Sport offering a mirror to society and its ills

A banana is thrown from the crowd as Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates scoring in the Premier League clash against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month. The incident came just after the 40th anniversary of a game featuring the first black player to represent England at senior level, Viv Anderson, against Czechoslovakia. Picture: Ian Kington

This was the 20th year I have taught a subject called sports law. Starting out nervously in 1998 at the University of Limerick, I remember giving a public seminar on the topic at the end of which a leading academic in sociology contemptuously summarised that sport was irrelevant, unworthy of academic study, and I should go into legal practice.

My reaction was a bit like that of the Thomond Park crowd to an opposition kicker lining up to take an undeserved penalty — silent, seething, and slightly vengeful.

It was a very thorough, very public, and very unnecessary humiliation that was an all too often a feature of academia then, not so much now.

It was also a profoundly ignorant statement on sport then, as it is now.

Of course, the endless “chatter”, to use Umberto Eco’s 50-year-old phrase, that surrounds sport — nowadays taking the form of 24/7 sports news channels, websites, podcasts, social media etc — can get tedious and lack perspective. Eco’s “Sports Chatter” essay on his frustrations with the sports media was written in the wake of the shooting of hundreds of student protestors by the military and police at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, a mere 10 days prior to the opening of the Mexico Olympics of 1968.

The then president of the IOC, Avery Brundage, with the hubris characteristic of the truly elite sports politician, would not countenance postponing the Games which he called one of civilisation’s “most powerful and priceless instruments”.

Eco’s essay was a shout of frustration at the sports media’s incuriosity to the social context of the Games.

The hubris of some elite sports administrators and the granting of major sporting events to countries with questionable human rights records continues a half century later — the build up to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022 will feature prominently next year in sport.

Yet, for the most part, the chatter that surrounds sport is usually exactly that, just chatter and not to be taken too seriously.

A prime example occurred this month when Steph Curry, one of the greatest basketball players the planet has ever seen, aired the view that humans have never left the planet, the moon landings being a hoax, apparently.

If anything, Curry’s speedy, sheepish and self-deprecating retraction showed his human side and the story gave us the best sports headline of the year courtesy of the New York Times: Stephen Curry Doubts Moon Landings. NASA Offers to Show Him the Rocks.

More seriously, sport, and the chatter that surrounds it, did, this year, provide a prism through which uncomfortable aspects of society could be publicly confronted and debated.

The acquittal of Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson and his co-accused on allegations of serious sexual assault, fuelled a debate about both the core substantive issues in such criminal trials (particularly that of consent) and the way such trials operate procedurally (the cross examination of complainants).

Both issues have, of course, been debated in criminal justice long before the Belfast rugby trial this year. Nevertheless, the trial will, no doubt, remain in the popular consciousness into 2019 and help foster, it is hoped, further education and debate on our understanding of sexual consent.

Similarly, domestic violence allegations against players in American football and how and why the matter has been handled so poorly by the NFL is a reminder of the wider societal concerns about the incidence of violence against women.

Here in Australia, rugby league has again been mired in controversy arising out of multiple allegations of serious sexual misconduct by players against women. The reflexive reaction from the sport is to castigate the players for demeaning and damaging the image of rugby league but, as noted recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, the far more important issue is the demeaning and damaging of women by players of that sport.

Nearer to home, incidents of violence in club games in the GAA and in soccer this year reflect an ambiguous attitude to violence among young men.

In courtrooms around Ireland, alcohol is usually proffered as the excuse for the accused acting “out of character” and committing an unprovoked assault on another.

Sport offers no such excuse and so the cowardly punching of an unsuspecting opponent or referee during a game often does no more than reveal that person’s cowardly character.

Shouting racist abuse from the stands at a player is another form of cowardice that we saw on display in 2018. Raheem Sterling, a recent victim of such abuse in Manchester City’s defeat at Chelsea, subsequently tweeted on how certain sections of the media tend to cover black footballers differently from other players.

The silence with which the section of the media in question greeted Sterling’s tweet reflected the fact Sterling had hit the mark.

The abuse Sterling took and, a week earlier, the banana thrown at Arsenal’s Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after he scored a goal against Spurs in the Premier League took place just after the 40th anniversary of the first black player to represent England at senior international level — Viv Anderson against Czechoslovakia in 1978.

Anderson spoke recently about his experiences of racism in club and international football in the 1970s and 1980s and his lack of opportunities as a coach. Awarded an MBE in early 2000, he hasn’t worked in football in nearly three decades.

Race in English sport and society remains a complex topic.

Another anniversary this year relating to race and sport was the 50th anniversary of the Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics of 1968.

Famously on the podium, Tommie Smith and John Carlos had only one pair of gloves between them. Their successor in protest, former NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, has replaced the closed fist with the bended knee but there is no shortage now of clothing apparel.

To mixed reviews by his supporters, Kaepernick’s campaign of protest was, this year, partly integrated into a Nike marketing campaign.

One slightly forgotten sports story of 2018 was the death of Wally Triplett in November at the age of 92. Triplett was the first African-American to play in a regular season game for an NFL team in 1949. Prior to his pro career in the NFL, and benefitting from breakthrough made by Jackie Robinson in baseball, Triplett had been one of the first African Americans to compete at the highest level of college football in the US, representing Penn State.

His teammates at Penn State were once asked to a team meeting to consider leaving Triplett out of a game in still segregated Dallas.

His teammates replied: This is Penn State, there will be no meetings. And there was no game in Texas.

That Penn State tale is one positive (though possibly apocryphal) story but reading about Triplett in last month’s American newspapers, his life was littered with stories of racial slights, pettiness and abuse. Triplett’s story gives an insight into race and sport and the African-American experience in post-WWII US that would enliven any academic sociological tome.

Finally, and sticking with sociology, one of the foundational scholars in the area, Emile Durkheim, wrote extensively on the rituals that bind us together as communities with a shared, secure sense of identity. At the time, the turn of the previous century, Durkheim was writing about religion. If he were alive today he might, as any curious sociologist would, consider popular culture and the rituals of music and sport and the like.

And what better Irish example of that in 2018; indeed, what better Irish sporting memory of the year than that of Limerick hurling supporters celebrating victory in Croke Park in August by belting out ‘Dreams’ by the Cranberries.

Sport in 2018 then – the good, the bad, and the confronting but always, to quote our Dolores and not Durkheim, impossible to ignore.

All the best for 2019. Dream big.

Jack Anderson is professor of law at the University of Melbourne.

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