One Innocent Question

Can you hear them? Ever so slowly, kids are noticing and turning around to their Mum or Dad, their older brother or sister. And these are just the first few. Within weeks, almost every kid in every AFL-loving house across the land will have asked the question that one of the players so desperately hopes they’ll ask:

“Dad, why is Jimmy’s hair and beard so long?”

This is as powerful as an awareness-raising campaign can be. Those people who walk or cycle mammoth distances in the hopes of raising money and awareness for various charities are beautiful in their sentiments, but they can’t hold a candle to this. One footballer, one season, no haircut and no shave from Round 1 through till season’s end. Seeking to raise awareness not through the question, but rather through its answers.

For almost every parent in every AFL-loving house across the land knows that Jimmy Bartel’s father physically abused him, his sisters and his mum during his childhood. His interview in the Herald Sun has been appropriately praised for its courage, honesty and import. In it, he revealed memories so horrendous – stories so unfamiliar and yet so familiar – that he immediately became one of the most famous survivors of child abuse and domestic violence in Australia

And now, he is forcing all of us to answer the question.

How each of us answers will be slightly different of course. When the four year-old pipes up at some stage later in the year, I assume that Mrs EPO or I will respond with something along the lines of: “Jimmy’s Dad was a really bad man who was really mean to Jimmy and his family. And whenever we see Jimmy’s hair and beard, he wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.”

We’ll field any follow-up questions, of course, just as Bartel would expect us to. When he was four, his Dad was throwing him across his house “into an old-fashioned bureau.” It seems only reasonable that we accept that our little blue-eyed, blonde-haired ball of innocent energy in his Tigers jumper can cope with losing some of his naivety. It’s probably not too early for the kid to begin to understand that sometimes people can be unfathomably cruel.

Of course, it’s the personal touch that Bartel has forced upon parents that is the true brilliance of his approach. He simply said, “I would love it if a father has to explain to his son or daughter that I’m doing it to raise awareness around domestic violence, and to also explain the issues surrounding domestic violence, and to have an important conversation around it.” There are no catch-cries he wants us to preach or statistics he wants of us to learn. There is no one story he wants to be told. He wants us to think of the right phrases, the right stories, and the right concepts to share with our individual kids when they ask the question. He trusts we’ll know how to respond.

Now, can you pause ever so briefly? Can you bear to take a moment to think of those you rarely think of? Those children of Australia who are cowering from abuse as you read this? For many of us, parenthood makes such thoughts more difficult to face than ever – we even hide from the suffering of fictional children on tv or in films, just so that we aren’t faced with any thoughts related to the potential suffering of our children at the hands of others. But leave that aside and take a moment now. It’s so important. Think of those kids asking the question. For whatever the answer, whether it comes from their brave but vulnerable mum or from a mate in the playground, they aren’t hearing “Jimmy wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.” Instead, they’re hearing a phrase that’s indescribably worse yet infinitely more powerful: “Jimmy knows how it feels.”

And take a moment, too, to think of the mothers. To think of their internal response when they hear a man at the stereotypical pinnacle of Australian masculinity say of abusers “They are not real men.” When they hear him speak directly to them and their families, saying “You are not alone. There is help available. You are valued. You don’t need to be imprisoned by it or defined by it. You are not responsible for the inexcusable actions against you. You are worth a lot. It’s not embarrassing. It is not a stain on your life. You don’t have to blame yourself.”

Jimmy Bartel is Geelong’s softly spoken Brownlow medallist. He’s the humble on-field general who’s won three premierships, a Norm Smith Medal and league-wide respect for his tough, smart style of play. Despite not yet having finished his career, there’s already a place reserved for him in the AFL Hall of Fame. On the day of his enshrinement, we’ll again be called upon to remember his story and his cause. Mrs EPO and I might discuss Bartel’s message in a slightly different way with our eldest child then. He’ll have a clearer understanding of cruelty’s place in the world and in some other people’s homes. But at heart, thankfully, I know that our message will still be the same: “Jimmy wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.”

It’s utterly horrendous to truly comprehend that Australia needs to have an awareness raising campaign about an issue such as this. Here’s to its need lessening thanks to an incomparable ambassador for survivors of abuse. A man who has subtly forced his way into the lounge rooms of Australia, simply by encouraging kids to turn around and ask one innocent question.

 

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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Nothing more to say

Sometimes, there’s so much said about a person that it hardly feels like there’s anything more to say.

