“However, something, I said, was still off about that game. I’d played in and watched too many games not to know it. Because when games are right, they’re like pulling a blanket over your head when you’re a kid—suddenly the world goes away and nothing outside that little space even exists; it’s delicious.
“Yep, it’s like playing a trick on yourself, and for it all to work right, it has to start with the players believing that the outcome really matters, then spread out over the crowd and the viewers at home and cover them too, get them screaming and jumping and throwing pillows at the screen. Only a few athletes, or maybe a handful of fans, not losing themselves in the game can start lifting the edge of the blanket, start making everyone see that the game doesn’t mean a thing.”
– Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated,
The incomparable Smith’s metaphor is one of history’s most apt descriptions of sport. He was speaking to his son after they attending their first high school football match together after September 11. But what makes it so perfect is the way that the same metaphor – that of the blanket’s edge being lifted – so often fits when controversy hits sport.
When planes fly into buildings and make the result of a football match seem utterly meaningless, the blanket’s edge is lifted. When one starts to wonder if drugs are playing a role in a sport, the blanket’s edge is lifted. When one starts to wonder if an AFL side is tanking for draft picks, the blanket’s edge is lifted. The list, of course, goes on.
For it was this that some were reminded of when listening to and reading the comments of the ABC’s usually sublime Gerard Whateley in The Drum and on Offsiders last week when he was speaking about the imminent arrival of the Gold Coast in next year’s AFL competition.
With the Gold Coast permitted to sign an uncontracted player from each of a number of AFL sides at the end of the upcoming season, rumours have abounded that some players have already verbally committed to the GCFC. Whateley suggested that before the end of the 2010 season, we should know which specific AFL players have agreed to be on their way to the new club in 2011. As such, Whateley argued, AFL fans would experience what fans of the rugby codes have experienced for years as players in the NRL and Super 14 often sign on with a new club before a season concludes:
“One of the platforms the AFL established in the recruiting guidelines was to avoid the ‘NRL scenario’. That was a high-minded and a popular idea. It will fail. There will be suspicion and undue pressure on players who decline to sign contracts throughout the season. Secrecy will be a certain casualty.
“Let the decisions of players be announced. As soon as possible. Don’t force them to be liars and hedgers.”
But forcing them to be liars and hedgers is exactly what the sport needs. Of course fans will be disappointed at players leaving their clubs – not because we all see those who leave as “traitors” or “deserters”, but rather because every player is someone’s favourite. We all have players at our club who we’d be happy to see the back of, some who we’d cope with losing, and some who we’d be shattered to see in other colours.
We’ve all been there: I still remember the heartache as Jarman left the Hawks for Adelaide…and Mrs EPO is too scared to have a new favourite Swan now that her previous two – Schneider and Buchanan – are both playing for other clubs in 2010.
Paul Roos argued this week that if players have committed to the Gold Coast but won’t reveal the fact, then “obviously they think there’s something wrong with it as well.”
And he’s right.
In the NBA, LeBron James may have absolutely no desire to play in Cleveland next season, but he’s sure as hell not saying anything despite the fact that he hasn’t re-signed with the Cavs just yet. Whatever his plans are, the club’s fans can happily keep the dream alive, blissfully ignorant of their star’s plans.
Players giving non-committal responses at press conferences will be forgiven. Players wearing our guernsey when we know that the same player will want our club to lose come 2011 will be much harder to forgive.
More importantly, though, such a situation would cause fans to bring a range of conflicting emotions to each contest involving such a player: suspicion, disappointment, anger, disillusion, a sense of imminent betrayal… And all that would do is ensure that the blanket’s edge is lifted.