From tennis outbursts to footballers behaving badly, are we responsible?

Sep 18, 2018
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Serena Williams was caught up in a huge row with the umpire. Source: Getty.

The recent reporting of Serena Williams’ outburst at the women’s final of the US Open as well as other similar such behaviour from other sports personalities got me wondering just how much of it is really their fault.

In my youth sportsmen and sportswomen were never paid for their sporting attributes, it was pure dedication and skill. Monetary payment was given through sponsorship or tickets for travel, uniforms and equipment. Rewards acknowledged with first, second and third placement medals, championship cups and plates. So much has changed. Now, elite sportspeople are often paid a very good salary, and with that the performance, expectations, and rules have changed.

According to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZCO), a person who participates in a sporting event for monetary gain is classified as a ‘sportsperson’. Inherent to that, there are performance standards and criteria that must be achieved. Additionally, there is a broader expectation required by employers, sporting fans and sporting clubs. 

Elite sportspeople also need to deal with a fickle media (written and visual) who will love them one week and castigate them the next, all in search of a good story, whether it is a ‘beat up’ or not. Trial, judgement and sentence by ‘the media gods’ is not only reserved for the politicians, it is alive and well in the sporting arena.

I am a passionate follower of Australian Rules Football (AFL) and support the West Coast Eagles in Western Australia. For more than 25 years – since footballers were paid a decent salary, at least – I have viewed and read many media crucifixions of prominent AFL players. The most recent, involving a talented young footballer, with a very honourable character. This footballer committed a stupid, uncharacteristic error on-field. Through his actions, he was mortified by many, but especially dammed by WA’s local newspaper and local television reporters. 

I do not condone the unfair play he demonstrated on-field and have no hesitation in agreeing with strong punishment for the misdemeanor. However, I do not agree with how the media its so-called ‘sporting experts’ took it upon themselves to judge, sentence and nearly crucify this first-time offender, without waiting for the game’s tribunal to process the action through its judiciary system. Had the media held its comments until the ‘real experts’ made their decision, I am sure the incident could have been managed more professionally.

History shows that elite sportspeople are not perfect, they make mistakes just as the rest of us do. Why the media behave like a pack of hungry wolves in situations like this is beyond comprehension. I don’t think it is part of their job to judge as well as report the news.

I feel that in relation to some sportspeople, it wouldn’t matter what they did the media would report about the negatively. I refer to another former West Coast Eagles player; a talented footballer, premiership winning captain and Brownlow medallist who, sadly, always seems to appear negatively in news reports. It is obvious, at least to me, that there is some form of drug addiction plaguing this former champion player, and the media cannot help but revisit his fall from grace whenever the opportunity is presented.

It makes me wonder how such a talented sportsperson has got into such a position. While I don’t have the answers to questions about whether drugs were to play such a prominent part in his future, I do take some responsibility. I was involved in my fair share of hero worship, I put him on a pedestal and expected him to perform at the highest level week after week. When you add the thousands of supporters from within the club and those turning up to sit in the stands to the mantle the media placed him on, we have to accept that some of the responsibility lies with us for asking too much. We wanted to share in his talent, we were hungry to win and to have him lead our team into grand final glory. We did not consider his personal expectations or what impact the weight of our expectations would have.

Australians are well-known for idolising and condemning elite sportspeople. We love our sporting stars when they are giving us the glory of a win and all the excitement that goes along with it; we bask in the exaltation, hang on their shirt-tails, and feel their win as if it were our own. We are also too quick to dismiss the endless and repetitive training – that is the most essential part of their job – and like the media, we are too quick to pull them down when they do not meet our expectations. 

Many believe sportspeople to be role models, and hold the belief that they should set a fine example for all. However, I don’t feel that this is in their job description, they are just doing a job to the best of their ability. They are human, and just like the rest of us there will be flaws.

Sportspeople are not at fault if they do not respect the status fans give them. They are performing at their best and should not have to meet expectations outside of their job description. Those expectations belong to the harsh media critics and disappointed fans.

Do you think a sportsperson has a level of responsibility to its fans and the media? What do you think about this writer’s viewpoint?

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