Take Stephen Curry, the world’s most surprising sporting superstar – a guy a good few inches shorter than the average NBA legend, and yet someone who’s just led his team to the greatest record in NBA history, knocking off Jordan’s Bulls. I mean, what else do you say about a guy when so much has already been said?

They’ve covered his genius:

“Stephen Curry is not normal. He just broke the record for three-pointers in a single season, and there are still 24 games left to play. The record he broke was his own, set last year. Saying he’s the best shooter of all time undersells his shooting ability. Curry is so good at tossing the ball through the net that he makes other professional basketball players look pathetic by comparison. He is playing a different game than everyone else in the NBA. He is a great shooter like Einstein was a great physicist.”

– Josh Levin, Slate

They’ve commented on his entertainment-value:

“The fact of the matter is that it is more fun to watch Steph Curry play basketball than it is to watch almost anything else on television at the moment. He has struck a perfect balance between athletic skill and athletic performance…You go to a game to watch Steph Curry, and you’re better than even money to see something you’ve never seen before.”

– Charles P. Pierce, Slate

They’ve addressed his relatively humble persona:

“Every kid looks at Steph and thinks: I can shoot and dribble. I can do that. You don’t have to be like Mike anymore. You know, Mike was an asshole. I was an asshole, too. But you don’t have to be an asshole to be successful. Steph is living proof.”

– NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, The New Yorker

They’ve told us of his charity work:

“In 2013, Curry gave up a week of his off-season—including his anniversary—to come to a refugee camp in Tanzania to hang 37,000 antimalaria bed nets with us for Nothing But Nets, a charity I cofounded in these pages 10 years ago with the United Nations Foundation. What’s funny is that he paid for a lot of those nets. He donates three nets for every three-pointer he makes, which is like having your 14-year-old daughter donate three every time she checks her phone. Do you realize the NBA-record 288 threes he has made already this season…could cover half the beds in Togo?”

– Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated

They’ve shown that he’s a statistical anomaly that’s never been seen before:

“If Golden State could replace its entire offense with just the bottom quartile [shots when defenders are at their closest and the shots are furthest from the basket] of Stephen Curry’s 3-point attempts — without him ever being fouled and with them never collecting an offensive rebound — they would have the best offense in NBA history by a wide margin…Curry’s teammates should be willing to pass up reasonably good shots even if it means Curry will have less time to set up his own.”

– Benjamin Morris, Fivethirtyeight

They’ve shown that he’s breaking computer games:

“Curry is hitting, in real life, absurdly long-range three point bombs with regularity. He’s chucking these shots while moving, spinning and jabbing all over the place, often with a defender or two in his face. And these shots have gone in at such a high rate, even the video game version of Curry cannot keep up. The 2K team have found the balance for just about all the other 449 players in the league, except one, who’s like a glitch in the system. Until they figure that out, Curry will be the one guy whose video game counterpart is less dynamic than the real-life version. In a way, video game Steph is the realistic basketball player, while real-life Steph is the super powered avatar.”

– Ben Sin, Forbes

And they’ve compared him to other greats:

“Golden State reminds me of Federer. These Warriors are happy warriors, playing with smiles on their faces, enjoying the quest, winning over crowds and leavening the intensity of history with fun…This team is a pleasure to watch and difficult to root against. Why? ‘They’re doing things we’ve never seen before.’ ‘There’s no braying, swaggering confidence.’ ‘They seem to take pleasure in the performance and artistry.’ Tennis fans, of course, have heard these refrains before.”

– Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

All of which, really, leaves us with nothing more to say. Except:

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When fans of players are fans of journalists and fans of journalists are fans of television hosts

Nick Kyrgios shook his head virtually this past weekend, in reference to New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg:

In the usual style of the medium, the Tweet provided no context for readers who might have been unaware of Rothenberg’s opinion piece from earlier in the day. Rothenberg contented that Australian Davis Cup Captain Lleyton Hewitt should “keep himself on the sidelines” and ensure that Sam Groth played in the final rubber of Australia’s tie against the US if it were to come down to a deciding match.

