A Kyrgios is a Kyrgios

Australian tennis’ newest star Nick Kyrgios finds himself as modern tennis’ referendum on the note that Birdman’s protagonist Riggan has on his dressing room mirror: “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

Those who are fond of Kyrgios – either as a person, or at the very least as a “breath of fresh air” – take a Swiftian haters-gonna-hate stance, wherein critics of on- and off-court style and persona are irrelevant in an individual sport where results are the only things that matter. It’s a stance in which one of tennis’ great purities comes to life: that all a player need do to gain entry into the world’s biggest tournaments is to earn a ranking that’s high enough. No proving one’s self to scouts, seeking the approval of judges, or taking psychological tests to be drafted onto a team. You just have to be able to play.

Those on the other side, criticising Kyrgios for his personality regardless of on-court success, instead play the role of Birdman’s Tabitha, the theatre critic sitting alone in the corner of a bar, pouring scorn on an as-yet unseen play because it stars a movie idol rather than a theatre actor: “After the opening tomorrow I’m gonna turn in the worst review anyone has ever read and I’m gonna close your play. Would you like to know why? Because I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children.”

For the reputation of a polarising tennis player evokes Birdman at its most existential. What is the point of being one of the best players in the world if the people watching don’t like you? Or should the question instead be who cares about what people think of you if you’re one of the best players in the world? Is the pursuit of excellence purely for its own sake, or is it for the sake of entertaining and earning the appreciation of others?

Fred Stolle, a commentator and ex-player safely ensconced as one of the bastions of Australian tennis, provided perhaps the most telling – and most hilarious – criticism of Kyrgios’ persona during the Australian Open: “Asked whether Kyrgios could learn from Lleyton Hewitt, whose fierce on-court behavior came under scrutiny early in his career, Stolle said: ‘Yeah, but Lleyton never smashed racquets. Lleyton got annoyed and abused people but he never, he never broke racquets.”

Stolle’s comment was an imbecilic version of the insta-classic Birdman quote from Edward Norton’s character Mike Shiner: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” It’s as if Stolle’s saying, “Win a prestigious tournament, Nick, and we’ll forgive you all of your previous ills. Once Lleyton won prestigious events and became one of us, his behaviour became irrelevant. Until then, you’re nothing.”

For this is Australian tennis, where Lavers, Courts, Newcombes and Rosewalls have blazed trails. And where Philippoussis is forever a disappointment. A wasted talent. A failure. We expect more from our freakish athletes when tennis is their sport of choice. Patty Mills was handed the keys to the country when he was the eighth best player on a successful NBA team, but Scud failed to live up to his potential despite once being the eighth best player in the world. Australia now holds the same expectations over Kyrgios as it once did of Philippoussis – two Slam finals and a top ten ranking won’t be enough to avoid being an eternal disappointment to the country’s sporting critics.

Actually, the modern requirement for entry into Australian sporting royalty is winning two Slams. Pat Rafter won two and he has an arena named after him. Meanwhile, Sam Stosur is the only Aussie woman to have won a Slam since Goolagong in 1980, and yet every summer Sam’s trotted out as fodder for the sportspages. For can’t you see? She’s a failure who needs serious psychological help.

Of course, as Birdman’s Riggin shouts at his critic, “That’s a label. That’s all labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons… You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin’ anything!”

For the moment, as we viewers of tennis’ play-within-a-play wait to see exactly how it’ll all end up, we know that Kyrgios cares about some labels. When he rocked up to the entrance to Rod Laver Arena for his quarter-final, he asked court announcer Craig Willis to introduce him to the crowd as “The Wonder from Down Under.”

Oh for the unexpected virtue of ignorance.

Posted in Sport, Tennis | 1 Comment

Two thoughts

Sometimes, you realise you’re halfway through a point that you think will make an interesting blog post, only to realise that you’ve reached the end of your point and only written about half a piece. Fortunately, two of these half-baked ideas – however unrelated they may be – can be thrown together, allowing one to pretend that a full piece has been constructed.

-1-

The regular criticism of the Selfie Generation has always appeared unjustified in some way. For one thing, it’s difficult to understand the perceived difference on the Scale of Narcissism between extending your arm so as to take a photo of yourself in front of a location and doing what we old-timers have done for years in handing our camera to a stranger so that they could take our picture instead. When taking photos in public, it seems that selfies should be seen less as the iconography of a self-obsessed generation and instead be seen as a sign that the youth of today aren’t as trusting as their predecessors in allowing strangers to handle their electronic equipment.

