The dangers of creating slaves to the warrior code

Why do GAA players look so miserable on the front cover of their autobiographies?

The dangers of creating slaves to the warrior code

Surely, if they’ve had a career worth recounting in book form, they should be gazing down at us from bookshelves with cheesy, some-guys-have-all-the-luck grins?

I really only noticed this a few weeks ago when details of Sean Cavanagh’s memoir were announced. Entitled The Obsession , the cover features Cavanagh — a man whose default expression is a cheeky, chipmunky smile — glowering moodily in monochrome tones.

He’s not the only one. Jackie Tyrrell, hurley slung threateningly over shoulder, looking like a debt collector’s hired muscle.

Henry Shefflin, stony face encased in helmet as one would muzzle an attack dog. Even the Gooch, that dreamy, elfin sprite of a player, carries the troubled look of a young seminarian having a crisis of faith on the cover of his book.

And those titles: The Obsession. The Warrior Code. Until Victory Always.

What we are presented with here are not life stories, but grim tales of living with a sort of addiction.

And it sells books, this fetishisation of the sportsperson’s drive for success. Publishing houses have copped that we want to frame our heroes as helpless slaves to their compulsions, rather than the square-jawed matinée idols of yore. We have become endlessly fascinated by the dark side of the GAA’s win-at-all-costs culture and want to probe into it like a taciturn Swedish detective poking around a blood-spattered crime scene.

Thankfully this genre of GAA noir only stretches so far. For the players themselves, having to live in the real world is the perfect antidote to all this lurid obsessiveness. Sean Cavanagh is actually a chartered accountant, not a morose detective who plays by his own rules.

Shefflin and the Gooch both do something reassuringly boring in finance, in which you can’t really go around the office looking like a serial killer all the time.

The importance of this kind of balance was brought home in the extraordinary downfall of former Australian cricket captain Steve Smith. Smith is due to resume his cricket career this evening, playing in the newly formed Global T20 league in Canada.

It’s just three months since Smith lost the Australian captaincy in disgrace when young batsman Cameron Bancroft was spotted on TV illegally tampering with the ball using a piece of sandpaper during a test match against South Africa. Smith and vice-captain David Warner were found to have been complicit in the cheating, and Smith’s attempt to brush over the situation in the post-match press conference only exacerbated things.

What ensued was probably the biggest scandal in the history of Australian sport, and a story that hit the headlines around the world. On his return to Sydney, Smith sobbed uncontrollably, taking full responsibility.

I just want to say I’m sorry for the pain I have brought to Australia, the fans, and the public,” Smith said. “It’s devastating and I’m truly sorry.

In a country in which the position of cricket captain is often described as being as important as prime minister, the impact was shattering. Smith, Warner, and Bancroft were suspended and coach Darren Lehmann was forced to resign, but the national introspection continued.

What did the scandal say about the corrosiveness of Australia’s sporting obsessions? What did it say about the national character?

As things stand, Cricket Australia have two reviews in progress to identify how their famously competitive culture descended into its current toxic state.

But a profile of Smith by the journalist Jane Cadzow, entitled ‘What Turned Steve Smith Into A Cheat?’, published by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers last weekend, suggests Smith’s fall reveals as much about professional sport’s warped morality system as it does about Australian society.

Cadzow depicts Smith as a cricket obsessive, whose education ended at a young age due to an all-consuming focus on becoming a professional.

A source whose job was to encourage aspiring cricketers to keep other career options open, found Smith like a “brick wall… I remember I went back to the guy who had me doing this work and said, ‘Shit, I hope cricket works out because there ain’t a lot else there.’

So far, so not unusual for a driven young sportsperson.

But it was in the cossetted and entitled world of Australian professional cricket that the man who cheated in Cape Town last March was formed. Cadzow quotes the legendary cricket writer Gideon Haigh, who said “Smith’s boyish exterior hides… well, a boyish interior.”

A familiar picture of stunted emotional development emerges, one whose priorities were shaped by the necessities of sporting success.

Australian cricket’s culture of vicious sledging and gamesmanship was justified by a mentality which prized winning above everything else, and to be top dog within that system required Smith to be the most ruthless of all.

When this year’s bitterly fought series against South Africa saw the Aussies heading for a heavy third test defeat, Smith and his “leadership group” had no hesitation about tampering with the ball.

Commentators have reflected this week on whether Smith’s enforced absence from cricket will see him emerge a more rounded figure, while one former opponent told Cadzow that the incident may teach Australians that “it is actually possible to be extremely successful without being a prick”.

We could reflect on the Australian morality tale and count our blessing that our amateur GAA stars, staring malevolently from their book covers, at least have the sort of balance in their lives that Smith never had.

But then we might look at the descent of last year’s All-Ireland football final into a cynical-fouling, GPS-throwing mess.

Or examples of vile sledging and violent brawling that would make the Aussies blush; and the shamateurism of quasi-professional managers and coaches at all levels of the GAA.

We might wonder about the madness that grips the country in the midst of story like Kildare’s fight for a home qualifier match and whether, as fun as it seems at the time, it might be the sort of culture that could, unchecked, incubate something more sinister.

We might look at our own desire for success for our team and wonder how much we would excuse to see them win.

And we might wonder whether one day we may have a young captain crying in a press conference about the pain they have brought to the county, and whether all those book covers about dark obsessions and fetish of winning were on the money after all.

PaperTalk Munster final podcast with Anthony Daly and Ger Cunningham

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