By criticising a journalist, Kyrgios followed in the footsteps of many an athlete. Indeed, he even referred to Rothenberg in a now deleted tweet that could have been straight from the mouth of athletes of yesteryear, implying that a journalist is an inferior human being to an athlete, only writing about the sport because they’re not good enough to play it themselves: “Guy could possibly be the furthest thing away from an athlete and the closest thing to a peanut #Ben”

But this isn’t another Kyrgios think-piece ruminating on Kyrgios’ lack of nuance and disregard for the opinions of others. Similarly, this isn’t a piece bringing more attention to the irony of Kyrgios’ head shake, it only briefly preceding the sniping between the country’s two best male players in Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic which left the Australian tennis community shaking its collective head.

Rather, this is a piece about the Ben Rothenbergs of the world, and the different ways in which consumers of the media interact with journalists circa 2016.

Rothenberg began his career as a tennis writer at SB Nation in 2009 and has been at The New York Times for the best part of 5 years. He’s become a well-known tennis writer with over 40,000 followers on Twitter and has been approached by those associated with the world of match-fixing in an attempt to promote their story to the world.

In 2012, Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen – formerly of Sports Illustrated and now of WTA Insider – began the No Challenges Remaining podcast. This past January, they began a Kickstarter to help crowdfund the podcast for the 2016 tennis season, with 596 people pitching in $22,050.

It’s this final point that’s perhaps most instructive. Random fans of Rothenberg and Nguyen are passionate enough about their contribution to the tennis community to fund it themselves. As a rule, regular podcast listeners feel personally connected with their hosts, referring to them by their first names and inviting the hosts’ voices into their ears so often that they begin to provide a sense of place, joy or comfort. These fans can interact with writers on Twitter and Facebook, occasionally receiving immediate replies; they can ask questions when writers host q&a’s on Periscope as Rothenberg and Nguyen did during the Australian Open; and fans can even find themselves doing some “major fangirling”, posing for photos with journalists at tournaments.

As such, regardless of what one thinks of Kyrgios’ opinion of Rothenberg, it’s interesting to consider the impact of the tweet on the relationship between Rothenberg’s fans and Kyrgios. While Kyrgios wouldn’t care in the least, of course, it’s interesting to wonder if in the modern tennis (sports?) world, if you swear at a journalist using the kind of phrasing that is usually the domain of schoolyard bullies, then you’ll find yourself being disliked in some corners in a more personal, long-lasting way that perhaps wasn’t as likely a decade or two ago.

For, one would suspect, had a player sworn at the New York Times tennis writer in the 90s, even the journalist’s most fervent readers would not have felt as personally connected to the writer as one can in 2016. Last weekend, Kyrgios may have irreparably damaged his potential to obtain the support of Rothenberg’s fans, followers and funders. A personal attack on a journalist is more than just a throwaway line to some.

Of course, it can work both ways. Journalists themselves can reveal opinions on their own Twitter feeds that can damage their relationship with their own fans. On Wednesday, Rothenberg criticised John Oliver and his recent sketch on Donald Trump, referring to it as xenophobic. One can but wonder how such a comment might irreparably damage the relationship between Oliver’s fans and Rothenberg, if any people are both passionate listeners of No Challenges Remaining and passionate viewers of Last Week Tonight.

Posted in Sport, Tennis | Leave a comment

It was a good run

grantland-front-door

Upon writing Sports Illustrated’s eulogy for the late Grantland website this week, Richard Deitsch said “The site wasn’t perfect but it was refreshing, creative and honest, and it allowed writers to be writers. It supported unique voices, and it helped define the value of a podcasting network at a sports and culture site…And now, after four years, it’s gone. For those who love words and sports content beyond the bloviators of the day, Friday was a horrible day.”

In 2011, Bill Simmons and ESPN launched Grantland as a sports and pop culture website where writing would reign supreme. Writers were chosen before stories and content, with award-winning writers and best-selling authors being employed alongside a bunch of up-and-comers.

For we devotees of sports and writing, it was the site we didn’t know we desperately wanted until it arrived. A site where intelligent, engaging people wrote intelligent, engaging pieces for an audience who they assumed to be intelligent. A site so confident in the greatness of its writing that it posted fewer pieces than any other site aiming to attract people to return each day. There wasn’t any click-bait or Extra Mustard-style sections to be seen.

By publishing so few pieces, Grantland managed to do what good magazines and newspapers have often achieved, but what websites so often fail at: bringing a dose of serendipity to one’s daily media intake. You would logon not knowing that you’d end up reading about juggling or Jurassic Park or Ferguson or Radio Wimbledon, but you’d read about them anyway because they were on Grantland.