At times, some of the world’s selfie takers have been publically called into line via sites such as the Tumblr “Selfies at Serious Places” for taking photos of themselves deemed inappropriate, and such shaming has been picked up by more reputable media outlets such as the Fairfax press in Australia.

Indeed, dodgy selfies in which people deemed to be morons take seemingly happy, commemorative snaps of themselves at their grandmother’s funeral, or at Aushwitz, or in front of a guy about to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge appear bound for a place in the Internet’s public-shaming hall of fame. The most bizarre and insensitive recent example was just this past week during what is now known as the Sydney Siege.

What’s most interesting about this from a sports history perspective is the landmark in front of which the most selfies are taken according to a recent study of 6.3 million social media messages from Twitter, Facebook and Instragram. For defeating the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, London Eye and Times Square for the most-popular landmark in front of which to take a selfie is the Colosseum.

It must be asked why is this, one of the world’s biggest graveyards where it is claimed that over half a million people died, not only seen as an appropriate place to take your own photo, but the most popular place in which to do so? This is the place where some men allegedly committed suicide rather than being forced to fight to the death against wild animals; where screaming audiences literally called for the heads of slaves; where on one day, 5,000 men were killed purely for the entertainment of others.

Beautiful old ruins, though – they look great in the background of a selfie.

-2-

When Major League Baseball opened its past season in Sydney in March, the American commentators spoke about Sir Don Bradman. They compared Bradman to his baseball contemporary Babe Ruth, but struggled to comprehend just how much more dominant Bradman was on the cricket pitch than Ruth was on the baseball diamond.

While writing a piece for US sports-fans in Sports Illustrated, Aussie journo Richard Hinds introduced Americans to Bradman by saying: “imagine Babe Ruth, but with some real game.” And he’s right: implying that Bradman and Ruth are comparable is relatively ludicrous – Graham Pollock’s batting average of 60.97 is as close as anyone in history has come to Bradman’s 99.94. While the baseball-world has a different range of batting statistics, a player would need 0.601 batting average to have a Bradman-equivalent in their sport – Ruth currently lies tied for ninth all time with .342.

All of which begs the question as to why North Americans attempting to comprehend the most-likely-never-to-be-surpassed record of Bradman don’t turn to their own equivalent from a different sport: ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.

Australian sports fans scoff at those from other lands – especially arrogant Americans – suggesting that a sportsperson has ever been as dominant as Bradman. However, taking a broad look at the record of The Great One, the man who was named Canada’s greatest athlete of the 20th Century, it’s hard to argue against him being regarded as a North American equivalent to The Don.

Ice hockey players amass points through scoring goals and assists – an assist being recorded when a player makes one of the final two passes before a goal is scored. Gretzky holds the records for most goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857) in NHL history. To provide some context, Mark Messier has scored the second most points in league history with 1,887. Yep, Gretzky had more assists during his career than anyone else had assists and goals combined. There are only 13 players who scored 1,500 points in their career and 12 of those scored between 1,500 and 1,887 points. Gretzky scored 2,857. He tallied 33% more points than the second-best scorer in history. In fact, if you add the 2nd highest scorer and the 85th highest scorer in NHL history together, they still wouldn’t have scored as many points as Gretzky.

Another sportsman as far ahead of his competition as The Don? He’s pretty darn close.

Posted in Ice Hockey, Sport | Leave a comment

#putoutyourbats

Everything just feels so very peculiar now, since the news of Phillip Hughes tore at Australia on Thursday. Only the day prior, with Hughes in an induced coma, the Fairfax papers published an embedded video as part of their coverage captioned ‘Cricket injuries over the decades’. The play button was superimposed over a screenshot from the video: an image that now seems like an antiquated cliché of times past, with a helmet-less batsman doubled over in pain as the menacing, long-haired bowler strides down the side of the pitch in continued intimidation.

Only a few weeks ago, readers of The Guardian were reading about and watching YouTube highlights from six great fast bowling spells. In the space of the past 24 hours, phrases within the piece such as referring to Curtly Ambrose as the greatest “harbinger of Australian doom” have suddenly become groups of words that the writer wouldn’t even consider using.

During the afternoon’s coverage of Hughes’ death, the ABC’s Tony Eastley commented that one thing that makes the story so horrendous is that it happened to a man playing cricket. He wasn’t playing a sport in which a certain level of acceptance of a potentially fatal risk is required – this wasn’t boxing or motor racing. For we’ve all done it, he said. We’ve all stood at the end of a pitch and faced up.

