Has the whole idea of sportspeople standing for something greater gone, asks Donal Óg Cusack?
When I was a kid I used to steal my mother’s greaseproof paper and trace pictures of the Liverpool team of the early ’80s out of soccer magazines and newspapers. I don’t know whatever happened to my greaseproof collection of great reds but when it is found the experts will place the most value on the Stevie Nicol portraits. I was convinced at the time that Steve Nicol was the greatest sportsman to have ever lived. The only honour good enough for the man was to be the most traced greaseproof star in the Liverpool panel.
In New York a couple of weeks back I saw an old guy on the television wearing a version of the hairstyle that Stevie Nicol had when he got famous. The old guy was a bit beaten up and it was hard to tell if the hair was even greaseproof — it seemed to have a lot of product in it to keep it shooting up straight out of the man’s head. He had a goofy pair of glasses on and was wearing a tan which looked a bit runny. Sean Connery is the only Scot who can be convincing when it comes to having a tan. When the caption came up it said, Steve Nicol. Ah, no.
I’ve been thinking and I can’t pinpoint when I started thinking that although sport is an amazing thing in itself and we should always fight to make it say something about the best part of us. I’m not talking about the small things, the fouls and the gamesmanship. They are dealt with under the rules and they are just the flip side of competitiveness. What amazes me is that we can get so excited about something like Luis Suarez gnawing at a fella’s shoulder but not really give a damn about the slums and favelas just beyond the stage where the World Cup was being held.
We get so wrapped up in sport and we get so used to people bellyaching that sport and politics don’t mix that we just close off our minds and let politics have its way with sport anyway.
Wednesday night I watched the Clare U21s in action. Even for a Corkman there was about 30 minutes when it was just a thrill to be watching them. I thought about Anthony Daly and about how when Dalo is having a bad week I heard he likes to get to West Clare and listen to the music. I know West Clare isn’t really hurling country but the Clare U21s play with that music in their heads. When they play well it’s like a celebration of something that’s deep inside them.
I like to win, but I think I’d more like to win one Munster title playing that way than win a couple of All-Irelands playing like some other teams. I think. I’m not sure. That’s the trouble with being idealistic about sport.
As I grew out of the Stevie Nicol wonder years a lot of the heroes I had were heroes because of their excellence. Jonny Wilkinson always fascinated me and I loved the way he lived his sport. Ger Cunningham was a god. Brian Corcoran too. Only later in life did I get to appreciate the men and women who saw the bigger picture and said what they saw. Are that breed almost extinct in modern sport?
I got to understand a bit about Muhammad Ali. Read about Jackie Robinson. John Carlos all those fellas. I got to understand a bit more about sport and culture in the north corner of this country of ours.
In the late ’90s I read Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops and that opened my mind to new things as well. Jackson coached through encouragement and inspiration instead of bullying and fear. He managed some mavericks and some egos and some greedy men but he had the ability to make them see the better side of themselves and to work together. They finished with Jackson as better people as well as big winners.
A few years ago I saw a film about the West Indies cricket team of the early ’80s. I know nothing about cricket but Fire on Babylon blew me out of my boots. I knew nothing about the whole proud connection of guys like Viv Richards and Michael Holden to the spirit of black liberation, to Rastafarianism, the huge political element they brought to playing especially against their old rulers from England. Richards turning down a blank cheque to go and play in South Africa during apartheid. New heroes.
I wonder these days if the whole idea of sportspeople standing for something greater has gone the way of Stevie Nicol’s heyday. Is it just a memory sparked by an old guy with a bad tan? In the end even the old guys let you down.
Phil Jackson backed the NBA when it launched an embarrassing campaign to make black players dress and present themselves off court in the way that sponsors and prawn sandwich brigade types would like to see black guys. Suited and respectful.
Ali bowed down and took a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush Jnr, one of the few people who went to as many lengths as Ali did to stay out of the Vietnam War. Bush stayed home because daddy pulled a few strings. Ali laid his career, his reputation, his freedom and his life on the line. When Ali got his medal Bush was waging war in Iraq.