With digital journalism, it’s hard to mark history. One doesn’t simply add Grantland to the magazines stored in their dusty boxes in storage around the house. But for those of us who visited the site daily for these past four years, we already feel ourselves reminiscing about a cultural joy that we may never experience again. In the future, we’ll meet over drinks, referring to our favourite writers by name and remembering their presence in our collective lives.

For now, who knows. We mourn the loss of Grantland not because we’ll never read the works of these supremely talented people again, but rather because they’ll never be in the same place and we may have to make choices between them if they are placed behind various paid firewalls.

And so, but days after my favourite website was shutdown, many Grantland readers are posting their favourite memories of the site, and I can’t but help to similarly reminisce.

For starters, there were two occasional writers, who wrote with particular interest on sport’s violence and the everlasting impact of concussions. Here’s Malcolm Gladwell in discussion with Bill Simmons:

“I was recently reading, by the way, about the work of a researcher at Virginia Tech named Stefan Duma who put electronic monitors in the helmets of 7- and 8-year-olds playing Pop Warner football. He found that those kids were routinely getting hits to the head in the 40 to 60 g range, with some even upwards of 80 gs. To put that in perspective, imagine that you put your son in the front seat of your car, told him not to wear a seat belt, and then smashed the car at 25 miles an hour into a brick wall, so that your son’s forehead hit the dashboard. That would be 100 g. Then you reverse and do it again, 30 to 40 times over the course of two hours, at speeds between 20 and 25 miles per hour. That’s a football game. If you reversed and did it again, 1,000 times, that would be a season. This is massively screwed up, Bill. Your son is 4½ years old. Is there any chance you’d let him play football?”

And here’s ice hockey hall of famer Ken Dryden on the heartless question that is regularly asked to sufferers of brain injury in their retirement:

“‘Would I do it all over again?’ It is a cruel question for anyone. To answer ‘no’ is to deny all we’ve done and all we are and those who are most important in our life, who have loved us, helped us, believed in us. ‘No’ also means that the one chance we get in life we’ve wasted. If the possible answers to Dorsett’s question are ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ the answer, proudly, defiantly, protectively, must be ‘yes.’ And if it is ‘yes,’ the last defense for football leaders, after ignorance and nonchalance, after denial, after inconsequential change, becomes choice. Players have a choice, and it’s theirs and theirs alone to make. Who, after all, has the right to stand in the way of that? But what is the choice offered, and who frames it?”

Stepping away from sport, what about tv writer Andy Greenwald, easily the best of the net’s bazillion tv-recap writers? The man who could turn a recap of a random episode of Homeland into a beautifully phrased consideration of adolescent identity:

“Teenage years are defined by a strong, almost contradictory desire to brand oneself as an individual by aligning with something larger: think going goth or pledging emo. At that flexible age, the cozy, welcoming confines of a preexisting ideology can provide a safe space within which to figure oneself out.”

Or those other reviewers who come out with similar pearls, like Jason Concepcion writing on Whiplash:

“Believing that you have something to say is a pretty universal human sentiment. Thinking that the world actually needs to hear it is pure hubris and pretty much the definition of being between the age of, say, 16 and about 25.”

And Wesley Morris! I had no idea that in 2012, the Boston Globe had a film critic who would win the Pulizer Prize for Criticism, writing “smart, inventive film criticism, distinguished by pinpoint prose, and an easy traverse between the art house and big-screen box office.” But he headed to Grantland just as we Aussies needed to replace David and Margaret, and his writing on films big and small was consistently challenging and inspiring. Choosing but one here is almost too hard a task, but let’s go with his response to Inside Out:

“It’s a strange, unconscious despondence over all the accumulated waste in a life — where’s the line between instrumental and excremental?…This is where your mind goes during this movie: to the pricelessness and preciousness of time, to a consideration of the unknowable zones of human consciousness. And confirming what goes on as we live is actually as impossible as truly knowing what happens after we die: We know and yet we don’t. Pixar’s attempt to render this is a bit boring, but perhaps boring in the way that certain master directors, like Andrei Tarkovsky, can be boring: as a dare to contemplate existence and time.

“More than once, I wondered where Inside Out would go. Given the surplus of color and the honest range of feeling, the answer is as much under the rainbow as over it.”

In their sports pieces, Grantland used images in ways that had never been done before, whether it was a Kirk Goldberry-inspired shot chart, or the NBA Shootarounds – some of the greatest match reports of the past 4 years – that use gifs in a way that takes readers back to the memory so beautifully clearly. Want to remember the Spurs’ clinching win over the Heat in 2014? Here it is.