The point was well made, and couldn’t have been expressed by a better person. Viewers could only look at this wise, inquisitive, grey-haired ABC bloke who they’d never before considered in an athletic sense and suddenly think, “Of course you’ve played – you’re an Aussie like the rest of us.”

And it’s not just that we’ve all been that kid with the bat standing down the end of the pitch in a game or in the nets, not yet worrying about scoring runs as we were instead nervously trying to learn how to protect our body from a potential ball pitched a little shorter than the last. But it’s also that we reminisce about summers of yore, and how we have loved watching the fastest, most dangerous, most intimidating spells of pace bowling the professionals have put on display for us.

But today, before we start talking about Lillee and Thompson; Akram and Younis; Roberts, Marshall, Ambrose, or any of the other West Indians, we’ll surely take pause. It’ll be a while before we go all “oooh” and “ahhh” as a batsman evades a bouncer aimed at his head, all “ooof” and “geez” when one connects with some part of the upper body.

Will Channel Nine’s producers be a little more selective with the classic matches they choose to show to fill in an afternoon’s broadcast when a test is delayed by rain this summer? Will they decide that showing that incredible innings from Langer and Gilchrist against Pakistan in Hobart from 1999 is probably not the best move, as the iconic moment that we Aussies have always loved is Shoaib Akhtar storming in and delivering a ball – we’ve previously described it as a ‘bullet’, I’m sure – that connects with Langer’s helmet? The dogged little fella hops straight up, a grin from ear-to-ear, and continues on to help deliver a famous test victory as a member of one of the greatest partnerships of our time.

For what we’ve always prized and loved about the sport feels strangely unnatural today. Until this week, most Australians have always taken pride in seeing cricket as a much tougher, more masculine pursuit than baseball. In the American game, a pitcher can’t legally throw the ball at the batter. In Australia, as it was once so delicately put, a batsman has to worry about protecting their head and their balls before thinking about anything else.

Never before has it felt like a professional sporting moment will have such an immediate impact on the psyche of every amateur playing the sport. There isn’t a batsman around the country who won’t think about Hughes when they next face up to a paceman. There isn’t a bowler who won’t think about Hughes when they next think that they’d usually deliver a bouncer at this stage of an over. There isn’t a parent or partner who won’t think about Hughes when their loved-one next strides to the pitch or fends off the first short-pitched delivery they face.

Meanwhile, as Phil Hughes continues to trend on Twitter in Australia and India, having been #1 worldwide in the hours after his death, the name Sean Abbott has trended too. The kid, born in 1992, now has a new paragraph on his Wikipedia page. It includes a line that states “many of the condolence messages [for Hughes] include support for Abbott.” As they should. One is reminded of John Malangone, and can but wonder how a person might respond to such an accident playing out in such a public forum.

Today, everything feels so very peculiar. One wonders when, exactly, it will all feel so natural – so Australian – once again.

The 2.5yr old's plastic bat, a much-used xmas present from his grandparents last year, out the front of our joint. ‪#‎putoutyourbats‬

The 2.5yr old’s plastic bat, a much-used xmas present from his grandparents last year, out the front of our joint. ‪#‎putoutyourbats‬

Posted in Cricket, Sport | 1 Comment

Grabbable guts, topless models and growing up in lycra

Sometimes, the randomness of the Internet’s advertising provides a beautiful irony and lack of tact that is far less common when newspaper people are laying out their pages.

Yesterday, The Canberra Times online included a story on Rebecca Judd – who, as Chris’ wife, has been referred to as “Queen of the WAGs” ever since she showed up to the Brownlow Medal wearing that dress. The headline read ‘Channel Nine personality Rebecca Judd blames the media for causing body image disorders’, and was a summary of Judd’s piece on her own blog in which she criticised The Daily Mail and other media organisations for their portrayal of her which focuses primarily on her weight.

Judd starts by attempting to put the attention on her into perspective: “In a world where ISIS is on the march, Ebola spreads like wildfire and planes are being shot out of the sky, bikini shots of me and discussion on whether I’m too thin or not IS NOT WORLD NEWS.” She then nicely argues that “healthy comes in all shapes and sizes…let’s educate our children on what it takes to be healthy – that is good diet and exercise.” Mind you, her similarly laudable argument that we should “not educate them [our children] on how to bitch and judge other women’s body types” is, I suspect, a bit hard for some women to accept when it comes from a former model who has earned cash from encouraging people to gaze at – and affirm – her figure.

