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Opinion Piece

Idolising our sports ‘stars’ and the nasty, dangerous mindset it creates

Originally published in Junkee.com, 2nd July, 2014

The fallout from the Todd Carney photo ‘incident’ is continuing apace. After a drunken photo of the NRL star pissing into his own mouth, or ‘bubbling’, surfaced online last week, Carney was quickly sacked by his club, the Cronulla Sharks, and has now been effectively banned for life from the NRL. In sacking him, Cronulla stated: “the photograph that appeared last night on social media does not meet the values and standards the club is looking to uphold and take into the future.”

It feels like this sort of scandal in our sporting clubs is becoming far too common. In the last few years (and this is in no way an extensive list), we’ve had Brendan Fevola, who engaged in an all-night bender after the Brownlow medal, Raiders players Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson, who got in trouble after images of them appeared online of them drinking on the roof of a Canberra home, and then Nate Myles, who was suspended for six weeks after he got drunk and defecated in the corridor of a hotel.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald.

Far more seriously, we’ve had AFL players who have set people on fire, rugby league players who’ve taken sexual photos of themselves with a dog, and too many examples to list of footy stars starting or engaging in drunken brawls. Not to mention the numerous stars, particularly in the AFL and NRL, who have been accused, arrested and charged for varying forms of sexual assault. Just this week , AFL player Majak Daw was charged with multiple accounts of rape over an incident that occurred in 2007.

Image Comes First: Alcohol, Moral Panic And Double Standards

When looking at all of these incidents, it feels hard not to feel as though the NRL’s treatment of Carney has been a massive over-reaction. Whilst Carney has a long history of drunken behaviour, this photo did not really hurt anybody in any way, shape or form. Whilst we may find it a bit weird, or a bit gross, there is really nothing wrong with Carney’s behavior this time round. He did what lots of young men and women do — he got drunk, took a stupid photo, and then probably regretted it the next day.

Carney was not sacked because the photo caused any harm to himself or to others, but rather because it hurt the image of the code itself. In a piece for The Guardian last week, Russel Jackson pointed out that ”the brawls that frequently break out on sports fields across Australia every week” are far more damaging to young minds than the Carney photo, and that “any child with the access to a smartphone they’d need to see the Carney image has most likely seen far worse”.

A brawl during the second 2014 State of Origin game. (Source: NineMSN.)

This highlights an interesting double standard that we’ve placed on our sports stars. They’ve become a scapegoat of sorts — an opportunity for our society to define its moral compass as one in which young people do not get drunk, do stupid things, or take sexual photos, as happened during the ‘moral panic’ about alcohol use which exploded over the debate about ‘coward punches’ earlier this year. In the case of Todd Carney this culture has been quite prudish, with days of moral outrage and calls for the NRL to ‘fix its image’ over what is, really, just a crude photo.

But it’s impossible not to recognise how our culture has, in many ways, set our young sportspeople up to fail.

A Broader Cultural Problem: How Lionising Our Sporting Heroes Comes Back To Bite Us

We have a society that chooses young people — sometimes very young people — puts them into large and often isolated groups of other young people, and then gives them huge amounts of money, fame and opportunities to travel. We’ve created leagues of boys’ clubs; what Steve Mascord in the Herald called “an Orwellian ‘Animal Farm’ that has arisen as a result of a male-only workplace, too much money, too much time and countless troubled childhoods.” And then we treat the members of these boys’ clubs as if they are God-like — we place them on a pedestal and effectively tell them they can and should be able to do as they please.

Why do we act surprised when these men then go out, get drunk, and do stupid things? Why do we get angry when they break their unasked-for position as role models in our society? And whilst in Carney’s instance it just led to a player taking a stupid photo that has grossed some people out, this boys’ club culture is not just one of drunkenness and stupidity, but one connected to sexual assault, rape and violence.

In discussing the book ‘Night Games’ by Anna Krien, Erin Riley highlights ”a connection between sexual assault allegations, a culture of heightened masculinity, and a ‘culture of servitude’ that reduces female participants to playing only supporting roles…what happens in the boardroom and the media is a result of the same culture the leads to these off-field incidents.”

A sporting culture that treats sportspeople as effective gods can in many ways be directly connected to the multitude of incidents of sexual assault and rape by sporting stars — they are part of a culture that treats women as servants to their male betters. When male sportspeople are still placed well above their female counterparts, it isn’t hard to see how this eventually translates into the way they (along with other men) treat women more broadly.

A Dangerous Culture

That doesn’t absolve these individual players from what they have done. Whilst he probably didn’t deserve the sack this time, Todd Carney must have known he was on thin ice and that more stupid incidents like this would lead to his downfall. The men who engage in more serious acts — brawls, setting people on fire, committing sexual abuse and rape — need to be accountable for those actions and punished appropriately.

But just like sexual and other forms of violence in our society, we have to acknowledge that these problems are systematic. They are cultural. And in our sporting codes they are related to a culture of boys’ clubs and hero worship.

footy heroes lego

Maybe instead of getting outraged at the scandals that now seem to happen every week, we could start to challenge the culture that automatically makes sports stars role models and treats them like they’re somehow above the rest of us. We could challenge the culture that places men above women in the sporting world. We could challenge the boys’ club mentality that still exists, inside the change-rooms and out.

Carney has probably been mistreated in this instance, but his behaviour highlights something much more sinister — a sick, dangerous culture that desperately needs tackling.



About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.


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