There was Zach Lowe x’s-and-o’s-ing basketball like no-one had ever successfully done before, there was Katie Baker writing on hockey and on the New York Times wedding announcements, and there was Rembert driving across America.

And then there was Brian Phillips – perhaps my favourite find of these past four years – one of the most brilliant sports writers on the planet, writing about tennis and basketball and anything else that came to mind.

“So I watched Jarkko Nieminen upset 14th-seeded Feliciano Lopez from way up close. And it’s true what they say: Until you’ve seen really good players way up close, you have not fully appreciated tennis. The combination of Black Sabbath ferocity and Mozartian deftness with which these relatively unheralded and unknown players move on the court — well, it boggles. There was a rally in the fourth set, at 0-0 with Nieminen leading 5-4, and I don’t know how this thing would have come off on television, with its multiple drop shots and diving snap-forehands, but in person it left me sort of hopping on one foot and speaking languages I don’t know.”

His profiles were masterpieces, occasionally so good you could find yourself laughing at their sheer brilliance while simultaneously thinking that he had encapsulated the player at hand better than anyone ever had before.

On Kobe Bryant:

“Kobe never seemed as dominant as Jordan because, unlike Mike, he refused to recruit us into the construction of his dominance. He couldn’t trust us with it. He had to do it himself, the way he did everything. This made him fascinating, not that he cared. He was a narcissist, but a strangely impersonal narcissist, like a general whose army happens to be deployed inside himself. Over the years, his success, his vivid bitterness, and his adherence to his own impossible standards created this confounding paradox: He made misanthropy look like a key ingredient in a team sport. Or, to see it from the other side: He made a team game look like a viable path to a life of chosen solitude.”

And his writing that appeared to be on deadline – his version of a match report – was equally incredible:

“It was wild, thrilling tennis, the sort that leaves you gasping and clutching at the couch cushions, and Djokovic’s rage after it was understandable. It’s what he did next, though, that seemed telling. Still cursing at himself, he unsealed the lid of a Tupperware container, took out a small nugget of whatever gluten-free recovery food the engineers are pitching these days, and nibbled it down. Which of course he did — so would any player; the between-sets micro-snack is as much a part of the routine of the game as the service toss. Think of Rafael Nadal and his ritualized tiny bite of banana.

“But it was the way Djokovic did it, with a careful deliberateness totally at odds with his ongoing outburst of temper, that foretold the rest of the match. It said that his mind was running on two planes at once. It said that he was melting down, but also attending to detail. It was funny to watch — a man eating a protein cube in wrath — but also a little terrifying. Scream, but dot your i’s: That’s Djokovic’s version of mental strength in 2015. The machine can catch fire, but the machine keeps running.”

And finally, here he is on life, sport and confidence – during a profile of Sharapova:

“It’s hard for me to side with fatalistic determination over flash and fun and dazzle. I’d rather watch Nick Kyrgios, always and forever, than whatever cyborg of humility and respect for cricket Kyrgios’s critics wish he’d morph into. I’ve been thinking about confidence lately, though, about the types and stages of it, about adult confidence versus childhood confidence, about which sorts of confidence I’d like to have more of and of which I could stand to have less. The confidence of athletes often strikes me as useless in the setting of real life. It’s easy and artificial, enabled and maintained by people with a stake in maintaining it. It comes from having your life streamlined, from keeping within routines that are effective in the context of sports but infantilizing outside it.”

But most importantly, Phillips and Grantland left us with perhaps the greatest piece of sports writing that this Century has yet seen. Phillips’ “62 most astounding, inspiring, and alarming takeaways from Monica Seles’s new YA romance series.”

Do yourself the favour:

http://grantland.com/features/monica-seles-love-match-us-open/

Vale, Grantland. And thank you.

Posted in Sport | Leave a comment

Grand Final Day, 2015

Seasons and Grand Finals aren’t the same anymore. Now, they are inescapable reminders of the passing of time.

It’s not the players, with 20 of those glorious Hawks who received medals on Saturday being the same as last year, hardly appearing a day let alone a year older than they were when they destroyed the Swans 12 months ago. But rather, it’s my company in the form of a now 3.5 year-old who had slept through the first half of last year’s Grand Final, but who this year was so excited for the day and the game that he couldn’t get to sleep the night before despite the fact that his beloved Tigers weren’t to be involved.