The interestingly placed advertisement next to this morning’s Canberra Times article was one of a new Canberran scare campaign called ‘Live Lighter’ which is sponsored by the ACT Government and the Health Foundation. The graphic images, which are currently everywhere from the local bus shelter to the newspaper, attempt to encourage men who have a “grabbable gut” to live healthier lives.

In her piece, Judd asks “Why is it ok to publicly judge a woman’s body and not a man’s?” Meanwhile, the ACT Government deems it necessary to scare overweight men about the health-risks posed by their bodies in a horrifically unattractive way that’s usually reserved for smokers.

I don’t really know why I’m writing about this irony, other than to express my sheer incomprehension of so much surrounding health and body image in the modern world.

Only a few weeks ago, Women’s Health magazine held their “I support Women in Sport Awards”, with the magazine’s website arguing that the awards “play an important role in celebrating the successes of women in sport,” and are “a key platform for bringing the achievements of the country’s female sporting greats into the public eye.” This year, the event was ridiculed as four body-painted topless models were seen on the red carpet, alongside the true sportswomen the night was supposed to celebrate.

In one sense, it’s not hard to give Women’s Health the benefit of the doubt and assume that they knew exactly what they were doing with this otherwise cheap stunt. The awards generated far more media coverage thanks to the presence of the models, with all of the articles arguing something along the lines of: “This is a disgrace, we should be appreciating sportswomen for how they perform, not how they look!” Which, of course, is the magazine’s point.

Regardless of whether or not there’s any basis to this theory, Women’s Health’s placement of the body-painted women intrigued as they were juxtaposed with female athletes on the red carpet.

For the red carpet itself should also be included in this discussion, shouldn’t it?

On one hand, it’s wondrous to see female athletes happy and proud to glam up for a night. This is particularly true of broad-shouldered swimmers, who often struggle with body confidence as they go through puberty. Late last year, The Queensland Government supported Swimming Queensland’s initiative to create a DVD and associated resources called ‘Growing up in Lycra’ in response to the “alarming percentage of female swimmers in their teens” who quit the sport “because they become self-conscious about wearing swimsuits in public“. The program is aimed at raising awareness of body image and self-esteem issues amongst teenage female swimmers, providing them and their parents with strategies to “ensure that involvement in swimming is a positive experience for our young athletes.” A number of recent Aussie swimming stars, including Leisel Jones, Melanie Schlanger and Alice Mills were open in their support of the program.

And yet, aren’t parades of women being photographed on the red carpet designed, at least in part, to encourage people to, as Judd would say, “bitch and judge other women’s body types” and fashion choices? Or perhaps that takes the argument too far, as no-one sees Judd as self-indulgent, thoughtless or disrespectful for having looked stunning on the red carpet in the way some did when she posted a photo of herself bikini-clad and pregnant online.

Clearly, all of this is just raising more questions than I can come close to answering.

Surely a skinny woman being proud of – or, at least, carefree about – her appearance doesn’t automatically translate into her putting herself on a pedestal and implying that all women should want to look like her?

Is Judd right when she blames online writers and editors who feel they need to give their “audience what they want”, by writing about the bodies of other women? If so, then how much blame should land at the feet of the publication and how much is the fault of the audience themselves?

And wouldn’t an equivalent “grabbable gut” ad targeting overweight women be seen as sexist, degrading and dangerous? What does that say about the role of gender and media in our society?

Sometimes, the placement of ads online is hilarious. This time, it felt a little less so.

Posted in Life, Sport | Leave a comment

Grand Final Day, 2014

I’m not writing this for you, dear reader. I’m writing this for me. I’m writing this because I want to remember. Even though I’m unlikely to forget.

Saturday, 27 September 2014. At home.

The day started at 6am. The 2.5-year-old was far too excited to sleep with the Grand Final due. Books were read, laughter exchanged, and the local shops were visited for a swing, a slide, a croissant, the Saturday Age and the Grand Final Footy Record.

Once home and through breakfast, we played kick-to-kick out back as his mother arose for the day. The sun was out, the birds were enjoying life, and never before had I approached a Hawks Grand Final with such a relative lack of concern. For a majority of the season, when people asked me how worried I was about the chances of the oft-injured Hawks, I replied, “What’s there to be worried about?” We were the reigning premiers and had won two in six years – about right, I thought, for this era of greatness. Anything else was a bonus, and besides, Saints, Demons and Bulldogs supporters have every right to swear at a Hawk worried about his squad’s injury worries while still safely ensconced in the top four.

