This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 14/5/2012
In the popular political terminology of privilege and oppression, it may seem counterintuitive to include professional sportspeople in the latter category. In terms of pure wage earnings, the best AFL players earn upwards of $1,000,000 a year, and even the lowest paid earn substantially more than an average retail, hospitality or even government employee. Their work, as it were, consists of one game a week from March through to September, regular training sessions and various media and sponsor-related commitments. In the football-obsessed cities of Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, players can earn the adulation of tens of thousands of fans and receive praise for their talents from print, radio and television media. On these counts, they’re not exactly doing it tough.
With such fame and wealth, however, comes the problem that all celebrities eventually encounter: media harassment. It is common practice for tabloids (along with their radio and television cousins) to seize on any personal information—preferably scandalous—about the extracurricular lives of footballers and present it as a ‘news’ item. While some celebrities deliberately seek out this kind of publicity for their own purposes, footballers generally have no say in whether or not these incursions into their privacy will take place. Thus, incidents ranging from drug use and drink-driving to consensual sex and private relationships can be exposed to the public with little opportunity for recourse.
Although criticism persists, media organisations defend their behaviour with a range of justifications: that footballers are public figures; that it is in the public interest; that to interfere in these practices is to suppress journalistic freedom.
By far the most insidious claim, and perhaps the one that has gained the most traction among the public and news media, is the ‘role model’ argument: that is, the concept that footballers’ influential position in society means that they ought to be held to a higher degree of personal responsibility. It’s a spurious argument—the very idea that footballers should be morally accountable to the public for their private decisions is a patent absurdity—but an extraordinarily effective one. This paradigm has become so widely accepted that any player misbehaviour is now viewed as a serious threat to the credibility and, crucially, marketability of their club and code.
This extends not just to serious criminal allegations such as assault or sexual abuse, but to traffic and drug offences, public drunkenness and writing controversial opinion pieces. The law of the land—let alone the humiliation of widespread media coverage and the accompanying consternation of self-righteous media commentators—is rarely deemed sufficient punishment by the AFL or its clubs. Sponsors and all-important public image must be protected; as such, one or both will inevitably do the (perceived) proper thing by levying further penalties upon the offending player.
Such responses have become so common that they are now expected and, indeed, demanded. The result is that the mere accusation of misconduct—in Geelong player Matthew Stokes’ case, cocaine possession; in St. Kilda player Andrew Lovett’s, rape—is sufficient to earn a hefty fine, suspension or, in the latter case, sacking. The fact that Lovett was later acquitted clearly pointed out the inappropriateness of his club’s response, but it wasn’t necessary: whatever the end result, pre-emptive justice is always wrong and clearly contradicts the principle of presumption of innocence that is enshrined in our legal system and wider society.
A deeper problem is the practically unquestioned presumption that non-football-related transgressions lie within the jurisdiction of the AFL or clubs at all. Every member of society is beholden to the same legal system, and all crimes are prosecuted equally before the courts; why, then, does the AFL choose to act as some form of supplementary judicial system, doling out penalties of its own for minor as well as serious incidents? It is arrogance beyond belief to think that a football suspension is an appropriate response to, say, a sexual assault; and yet, the AFL increasingly seeks to assert its own moral correctness by offering its own form of retribution. It and its players must be seen to exert a positive influence on society—’role models’, as it were.
One of the worst recent instances of this mentality was the year-long suspension foisted upon West Coast Eagles star Ben Cousins for drug use. Drugs and sport have, of course, always had an uneasy relationship: the prospect of unfair advantage brought about through use of performance-enhancing drugs is understandably anathema to sporting codes dedicated to maintaining a level playing field and fair, healthy competitiveness. What was troubling about Cousins’ treatment was that he was neither accused nor suspected of using performance-enhancers. Rather, he was found to have used illegal recreational drugs, a distinction that the AFL and other sporting bodies seem unable or unwilling to make, regardless of the fact that there is little to no logical reason for non-performance-enhancing drugs to be incorporated within anti-doping regulations. That, most likely, is a political imposition; regardless, the AFL grossly prioritised its public image and marketability over a player’s career. Likewise, the recent fines and suspensions levied upon players for merely informing friends and family members of their playing position—thus potentially prejudicing the exotic betting market—show a disdain and disregard from the organisation towards the players that make it profitable.
All these decisions, some may argue, are entirely the AFL’s prerogative—the rules of the game, as it were. Popular media organisations tend to be comfortable with that conclusion: the ‘role model’ doctrine, after all, is a key justification of their own muckraking and ethically questionable behaviour. What it does, most insidiously, is to permit a stratification in society, instituting a class that earns a disproportionate amount of money whilst being stripped of their right to privacy and held to a level of moral responsibility. The one neither justifies nor cancels out the other; both are, to different degrees, a blight on our society.
The fact that these are the established rules does not make them just. As football supporters, we need to remind the AFL that it is the players we go to watch, not the administrators, sponsors or betting agencies that profit from their competition and our patronage. Likewise, we have a choice as media consumers whether or not to support those sources which treat people contemptuously in the pursuit of profit. As long as the status quo remains unchallenged, footballers will be treated increasingly poorly by their own code and the news industry. Nothing but a major paradigm shift can reverse that trend.