His sister is here now too, a tiny 7 month-old bundle of energy and smiles with giggles just desperate to burst out any day now. She slept for a while, right up until Bradley Hill kicked the Hawks’ 5th goal as the first quarter approached its conclusion. She’d slept that morning too, though decided she needed my shoulder to assist in the morning nap while her brother and Mum could be heard in other corners of the house, playing, reading, chatting and occasionally sharing fits of uncontrollable laughter.

I recently noted to a friend that we’re currently experiencing the period of our lives that would feature as the flashback in our respective biopics. Towards the end of the film, there we’d be in our twilight years, sitting next to our wives while looking out upon an overtly symbolic sunset. Slowly, the shot would dissolve into a clichéd montage of our wistful memories of days spent with our young nuclear families: playing under doonas and in backyards, visiting with grandparents and cousins, taking family holidays and visiting favourite locations.

It feels pathetic to speak in such nostalgic ways when in one’s 30s, and yet Saturday could only but remind me of how vastly different he is now, and how unimaginably different he and she will be when the next Grand Final comes around.

For the boy is not the same boy who he was last year.

12 months ago, we thought he liked footy and then we thought he really liked cricket. But suddenly, the 2015 footy season hit and the obsession – his first true passion – was born. His most memorable weekend of the year involved meeting a bunch of the Tigers after their Saturday training at Punt Road before watching them defeat the Magpies at the MCG the next day, allowing him to be one of the smallest punters belting out ‘Tigerland’ at game’s end. And now, he’s the kind of child who was recently found at the breakfast table laughing at the absurdity of his parents’ revelation that Buddy once played for the Hawks, demanding that images be quickly sourced so that such hilarious nonsense could be enjoyed in all its visual splendour.

All of which was why he couldn’t sleep on Friday night, and why – the best part of two hours after the evening’s bedtime stories ‘Why I Love Footy’ and ‘I Barrack for Richmond’ had been replaced on the shelf – I was called back into his room to answer an all-important request: “Dad, can you tell me again what’s going to happen on Grand Final Day?”

And it’s why he was up well before 6am, being cajoled into some quiet reading until the newsagent finally opened so that we could grab our Saturday Age and the Grand Final Footy Record. It’s why his aunt showed up in sneakers for our Grand Final afternoon so that she could join in the inevitable games of backyard footy during the breaks in play just as soon as she was called off the interchange.

It’s why you can’t call him by name during these backyard games, but rather need to refer to him as whichever Tiger he’s pretending to be at any given moment. It’s also why you need to come prepared with your own persona – though throughout Grand Final Day, we were provided with our own. His Tigers-supporting grandfather was informed he was Jack Riewoldt for the day, while I started the day as Breust, becoming Cyril by half-time, Jordan Lewis by three-quarter time and Gunston after the Cup had been won, often reflecting the impact that various Hawks had been having as the Grand Final played out.

It’s why his father dragged him in from outside prior to the start of the match to make sure he saw the parade of retirees around the MCG, as he’d been waiting for weeks to farewell Chappy and Chris Newman.

It’s why late in the second-quarter, during the only moment when he wasn’t actively watching the game, his mother caught him sitting in front of his new Tigers poster, serenading them with a song on his ukulele that seemed to be entitled “We’ve got the Footy Record”.

It’s why he considered himself to be in the safest, happiest place possible on Saturday: surrounded by family, eating his chipolatas, salad and giant handfuls of smarties, and joining in the general, endless commentary of the game.

Since Saturday, the Hawks aren’t just the premiers, but they’re all-time greats. Their three-peat is an achievement that only one other club has managed since the 1950s and is surely something they won’t repeat in my fanhood. This is beyond any fan’s wildest dreams; it’s truly as good as it gets. I’ve loved this team since I was as young as the little fella, and yet now when I’m older than all of the players, they have provided me with joyful wonder, everlasting pride, and sheer delight in that daft way that successful sporting teams enliven their fans.

I’ll watch the dvd time and again in the future. It will serve as my own flashback to 2015, when Hodge kicked that goal from the pocket, when Cyril seemed to be all alone in the forward 50, and when many of my most memorable moments of the day on which the Hawks achieved their greatest feat were generated at home rather than at the MCG. I’ll be watching again in order to remember them all.