Such a beautiful, carefree morning was punctuated by a discovery that lit up the kid’s eyes like no other. While grabbing my Hawks scarf from the cupboard, I found a small bear wearing a Richmond jersey – a gift from the little fella’s maternal grandfather in the days before the kid had actually chosen his team. It lay beside similar toys wearing Geelong and Essendon gear provided by other wannabe-influencers of the kid’s footy allegiance. His mother agreed that a Grand Final present might make the kid’s day. “Richmond Teddy” was crowned, and found a permanent place at the boy’s side.

During lunch, Mrs EPO – a Swans supporter – took off. Despite our mixed family usually sharing an amicable respect, we were always going to be better off watching the game separately. It was bad enough sitting with her while she hoped for a Port win during the Preliminary Final as she thought the Swans would have an easier time against them in the GF. So off she went to enjoy the game with her father – a Tiger – and mother – a Bomber.

Meanwhile, the kid and I were due to watch our first Grand Final together. Last year, his mother didn’t bring him to the Grand Final barbeque I was attending so that I could worry about the Hawks without needing to worry about an 18 month-old who wouldn’t have understood why I was ignoring any approach throughout the game. And in 2012, his mother and I were at the MCG while he was being babysat on an afternoon his Mum will cherish forever.

Distractions were at the ready, and he was worded up that his Dad had to watch all of this important game.

Unexpectedly, he dutifully, beautifully, brilliantly napped through the first half. I thought I was bound to have woken him at one stage, loudly swearing at the umpires and Adam Goodes at the same time, but the exhaustion from his early morning and energetic anticipation of the afternoon had hit hard.

And what a first half it was. The midfield was all Hawthorn – my three favourite Hawks this side of Dunstall in Mitchell, Lewis and Hodge were everywhere and hitting targets at will, while Parker and Hannebery were uncharacteristically m.i.a.. (Actually, Hannebery was seen once – being pummelled by Roughead in an insta-iconic tackle.) Malceski aside, no Swan defender was seeing much of it, while almost every touch of the Hawks was clean, considered and effective. At half time, the 42 point lead was only 2 points in arrears of the largest comeback ever in a Grand Final – all of the commentators regarded the Hawks as being practically home.

During the third, the two of us sat together on the couch, grazing on our platter of toddler-favourite snacks: chips, strawberries and mushrooms. His hunger, commentary, enjoyment of the game and laughter as he copied some of Dad’s exhortations towards the TV made it the fastest, funniest, most beautiful quarter of footy I had ever seen. We were home indeed.

Having finished grazing, the kid was ready to run during the fourth quarter – “Would you like to play with me, Dad?” “Mate,” I replied, lifting him temporarily onto the lap, “the Hawks are going to win today, so after the game, all the players are going to get medals and then Hodgey’s going to get the Cup.” “And they’ll have a big hug!” “That’s right, mate! So, when the game’s finished, I’ll call you so that you can come and watch them all get their medals and once they have the Cup, then I’ll come and play.” “OK, once they have the Cup…” And off he went, occasionally returning to watch a bit more, to read a magazine, to comment on the constant beeping of the mobile, or to ask whether Goodsey or Cyril would get the Cup too. For whatever reason, he was perfectly happy to be the most patient toddler in the world for a quarter of football.

And so, the final term was blissfully enjoyed with occasional added sound effects – as many texts as I’ve ever received in half-an-hour, and occasional shouts from the hallway: “I’m enjoying my game, Dad!” as the soccer ball thumped into the wall with a pair of toddler’s feet storming behind it.

In the incomparable Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby comments on the strange relationship between sports fans and entertaining play by describing the crowd’s reaction to a spectacular goal by Tottenham’s Paul Gascoigne:

“Neutrals loved the glorious theatre of that Gascoigne moment, of course, but there were very few neutrals in the stadium. There were Arsenal fans, who were as horrified as I was, and Tottenham fans, who were just as thrilled with the second goal, a two-yard Gary Lineker tap-in after a scramble – in fact, they went even more beserk then, because at 2-0 after ten minutes Arsenal were dead and buried. So where is the relationship between the fan and entertainment, when the fan has such a problematic relationship with some of the game’s greatest moments?”

The Hawks were so far ahead during the fourth quarter that I experienced something I’d never experienced before: genuine joy at excellent Hawthorn play during a Grand Final. I was watching a game while simultaneously understanding the nostalgia the moment was creating.

