit. We are neither larrikins nor innovators, but small and jealous guardians of our own good luck. Complacency and risk-aversion are stronger national attributes, I’d argue, and we haven’t been kind to our risk-taking innovators on the field – David Campese comes to mind.

I suggested to Leigh that the sporting analogies felt less like analysis, and more like a rhetorical conceit – the sugar-coating of the bitter pill of economic reform. He laughed graciously. “More Australians are excited by sport than competition policy,” he says. “Economic reform is important, and I think necessary, and so we need to make those arguments in whatever way will work.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Unfair games".

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