If there’s one thing surer and more regular than shit, it’s the tendency of Australia to throw up its hands and despair for the “morality” of sport. Which makes about as much sense as despairing for the nutrition profile of a fast food lunch. You don’t expect your bacon-double-crime burger to be filled with anything but pain, and advice that such meals are unwholesome surprise precisely no one. But, when another young man has a tantrum on a sporting field, it’s always a fucking surprise. “This is not what we expect from our sporting heroes,” people say, even though their sporting heroes have behaved this way for years. “Why can’t he be more like Don Bradman?”
Fucking. Bradman. There are two things remarkable about Bradman. First, his batting average of 99.94 remains, despite bodyline, the highest of all time and is coyly preserved in the ABC’s PO Box number. Second, no one ever caught him on camera telling an English fast bowler, “Sorry, mate, but Jack Ryder banged your wife”. Which is not to say that he never presaged the chin music played last week by tennis player Nick Kyrgios. But it is to say that we confuse exceptional physical ability with exceptional morality. Of Bradman, John Howard was enamoured and declared him the “greatest Australian ever”. FFS. This breathy, fanboy talk is unbecoming of a Prime Minister who may as well have said, “TAYLOR SWIFT 4 LYF!” Bradman was a great cricketer. This does not, or should not, make him a moral leader.
There is no non-cricketing incident in Bradman’s career or life that renders him exceptional. He has been celebrated for his decision as chairman of the Australian Cricket Board to refrain from touring South Africa in 1971 but (a) this was due largely to persuasion by then ACTU president, Bob Hawke who was, in turn, persuaded by a membership then deeply committed to solidarity and (b) historical documents show that Bradman made efforts just a few years later, thwarted by the Whitlam government, to tour the apartheid-era nation. He was the greatest cricketer ever. As an Australian citizen, we’d have to say he was nothing special.
But, to make this declaration, even and only as a refutation to the many claims that he was special, is un-Australian. It is un-Australian to say that “people who are good at sport are people who are good at sport”. We must also say that people who are good at sport carry with them not only exceptional statistics but the moral responsibility for an entire nation. And this is why an unremarkable citizen can become the “greatest Australian ever” and why Kyrgios can make local headlines for a week for saying just what many overpaid 19-year-olds with risky haircuts are bound to say until they grow up and out of fashion.
Kyrgios has been subject to unusual critique for his sledge. It wasn’t a fair thing to say but nor is it particularly fair to fill news pages with shithouse etiquette guidance. Sports writer Andrew Webster compares Kyrgios’ outburst to that of PGA winner Jason Day who behaves, in the writer’s view, as a true sportsman should. Certainly, it’s nice that Day was humble in victory but, it’s really not compulsory and nor is it particularly good form for a sports writer to call Kyrgios, a person of colour, a “Wild Thing”. Particularly when his behaviour is here set against that of Day, also a person of colour, who we must conclude is, in Webster’s view, a “tame thing”. We can take no issue with Day’s response to triumph which was, says Webster, one of “self-effacement”, i.e. not at all uppity. But, we can take issue with the fact that many major sports writers have the very dull tendency to expect very tame behaviour from dark men on the field. Cf. Adam Goodes.
I am not saying that Webster is a racist. I am just saying that he, like many sports writers, has been a crashing bore and, in this case, has failed to take the quickened pulse of those sports fans and players justifiably sick of a moralising prejudice so extreme, it can actually send good players off the field. The answer to the question of how Adam Goodes should have behaved is: fuck you, he’s a footy player. And, a really good one whom I have observed firsthand crushing the now vanquished flag hopes of my team, St Kilda.
This is not to suggest, of course, that “Wild” white players get an easy time of it. When photographs of League player Todd Carney pissing in his own mouth emerged last year, they and he were widely said to “bring the game into disrepute”. Let’s set aside that this violent game is ipso facto disreputable and that the national fascination for it rests on low “unsporting” instincts, and simply find it curious that a badly behaved white sports star brings a game into question whereas a badly behaved brown sports star brings an entire ethnicity into question. You’re not just letting the side down but your entire heritage, you “Wild” and arrogant creature.
Of course, I do not look to sports writers for instruction on racism, morality or proper manners and, having read his dreary “open letter” to Kyrgios, I will never read Webster for any reason at all again. Fuck that noise and fuck all the other drivel about Goodes and his “inappropriate” javelin toss. Just as we should properly look to, say, Frantz Fanon or Edward Said for good work on racism, we should look to, I dunno, actual moral philosophers for instruction on morality.
It is Webster’s business to write about sport. It is Kyrgios’ business to play it. It is Bradman’s business to inform the ABC PO box number until his record is beat and it is our business to STFU about moral disappointment as it occurs in a game played with balls.
Anyone who hopes for a footballer to be a guardian of morality may as well piss in their own mouth. Anyone who expects that a 19-year-old brown kid should bung it on like The Don should wonder if they have never, under pressure, said something untoward. Who are these Australians who suddenly become Little Lord Fucking Fauntleroy when they attend a sports game? Other, of course, than people from whom we should take no moral instruction.