And then, it was over. Hodge rose his fists into the air, Langford pushed himself back up off the ground, the club song played, and the modern-day Hawks – who were such underdogs but hours earlier that one betting agency advertised them at $4 odds for the win – were suddenly a team for the ages.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always found the coolest moment of the Grand Final to be the presentation of the premiership medals. All players are equal, all have their moment, and all dreamt of it as kids let alone the previous night. This year, the kid stood fascinated between my knees, while I cheered outwardly for all of the guys as they headed up to the dais.

There was Shiels and the streaky Smith, Stratton and three-timer Burgoyne, Gibson and Norm Smith-Lake, Hill and the ever-dogged Puopolo, McEvoy and the ever-trusty Hale, Durea and Will “I’m not just Chris’ boy” Langford, Spangher and best-kick-in-the-comp Suckling, and the two who never miss in Gunston and Breuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust.

And there were the magical six – the men who have been part of the ’08, ’13 and ’14 Premiership teams and who always make we Hawk fans feel so safe and secure when the ball is in their hands. Down back, there’s the quiet achiever in Birchall with his rangy gallop and pinpoint left boot. There’s Hodge, the man’s man, all courage and inspiration. In the middle, there’s Lewis going in headfirst when he’s not the third man up, as smart and tough a head as any going round. There’s Mitchell, for whom time seems to slow down when he has the ball, and whose left is as good as his potent right. Up front, there’s Roughead, the country boy who leads like he was taught by the great full-forwards of the ‘80s. And there’s Cyril, worth the price of admission, the kid from up north who changed the way the game is played with his unsurpassed defensive pressure in the forward line.

“They’ve got the Cup, Dad!”

So they did. After a few seconds of the Hawks crowding around Hodge and Clarkson hoisting it aloft, we were off. He rode his bike ever-so-briefly, but really he wanted to play kick-to-kick with Dad while the evening’s sausages cooked on the barbie.

There we were, practically unable to look any more Australian. Dad wearing his Hawks scarf, kicking his son’s Tigers footy. Kid loving a day spent immersed in footy and outdoor play, now enveloped by the undivided attention of his Dad who was happier than ever. The smell of sausages slowly wafting over the suburban backyard. How many times have I kicked that ball during these past months? How many hours did my Dad and older brother spend with me in our old family backyard?

By the time Mrs EPO returned home briefly to offer her begrudging congratulations before heading out for dinner, a sausage had been scoffed and an ice cream was in the hand. All being eaten in a venue referred to as a “special treat” by the 2.5yr-old: in front of the television as various Hawks were being interviewed.

After his shower, the kid beamed: “And tomorrow, after I wake up, we can watch the footy again!” His mother and I had been preparing him for this moment for the previous couple of weeks. “No, mate. Remember, this was the Grand Final, the last game of the season.” “Yeah, it’s the last game for a really long time. But maybe…maybe we can walk to the oval and watch the kids play footy?” “No, mate. Their season is over too.” “Yeah. They won’t play again for a really long time!” And off he went, smiling, towards his bedtime stories.

The Hawks re-entered the MCG soon after, their footy jumpers over white dress shirts, Clarkson in his suit. Fans many years younger than I cheered from the hallowed turf and joined their heroes in the club song. I smiled not only at the unbridled joy that comes with victory, but also at the sheer ludicrousness of it. The silly childishness of revering men younger than yourself because they can play a sport so well, the sheer pointlessness of the game itself, and the beautiful innocence of childhood that memories of one’s love for one’s team can conjure.

Of course, in 2014 I am old enough to truly understand the gravity of this moment in my fanhood. I know that this is as good as it gets.

Hawthorn haven’t been this good since I was at primary school, and prior to last weekend, I’d always believed that those teams and heroes of my youth – Dunstall, Brereton, Dipper, Platten, Ayres, Langford and co – would remain unparalleled in my esteem. Such awesome admiration of a team was, therefore, something that in my mind has always been reserved for the 12-and-under set.

And yet, here it was: the moment when I realised that these men I have enjoyed watching so much as an adult are as good as those I loved and idolised as a kid. While my reverence may not be as wide-eyed and star-struck now as it was then, an innocent adoration for these random men wearing my team’s colours returned in a way that I hadn’t truly felt – or allowed myself to feel – for over 20 years.

Of course, innocent happiness was all around me during the day.

