It’s only a game

Gonzo Meets the Press #22 August 31, 2011

Rugby League old-timers are still calling for the biff to be brought back to
the game, despite an all-in brawl last week between the Manly Sea Eagles and the
Melbourne Storm. Tom Krause remembers the good old days of sportsmanship.

When I first came to Australia 40 years ago, I was
impressed with the parents of the players on the basketball teams I coached at
Cabramatta High School in the western suburbs of Sydney.
After a game, when I dropped some of the boys or girls at home, the parents didn’t ask if they had
won, just if they enjoyed the match. In the US, where I had just come from, the
first question was: “Did you win?” And the second was: “By how much?”
Well, that has changed, given how much we are influenced by American sporting culture,
and we now want to win as much as the Yanks do. But I did love the sportsmanlike
approach of the parents I met in my early days in Australia.
Naturally enough, I was keen on winning, and we did, but those Mums and Dads were teaching
me lessons about sporting contests. Years later when I coached my youngest
daughter’s basketball team, they were losing by big scores and I found myself
yelling too loud on the sidelines. When I called a timeout, she came up to me
and said: “It’s only a game!”
They managed to get into the Grand Final, because they had been playing against older, bigger teams, and there was only
one other under 15 side in the competition.  They were leading in the second
half, but running out of steam, and I called a timeout. “Dad, I’m so nervous,”
said Heidi. “Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s only a game.” We won the game, and I
learned a lesson.
All of which leads me into what’s wrong with Australian
sport today. Too much pressure! Okay, there have been brawls in the NRL and the
AFL since the games were founded. But now that big money is at stake,
advertisers, TV rights, widespread media coverage, all are putting pressure on
the players to perform. So it’s no surprise that Manly’s Glenn Stewart and
Melbourne’s Adam Blair started throwing punches at each other and players from
both sides joined the fray, turning it into an all-in brawl. It happens all the
time in American baseball where large amounts of money are involved, and tempers
are often strained by the stress of more than 150 games a season under the media
spotlight and spectator expectations.
The NRL chief executive David Gallop said the biff has no place in the game. “Our game,” he argued, “is so tough, you
only have to go into a dressing room at the end of our games and see what our
players have been through to know that we don’t need this in the game to call it
a tough game.” Well, my argument is that when you put players under so much
pressure, they will explode.
I agree with Peter FitzSimons, who wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, “the same tough physical confrontation
that league offers – the closest football code to tribal warfare of long ago –
that is one of the game’s primary assets against AFL.” (Here’s Peter’s article:
http://bit.ly/mSbeu3) But it also means the NRL and the AFL should be trying to convince the players that it’s only a game –
and not to follow the dictum of the famous American gridiron coach, Vince
Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” In other words, go
out on the field and do your best, but if it isn’t good enough, and the other
team wins, you have to accept it.
Dare I say, the media has a role to play. When biff breaks out in American football, the TV cameras are instructed not to
focus on the fighting – to avoid the players providing a bad example to younger
viewers. Fans often turn into fanatics at football games in the US. In the city
of Cleveland, spectator started throwing bottles at referees as they ran off the
field. (Lest I be accused of being a hypocrite you wouldn’t want to sit next to
me at a Swans match if you have sensitive hearing!) I didn’t notice the cameras
being turned away from the brawl at the Manly-Melbourne game on Friday night. I
don’t know if I can agree with the NSW Sports Minister, Graham Annesley, who
said this week: “There’s been a change of expected standards and the general
public isn’t so prepared to accept the brutality of an earlier era.” You can
always watch the violence on YouTube, no matter how much the NRL tries to shut
down the broadcasts.
Des Hasler, the thinking man’s league coach – I have praised him in a previous blog for actually recognising that he was about to use
a cliché – said his club accepted the $50,000 fine imposed by the NRL, but had a
good question: “Maybe it would be good of Dave (Gallop) at the NRL to tell us
what they are going to do with that $100,000? (Melbourne was also fined
$50,000.) Certainly fining a club $50,000 respectively can’t automatically stop
the fighting. It’s difficult to switch that emotion … maybe their protocols need
to be reviewed.”
Well, okay, since it’s not my 100 grand, I can make a
suggestion. Why doesn’t NRL put the money into a counselling fund – for players
who can’t control themselves and constantly get into trouble on the football
field (as well as off it). Perhaps counsellors can point out to them that it’s
only a game, and that as parents – which most of them are – they should be
asking their kids if they enjoyed the match, before asking if they won it.
They could also remind them that they probably used to enjoy the game
themselves, when it was still fun and there was less pressure. And the NRL could
perhaps give percentage points to clubs whose players are not fined during the
regular season, which could, in fact, give them an edge over sides with
penalty-ridden players, and even get them into the finals.
Okay, this is pie in the sky stuff, but isn’t it better to light a candle of hope, then to curse
the darkness of violence?
And finally, two political issues – one here and one in the US. Last night at a community forum in Sydney, the Prime Minister
talked about the Americanisation of Australian politics. Well, this fits in with
the above – we already have the Americanisation of sport – our NRL and AFL Grand
finals are looking more and more like the Super Bowl – of our literature – a
group of Melbourne University students recently set up their own course in
Australian literature because of the uni’s failure to teach it – of our language
– “Dudes,” see the 1998 book of essays, Americanization (sic) of
Australia
, edited by Philip and Roger Bell – so why not politics. Julia
Gillard said she didn’t like the talk about a “people’s revolt” and the “very,
very harsh words” now used in our debate, borrowed from the US. But I’d have to
say, Prime Minister, you and Tony Abbott took part in an election campaign last
year that was very presidential.
And secondly, in the real US presidential campaign, we have more on the Republican front-runner, Rick Perry, the governor
of Texas, the cream in the Tea Party’s candidacy, and the guiding light on the
evangelical stage. He’s been using the Bible to suggest there’s a divine purpose
to the difficult economic times the US is undergoing. He’s starting to make
Sarah Palin look like a moderate. If you don’t believe me, read this blog from
Barry Nolan in Boston Magazine: http://bit.ly/rbbtCk
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press. His views are his own; always have
been.

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