On Sunday night, I received an email from an old mate and fellow Hawks fan who’d shared Grand Final week in Victoria with his own young family. He said that he didn’t want the week to finish. I couldn’t have agreed more, and continued to marvel at the great paradox which I seem to have inhabited since the dawn of my parenthood: the understanding that this indescribable, endless delight in life’s tiny moments comes with a desperate wish that no day, week, or weekend – Grand Final or otherwise – would finish.

When it was finally time to leave the backyard late on Saturday night, the kid turned to his Dad as we strolled towards bathtime. “Dad, we need to put a cricket pitch in our backyard now for cricket season.”

So we beat on.

Posted in AFL, Sport | 2 Comments

Changing the Game

I wrote this post a month ago, just prior to the death of Phil Walsh and the Adam Goodes story dominating the AFL news cycle.

Throughout this time, it’s seemed so…I dunno…relatively pathetic to talk about football purely as football. But now, with Goodes heading to Geelong to play tomorrow and the Crows playing the Tigers in Adelaide tonight, it feels like we might have reached a moment where we can just sit back and enjoy the pure entertainment of this great game once more. As such, I offer a delayed posting of my thoughts on a Hawthorn favourite. Bring on the Finals.

 

 

Asking whether Cyril Rioli is over or underrated, as was posed in The Guardian on Wednesday, only serves to create debate where one needn’t exist. Clearly, Rioli isn’t a superstar bound for the Hall of Fame – only once has he been selected in the All-Australian team as one of the best 6-7 forwards in the AFL, and he’s only tallied 29 Brownlow votes in his career. But arguing that Rioli is no more than an occasional excitement-machine who lifts Hawthorn fans from their seats once or twice a match fails to address his real legacy. For Rioli is one of the few players who has changed the way the game is played.

In 2008, Rioli’s rookie season, he was one of only three players to kick 20 goals and make 85 tackles during the season. The other two, Gary Ablett and Jimmy Bartel, opposed Rioli in that year’s Grand Final.

Prior to 2008, the 20-85 combination had only been achieved 25 times, with Aaron Hamill the first to accomplish the feat in 2000. But while a few small forwards such as Byron Pickett, David Rodan and Leon Davis had managed it prior to 2008, it was the rookie Rioli who led a revolution in the defensive pressure that small forwards would come to force upon opponents.

For Rioli’s play was less that of a traditional AFL small forward and more that of an ice hockey forecheck, where forwards rush, check and battle for the puck while it’s in their offensive zone. But unlike many of hockey’s best forecheckers, Rioli was also a consistent goal scorer and he would change the expectations upon elite small forwards around the league.

In the 6 seasons since Rioli’s rookie year in 2008, the 20-85 milestone has been reached on 80 occasions – an incredible rate of 13 per season considering it had previously happened only 25 times. Indeed, only 3 of the past 12 Grand Final participants have not had at least 2 players on their team with 20-and-85 for the season. Suddenly, as if to echo Rioli, small forwards like Schneider, Blair, Garlett, Gray, LeCras, Zorko, Giansiracusa and Jetta have been tackling in the forward 50 like never before. Rioli’s fellow Hawks Breust and Puopolo have also followed suit, and last season they joined the Swans (Parker and McGlynn) and Cats (Selwood and Murdoch) as the three teams with two 20-85 players – and all three sides finished in the top four.

Tackles are only one metric, of course, and this is a clear example of an arbitrary statistical cut-off being used to enhance an argument. But Rioli’s forward pressure, whether it results in a tackle or not, felt incredibly new in 2008 in a way that it doesn’t in 2015. A modern expectation upon elite small forwards is that they conduct their AFL version of forechecking throughout games by chasing, disrupting and tackling in ways that were unheard of prior to the turn of the century and extremely rare prior to Rioli’s emergence.

In the history of the AFL, only two players have had 5 seasons in which they have scored 20 goals and made 85 tackles. Midfielder and future Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame Gary Ablett is way out in front with 9 such years, leaving Rioli second with 5. Paul Chapman (4), Jason Akermanis, Luke Breust, Keiran Jack and Ben McGlynn (3) are the only others to have achieve the feat more than twice. Who’s to say if the small forwards amongst them would have ever done so had it not been for the example set by Rioli as to how disruptive and valuable a speedy pest in the forwardline can be.

Rioli will never reach the Hall of Fame and is not regarded by many as a genuine star of his generation, particularly as he only averages 15.5 possessions a game. However he is one of the best defensive forwards the game has ever seen, and his play has changed our expectations of what greatness in the forwardline should look like.