They say that becoming a parent brings a new perspective on life, and I’ve always seen such comments as referring to a new level of maturity that comes with the responsibility of having a child and “settling down”. But often, the new perspective thrust upon me is an admiration for and appreciation of childish innocence. For being a toddler entails having a life that so many adults attempt to re-experience through sport and other forms of entertainment. Watching, debating and reading about sport isn’t just a fascination with feats of physical excellence, but it’s also a socially accepted escape from the worries of the world. Grand Final day isn’t about work, money or health troubles, nor is it about politicians or terrorists. It’s about nothing more than a game and sharing your love of it with others. Just like toddlerhood.

Funny, how I’d never watched a Grand Final with fewer people, and yet I’d never felt such company.

When Mrs EPO arrived home from dinner late on Grand Final night, she found her husband lying on the couch with the Footy Record behind him next to an empty wine glass. He was absent-mindedly staring at the tv that was streaming Ben Howard’s gig from the iTunes Festival, the cat lying on his chest with a Hawks scarf spreading out from underneath various paws.

He was thinking of football and sport, of losses and premierships, of fathers and sons and families. Thinking how some of us are ridiculously lucky to have such memorable days of incredibly simple, innocent, beautiful joy.

Posted in AFL, Sport | Leave a comment

We fall for goals and marks, not cap space and free agents

Hawthorn’s appearance in this weekend’s AFL Grand Final may or may not be the most impressive feat of any team in the salary cap era, however AFL fans are unable to make this determination.

With the advent of free agency in the league in 2012, the AFL now finds itself stuck between two conflicting desires: (1) maintaining the long-held sense that club loyalty from players is more than an illusion in the AFL, and (2) wanting to maintain the interest of fans during the off-season as they discuss the potential movement of players between teams.

But in sports where free agency and a salary cap are combined in an attempt to maintain parity – such as the NBA, NFL and NHL in America – these two desires cannot both be fulfilled if fans are to feel truly informed about the league.

In the US, a sense of player loyalty has been a casualty of free agency as the culture of teams or “franchises” bidding for players is well entrenched. Leagues happily cash in on the year-round intrigue of where-such-and-such a player (LeBron James, anyone?) will play the following season. Meanwhile, teams promote money-saving trades or decisions to not re-sign expensive players as providing hope for fans: We’re worse and will lose more games now, but look at the money we’ll have that we can use to steal players from other teams next year! In order for fans to truly understand, appreciate and debate their team’s personnel decisions, fans are given access to salary information of each player in the league. And it’s this information – that the AFL has never released publically – that the league now must decide what to do with.

Let’s consider the example of 2014’s Grand Finalists.

At the end of 2013, Sydney signed Hawthorn’s Buddy Franklin to a massive 9 year contract. Franklin was a restricted free agent, meaning that Hawthorn had the opportunity to match Sydney’s contract offer and Franklin wouldn’t have had any choice but to remain with the Hawks. However, Hawthorn didn’t match the offer and…

How does one finish this sentence?

Is the correct ending “Hawthorn instead spent the money that they could have spent on Franklin on re-signing a number of their other players”? Or should it read “Hawthorn have since achieved an incredible feat, as they have reached the 2014 Grand Final despite being a whole Buddy Franklin contract under the salary cap, spending less money than any other Grand Finalist in the salary cap era”?

For we don’t know exactly what position Hawthorn were in. Had the Hawks re-signed Franklin, would they have had to lose other players who have since helped them reach the 2014 Grand Final? Or would they have been able to keep all of their players for 2014, but not have had any money left to re-sign some other players in 2015 and beyond?

And what of Sydney? Which of the Swans young stars – Nick Smith or Luke Parker, perhaps – are currently on small contracts, earning far less than their market value? Which of these players might the Swans struggle to afford to retain when they come off contract, partly because they are paying Franklin so much? And which teams – potentially even Hawthorn – will have money to throw at these players if and when the opportunity arises? Or, conversely, have the Swans actually timed Franklin’s contract beautifully as his salary will simply replace much of Adam Goodes’ once the legend retires, allowing them the “cap space” to re-sign their young stars?

Prior to free agency, “rebuilding” in the AFL meant either drafting or trading for young players and working to help them develop into stars. But in this new world, measuring the success of your club’s rebuilding strategy must also entail a sense of how wisely they are using their money, and how well placed they will be to spend some cash in the coming seasons.

In Australia, we don’t want to have these discussions, of course. We want to judge players purely on their level of play rather than their return on investment. We want to maintain our love of tradition and loyalty, as sons play for their father’s team and other players record their 300th game for a club.

AFL fans have learnt to allow small quirks to toy with these traditions without breaking them. This weekend, Josh Kennedy will be a key player for the Swans in what will be the second Grand Final in which he’ll have played against the team of his father and grandfather. In 2009, the Hawthorn father/son selection was struggling to break into the strong Hawks midfield, and was traded away to Sydney in exchange for draft picks.

