March 27, 2018
A mid the wildfire generated by Australia’s admission of ball-tampering in South Africa there’s speculation as to whether Cricket Australia might impose long suspensions on Steve Smith and David Warner and what impact that might have on future home ticket sales. Is it also worth wondering, however, what impact not suspending them might have on box office receipts? That is to say, is there a point at which we fans decide we’ve had enough and walk away?
God knows we’re a forgiving lot. As children we entertain the folly that our sporting heroes are venerable, a higher form of being with gilded quads and winged heels. But at some point we come to the unsettling, if not crushing, discovery that aside from the, ah, trifling difference of their vastly superior athleticism and work ethic, these men and women are just as flawed as the rest of us. I recall taking like a gut punch the news that Ben Johnson had failed a drug test following his 1812 Overture of a 100m run at Seoul in 1988. If, for me, it wasn’t quite the day the music died, it was the day it was kicked squarely in the gonads.
Older, wiser, more cynical now, we know that for all the unfair expectations imposed upon them to be role models (a form of out-sourcing) our best athletes are merely reflections of society. And so it is that in amongst sport’s good eggs, honest toilers and humble achievers are not only your garden variety morons, but also oafs, thugs, cheats, perverts and at times worse, exponentially worse; domestic abusers, rapists, even murderers-in-waiting.
For the most part we tolerate and endure this reality because we figure (well, most of us do) that to enjoy and appreciate sporting talent – any kind of talent or artistic achievement that transcends the everyday, in fact – is not necessarily to endorse the behavior and morals of those who create it. By some accounts Michelangelo (the painter not the Ninja Turtle) was an arsehole. Does that mean we shouldn’t admire his work in the Sistine Chapel?
As mentioned, we’re also a forgiving lot. And partisanship being what it is, we tend to be more forgiving, more tolerant of flaws, downright unpleasantness and even criminality, in those who play for our teams. You just have to look at the contortions fans get into beneath the line when justifying the acts of their team’s star player when they’d be happy to crucify an opposition player for something similar. As a Liverpool fan I often found myself papering over Luis Suárez’s cracks, his biting, cheating ways. He was a mad bastard, yes, but he was our mad bastard and by God the man could play.
But then, still, at some point, you just grow weary of it all.
I reached such a point in the early 2000s with the Australian cricket team. I can’t say I cut them loose completely, never to give them a single thought, never to catch a session of action and not admire the cricket and individual performances on display. Like Lot’s wife, I’ve looked over my shoulder plenty of times – and Pat Cummins, for one, has recently caught my eye, beguiling me with his youth, his demeanour, his talent. But by and large I reached a point where I stopped caring, stopped devoting hours on the couch, and money on tickets, to watch the Australian cricket team play.
Why? Like many others I’ve spoken to, I simply became turned off by their ugly, envelope-pushing aggression which hasn’t abated, especially now that the opposition are inclined to fight fire with fire. I’ve never gone as far as some of my mates and barracked for an Aussie loss but I’ve no longer been bothered when one has occurred. While I admit I don’t know personally any of the Aussie cricketers who I’ve come to dislike I feel I’ve met their type before.
I’ve played a lot of sport in my life and despite never competing at a particularly high level I became well acquainted with the hyper-aggressive Australian male, the one for whom competitiveness and arseholery seem to be mutually inclusive. You see such men in pubs, on the street, in their cars; living, breathing fault lines a tremor away from an act of violence, verbal or physical. I saw these men on the football fields too, men happy to elbow and kick you behind play, to threaten you with violence, to cynically chop you down if necessary. If it was their intention to put me off my game I suppose they eventually succeeded. By my mid 20s, though I had some talent, I grew weary of playing against (and occasionally with) so many idiots week in week out that I gave competitive sport away. It just wasn’t fun anymore.
Speaking personally, the news from South Africa on Sunday morning disappointed me. I wasn’t shocked, however, much less outraged. It’s not like I was believer in the inherent honesty of the Australian sportsperson, all that guff about cheating being anathema to our national sporting identity. To believe that is to believe the myth, peddled by obsequious politicians fishing for our vote with compliments, that we Aussies are this fabled laid back mob who believe in a fair go for all. For good and bad, we’re no different to anyone else.
Now that Tapegate is a thing, I wonder about its capacity to turn fans away from the game. Not because what has happened is especially awful but because it’s another straw, possibly the one that can break backs. Cricket Australia’s James Sutherland seems to be entertaining a similar fear. Last night an email from Cricket Australia to the “Australian Cricket Family” popped in my inbox. It was Sutherland trying to convince Australian cricket fans to stay true.
“We recognise how important the fans are to our game, and this process [of investigating the events in South Africa] is the beginning of restoring your faith in Australian cricket,” he wrote. In other words, don’t let this shake your faith. Don’t go anywhere.
For some of us it’s too late.