Each season, the NHL award the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. If the AFL ever decides to inaugurate an equivalent honour, it may just be best placed to be named after a trail-blazing Hawk.

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Questionable Collectibles

Occasionally, one tries to forget the weight of the world and escape by remembering the simpler times of one’s childhood.

As a sports-loving male Canberran primary school student in the late 80’s, it was incumbent upon me to be a part of the rugby league cards craze of the time. My obsessive collecting and swapping lasted four years, from 1987-1990, and seeing the images of the cards at Dan’s NRL Collectables online creates an instant nostalgia for afternoons spent playing pretend football games on my bedroom floor with the cards for players, wooden blocks for goalposts, and a scrunched up strip of paper for a ball.

But even in this relatively innocent world, the cards still leave a number of heavy, unanswered questions hanging on the soul.

Questions such as:

Did Steve Larder every actually dodge an opponent, or was he instead constantly dodging thin air?

Steve Larder 87Steve Larder 88

Was this the best facial expression that Greg Florimo made during 1987?

Greg Florimo 87

Are these men rugby league players or serial killers?

Billy Johnstone (rlporsc)Tony Rampling (rlporsc)Peter Kelly 88 (RL player or serial killer)Robert Simpkins (rlporsc)

Was this the best facial expression made by Greg Florimo in 1988?

Greg Florimo 88

After the disaster of ’87, couldn’t the photographer instead have let Florimo pose beautifully as he did Gavin Jones?

Gavin Jones 88 (comp to Florimo)

How many of the Roosters later obtained roles on Downton Abbey?

Wayne Challis 87 (old schl)Kurt Sherlock 90 (old schl)Hugh McGahan 87 (old schl)

Why did Peter Jackson film The Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand when hobbits were already roaming the western suburbs of Sydney?

Royce Simmons (Hobbit) (do with Fenech)

If Mario Fenech knew this moment was going to be memorialised forever, would he have closed his legs?

Mario Fenech 89 (open-crotch Frankenstein)

How long did it take John Cartwright to get over his constipation?

John Cartwright 90 (constipation)

Did Michael Carberry ever notice that men would often cuddle his legs?

Michael Carberry 87

Has Kevin Hastings just thrown this ball, or is he about to catch it? If he’s just thrown it, how the hell are his hands now in the position they are in? If he’s planning on catching it, how the hell will he do so with his hands in the position they are in? If he’s neither throwing or catching the ball, what the hell is he doing with his hands?

Kevin Hastings 87 (did he throw or catch)

When the Newcastle Knights gathered for their individual photos at the start of the team’s inaugural season in 1988, why wasn’t Alan McMahon more embarrassed about leaving his uniform at home?

Knight 1Knight 2Knight 3

Was this the best facial expression made by Greg Florimo in 1989?

Greg Florimo 89

Did Michael Pobjie not only dodge non-existent opponents, but do so in slow motion?

Michael Pobjie 87 (slow mo)

Back in the days when it was legal to use bongos as shoulder pads, what noise did they make when Laurie Daley was tackled?

Laurie Daley 90

How many complaints from animal rights activists did Mark Bugden’s consumption of a cane toad instigate?

Mark Bugden 90

Why did the photographer in the Balmain dressing room ask Benny Elias to pose, but not extend the same courtesy to David Brooks?

Ben Elias 89 (comp to Brooks)David Brooks 89

Do footballers actually play better with their eyes shut?

Paul Taylor 89Shane Flanagan 90 (best pic)

How often did Dale Shearer confuse his teammates with his inexplicable movements, as he did the guy behind him in 1988?

Dale Shearer 88

Exactly how excited was Greg Florimo in 1990 to find out that the photographer who had been trolling him for the past few years had decided to stop?

Greg Florimo 90

And why did the photographer turn his trolling to Peter McPhail instead?

Peter McPhail (compare him and Bears with Florimo in 90) 90

Had the show existed back in 1988, who would have finished second to Brent Todd in ‘Dancing With the Stars’?

Brent Todd 88 (slow mo)

Exactly which collectors of rugby league cards were Col Fraser and Brian Johnston attempting to appeal to? And which of them was more successful?

Col Fraser 89Brian Johnston 89

And finally, has anyone ever won at rugby league cards as convincingly as Bob Lidner did in 1988?

Bob Lidner 88

 

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