Culture of hero worship has a dark side

A few weeks ago, a soccer club in which I have an interest was invited to an under-10 tournament in Kilkenny, writes Michael Clifford.

Culture of hero worship has a dark side

It included teams from Dublin and from towns in Leinster and Munster. Among the teams were two from a League of Ireland club, their A and B squads.

These superior teams walked through their games, beating all opposition by at least five goals and by as many as 10. The footballing value of such an experience is difficult to fathom, but it is possible that the coaches at the League of Ireland club were unaware of the weakness of the opposition before the games began.

The club’s A and B teams topped their respective groups, making it through to the tournament final.

Instead of playing the final, against each other, and graciously accepting the trophies, the two teams got together, did a triumphant lap of honour, and got on the road back home. The remaining teams played their play-off games and participated in the award ceremony.

What did the nine- and ten-year-olds from the League of Ireland club learn? That winning is what it’s all about? That grace and manners are for losers? That they are world-beaters and will continue to be so, until most of them are discarded before the age of 15?

Is this an appropriate route through which the elite at under-10 level should be inculcated into sport? What hope do the most talented and driven among them ever have of being role models, if they make it in the professional game?

The status of those who achieve sporting prowess has been to the fore since the Belfast rape trial and its fallout. Comment on the trial has been dominated by issues such as consent. Far less emphasis has been placed on the culture of venerating those who achieve great things in sport, and particularly in games with mass appeal.

That culture was as influential on the events that occurred on the night at the centre of the trial as societal attitudes to sexual consent.

This week, there was much debate over whether or not Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding should be allowed to resume their playing careers.

An advert was taken out in the Belfast Telegraph calling for their reinstatement. This followed a crowd-funded advert in the same paper demanding that they never again wear a representative jersey.

Wille John McBride
Wille John McBride

Willie John McBride, a legendary figure in rugby, echoed the calls for their return, but quite frankly dodged the real issues.

“Ultimately, alcohol was at the base of all this,” he said. “That needs to be looked at.”

His intervention prompted a response from the chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Noeline Blackwell said that the position taken by McBride, and others of the same view, “entirely missed the legitimate reason for concern by so many people”.

“This is a matter which the IRFU and Ulster Rugby must address, as they have said they will do, not only in relation to those players, but in relation to any culture within rugby that might in any way condone or encourage that behaviour.”

The reference to culture is well-made. Rugby is a professional game. Playing sport for a comfortable, indeed lucrative, living represents the actualisation of childhood dreams for many boys. And those who show the prospect of reaching that nirvana are singled out at an early age.

In a manner similar to soccer, the talented rugby player is often given special attention and nurturing at primary school. The prominence of the game at secondary schools level amplifies the hubbub around any protege.

The protégé is treated differently. It is inculcated in him that he is separate, gifted, a conduit for the dreams of the game’s fans. When he appears on his stage, he can set pulses racing. Even as a teenager, his actions can reach into the primal zone of adults of all ages who follow the sport. Inevitably, he is indulged.

This stuff has long been common in soccer, but, since the advent of professionalism in rugby, a similar ethic applies. Rugby also has the added attraction that, numerically, there is a greater chance of making it to the professional grade.

Society feeds into the pampered nurturing of talent for professional sport, particularly the games of mass appeal. In such an environment, it’s inevitable that some are going to be seduced by a culture of entitlement.

Equally, it is to the credit of others — Brian O’Driscoll is an obvious example — that they conduct themselves in a manner which reflects self-awareness about having arrived at a station of luck and privilege.

Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O'Driscoll

If anything, the developmental model for young talent is getting worse, largely due to values in society as a whole.

In Village magazine a few years ago, Fianna Fáil politician Jim O’Callaghan, who represented Leinster in rugby before the professional era, referenced changes in sporting values.

“Our society now confers much greater respect on, and emphasises, achievement and excellence, rather than participation and enjoyment,” he wrote. “It is also true to say that parts of our society denigrate participation in a senior sport that does not attain excellence.”

When such an emphasis is now on excellence, the stock of the protégé rises accordingly. It’s no wonder that, by the time some of them reach adulthood, they come to believe that their immediate orbit is fashioned exclusively to serve their needs and desires.

The culture of professional sport in general, and rugby in particular, does not “condone or encourage” such a mindset, but it certainly, from an early age, creates the conditions in which the protégé’s values can easily be contaminated.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have paid a heavy toll for their appalling behaviour. Personal responsibility for their actions rests entirely on their own shoulders.

But let’s not pretend that they are anything other than products of a society that holds out the carrot of a sense of entitlement to young, developing talent.

As to whether they should be allowed to return, perhaps the wisdom of St Augustine should be paraphrased here. “Lord, make them pure enough to play, but just not yet.”

In any event, their future careers will not be determined by those who have the best interests of society or sport at heart. The values of professional sport today are dictated by sponsors, whose primary concern is the bottom line in profit-and-loss accounts.

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