Australian fans see this move as having made sense. A young, potentially good player couldn’t find a consistent game in the firsts, so sought a chance somewhere else. And in the end, Hawthorn lost out big-time as Sydney helped Kennedy to become a star.

But what Australian fans aren’t yet attuned to thinking about are the flow-on effects from such moves. Did Hawthorn really make the wrong decision, or would keeping a future star in Kennedy and paying him an appropriate salary have meant that they wouldn’t have had the money to recruit 2013 Norm Smith Medallist Brian Lake?

We don’t know the answers, and don’t want to ask the questions. We want a league which has its moral compass pointed squarely at tradition and loyalty, making an exception for occasional player movement that we can justify without thinking about club finances. We want our kids to grow up loving a team and choosing their favourite players without any sense of those players being commodities to be most effectively bought and sold in a league where prudent financial investment in players is the key to a Premiership.

But as free agency continues, such a traditionally Australian outcome becomes less and less likely.

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The most horrifying statistic in sports

The most stunning statistic in sports is also the most horrifying.

In 2009, David Card of the University of California, Berkeley and Gordon Dahl of the University of California, San Diego published a paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics entitled Family Violence and Football: The effect of unexpected emotional cues on violent behaviour. Their research showed that when a home team in the NFL is expected to win by more than 3 points but loses a game, the number of calls to the police in the town of the home team reporting men assaulting their wives or partners rises by 8 per cent.

Many of the calls suggest that most of the domestic violence occurs either during the last hour of the game or in the two hours immediately after it has finished.

The number of assaults rises even more if the home team loses to a traditional rival, or has a particularly frustrating performance with many sacks, turnovers or penalties.

For those of us who have no experience of it, domestic violence is one of life’s most incomprehensible horrors. And the idea that football matches can be foreboding for some women, an ominous precursor to violence at the hands of a loved one, is well beyond respectable description.

Every time we pull for an underdog, every time we revel in the errors of a home favourite, there are women utterly desperate for the opposite outcome.

Of course, this isn’t the only statistic about domestic violence that causes one to reel in disbelieving horror. In London, 10 calls an hour are made reporting male-on-female domestic violence, and it’s been said that 1 in 4 women worldwide will experience some level of violence in the home. How incredibly few Prince Charmings there are in the world.

When such violence is predicated on a man’s disappointment with his football team, the violence appears so far beyond the realm of comprehension. So obvious in its selfishness and pettiness. So brutally pointless.

This statistic was once mentioned in passing in Sports Illustrated during a feature article on an entirely different topic. There wasn’t – and hasn’t since been – an article related to the horror that sports can bring to family life, or to the literal dangers of fanhood.

In related news, last week the NFL suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice indefinitely for punching his wife out cold in an elevator, an event which was caught on CCTV cameras and released by gossip website TMZ. Before the video was released, a shorter version that “only” showed Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of the elevator provoked the NFL to suspend Rice for 2 games.

In response to widespread anger at the initial lenient penalty, the league has announced new rules, wherein a player who is the perpetrator of violence against a woman will be suspended for 6 matches for a first offence, and banned for life for a second. All of which makes more sense than the Ravens’ now infamous deleted tweet commenting on Rice’s wife Janay, saying “Janay Rice deeply regrets the role she played the night of the incident.”

In The Guardian, responding to people’s criticisms of Janay Rice’s choice to stay with and support her husband, Jessica Valenti argued: “I want Ray Rice to be punished for what he did, but what I want more is for Janay Rice to be heard – even if you don’t agree with what she’s saying or that she’s choosing to stay. No one knows her life better than she does, and if this outpouring of [domestic violence] stories should teach us anything it’s that the best thing we can do for survivors is listen to them. They will tell us what they need.”

In a world in which so many women cannot protect themselves from harm in their own home, our societies need to do everything possible to help ensure their support and their safety. Simply listening to what support they say need sure seems like a place to start.

Next time anyone tells you that sports don’t matter, agree with them wholeheartedly. Argue that the results of games are beautifully pointless and that most of us are but lucky to be permitted such potentially joyous diversions in our everyday lives. And then, remind them that not everyone is so lucky. Especially some women in the football towns of America.

May every home team who is expected to win be successful this weekend.

 

In Australia, 1800 RESPECT is a free, confidential national family violence and sexual assault counselling service. Those needing support can also look at other services on the Department of Human Services website.

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