I was in Russia earlier this year and came away realising that if every country has its national dish, then every country eats its own diet of propaganda too. The Russians I met and spoke to were aware of how the West sees Russia and how we disapprove of so much about the place, but to the people I spoke to the most urgent business the West had was cleaning up its own act.
They have long memories and the way they suffered in the Second World War and the way they were left during and after the Cold War means they don’t prick up their ears every time Barack Obama or David Cameron say something. They don’t care. Putin plays on the nationalism of his own people and the memories and distrust they have about the West. The war in Ukraine hadn’t begun when I was in Russia but I imagine the majority of ordinary Russians don’t view it as any different morally to America’s wars in foreign places. Whatever excuses and pretexts Bush and the boys are having, the Russians will have some too (I know when I’m writing this that it is as dangerous to talk about ordinary Russians as it is about ordinary Americans. When I was in Russia I met a man who had worked for Denis O’Brien’s human rights organisation Frontline. He told me what part of Russia he was from originally. He was further from home at that moment than I was from Cork).
The point I’m slowly coming to is this. Has sport got out of control? All those people who have bleated for years about how sports and politics don’t mix, do they see now that if you keep your mouth shut that’s a political act. It’s permission.
Politics has taken over our sport through the Trojan horse of sponsors and their money.
I love the World Cup. Since I was a kid it has always been a great television event. Love it as I do, I find something that is anti-sport about staging the competition in Brazil, in Russia and in Qatar. Each of those countries are big markets which the World Cup’s main sponsors want to sell things in. It is the money people who run Fifa, not the half-wit Sepp Blatter. So the World Cup gets built on the home of the poor, it travels next to endorse the homophobic Russians and then moves on to reward Qatar’s hard work in the fields of bribery and keeping the slave trade going.
This is typical of what sport has become. In Fire on Babylon, Viv Richards quotes Bob Marley singing, Stand up, stand up, stand up for your rights and he says it was his battlefield music. He described the colours on the wristband which Marley gave to him and which he wore while playing. The green was for the land itself, the yellow was for the gold that was stripped out of it and stolen, the red was for the blood that was shed.
It’s very inspiring to watch.
Which brings me full circle. What got me thinking about all this was cricket of all things. Last week in the cricket in England, Moeen Ali, an English player (not sure if he is a back or a forward to be honest) was ordered to remove wristbands which carried the words “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine”. Cricket doesn’t “permit the display of messages that relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes during an international match”. What about just being human and horrified by Gaza? He took the wristbands off.
Next week the England team that Moeen Ali plays for will wear the logo of an organisation called Help For Heroes, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. The cricket people argue that this is a charity and something completely different. Surely the fact that 100 years after the First World War began the British government isn’t even supporting its own soldiers damaged in current and recent conflicts is a political issue hiding under a First World War commemoration.
A politician said about Viv Richards that he “represented that touchstone: he was the embodiment of an opportunity for a whole nation to be galvanised for a single purpose... he personified what we perceived ourselves to be: young dynamic and talented, but yet unrecognised in the world”.
It had to be a politician, I suppose, but he was right. If the West Indies came along today avenging colonialism and embracing black consciousness, would sponsors and television allow them exist? Would pay per view freeze out Muhammad Ali? If Mike Sam wasn’t so marketable, would he be playing NFL football? The NBA was pleasantly surprised when Jason Collins, an out gay man, was signed from free agency to play for the Brooklyn Nets and his shirt became the second biggest seller in the States. Will Tiger Woods’ sponsors ever let him say something of significance? Will Le Bron James ever seem like a grown-up? Is pro sports now completely divorced from the real world?
Great men and women have gone before us and inspired us. Our feet look small in their footprints. At least with Stevie Nicol you knew what you were getting, apart from the tan. Where’s the greaseproof paper?...
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