Sport Opinion

Sending the right message to Australia's bad sports

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In 2022, Melbourne City goalkeeper Tom Glover received a concussion after fans stormed the field (Screenshot via YouTube)

More needs to be done in sports journalism to call out the bad behaviour of players, coaches and crowds, an issue that reflects a larger social problem, writes Rosemary Sorensen.

KEEPING POLITICS out of sport sounds like a sensible goal. So, too, does keeping religion out of politics and yet there are still many ways – including the reciting in parliament of the Christian Lord’s Prayer – that religion permeates our democratic institutions.

When it comes to sport, politics seems to mean any ethical statement. So, when cricketer Usman Khawaja wants to wear shoes that display, in tiny type, ‘All Lives Are Equal’, the International Cricket Council (ICC) ruled that contravenes the no-politics policy. Weirdly.

Many words were then written and spoken about what constitutes a political statement, when perhaps it would have been better if the almighty ICC had just said, “We don’t want cricketers scribbling on their boots and bats”. Goodness knows where that would lead — ‘Foo was here’, ‘Hello, Mum’, ‘I heart Jim’, ‘Eat more veg’.

By making a big deal of it, of course, the ICC ensured Khawaja made his point, with the sincere eloquence that makes him so popular and respected.

It also ensured that this sports story went beyond the big-but-fenced arena available to sports writers, the best of whom can encapsulate not only what happened, but also why and how the players, coaches and even the spectators were involved.

These professional sports writers (mostly male, on account of, you know, what goes on in locker rooms) tend to leave the moralising and influencing to the noisy, opinionated commentators.

And it’s this style of influencer in sports journalism that has pumped up the tyres of a tumbril carrying the fair-play codes of conduct downhill towards the execution of decency, humility and responsibility.

However, maybe even more destructive than the whipping up of debate by the dedicated sports-minded influencer is a situation where the outrage against bad behaviour is alarmingly muted because of what is at stake.

Confronting a referee used to be considered one of those behaviours that went against the moral code of sport.

Booing umpires, whingeing about a decision, going on and on about whether a rule was correctly applied — that has long been part of the mostly innocuous but absurdly intense theatre that sport activates.

But one of the tenets that guards most sporting events against violence is that referees must be respected. It’s written into the codes. The more passionate the supporters, the more important it is that coaching staff and players stick to the rules: don’t bag the umpires and do not, under any circumstances, threaten them verbally or physically.

The AFL applied the no-touching rule to one of the league’s designated baddies, the brilliant but erratic Toby Greene. Goodness gracious, the stentorious pronouncements that ensued — the need to denounce not just the behaviour but also the player.

Appeals board chair, Murray Kellam QC, said at the time:

“This is a message that goes further than just AFL players, it is a message to the whole Australian football community.”

A couple of years on, another member of that so-called community is again grappling with the respect problem.

It doesn’t come out of nowhere. In December 2022, filed under “sport” in media reports, graphic images showed a staggering goalkeeper from A-League team Melbourne City, bloodied after a spectator threw a bucket. The referee, too, was injured in this awful pitch invasion.

The men who were responsible for the behaviour, branded “appalling” by officials, were subsequently banned from attending games but this episode of violence pretty much stayed within the confines of sports reporting. It appeared what happened was only relevant to the sport itself, which, in a way, is a sensible response because it prevents those who want to fire up communities on divisive topics such as youth, ethnicity, ideology and religion from weighing in to do just that.

However, in the same way that a politician might talk about being “deeply concerned” about, say, genocidal attacks on civilian populations by a country they hitherto supported, committing to “improve the culture” following these kinds of incidents is disingenuous at best.

Right now, the manager of Western Sydney Wanderers, Marko Rudan, is suspended from coaching for “firing up” with a “derogatory outburst” at the referee and A-League officials following a team defeat.

Here’s where it gets tricky and where it appears to mirror a much bigger problem for not just sporting codes, but also Australian society.

At the game that followed Rudan’s angry confrontations and his post-match claims his team was being stigmatised, the club’s chairman, Paul Lederer, ‘unleashed a verbal tirade at the game's officials... as they left the field’.

That’s from a report by the very experienced sports journalist Marco Monteverde, who followed up in a story on 12 February:

‘A-League officials have refused to comment on the behaviour of Western Sydney chairman Paul Lederer and have seemingly washed their hands of his sideline “abuse” of match officials following the Wanderers’ 3-3 weekend draw with Newcastle.’

While there was disciplinary action being considered for Rudan, the investigations into the conduct of Wanderers officials and fans by Football Australia led to a statement by chief executive James Johnson about “the need for respect in light of the growing rate of abuse and misconduct at all levels”.

Another sports journalist, Vince Rugari, wrote about Lederer’s “verbal tirade” and Johnson’s cautious response, citing FA’s concerns ‘about the potential for the increasingly sharp rhetoric... to incite similar, or potentially even violent, behaviour by supporters’.

What the A-Leagues are facing, clearly, is a rise in that hysterical behaviour that is fuelled in a group gathered under a banner that unites them – and primed to storm the barricades. Sources referenced by Ligari suggest this situation is “sensitive”, which is perhaps why only the manager of the club but not the chairman has, so far, been called to account.

It is, however, more than a story about football and referees, rules and regulations. It’s also about how those with money, power and prestige behave, and what happens when they behave badly. In other words, it’s about community values and who represents the positives, and who gets to criticise the negatives.

If you’re wondering how the hot-headed manager responded to his being publicly sanctioned, according to sports reporter George Clarke, he doubled down, playing the victim with Trumpian obstinacy, saying the club will back him and fight:

You get put into a corner, you have got a decision to make — that’s for everybody in life.

 

I’m never going to back down...

In life, says the football coach, you don’t back down. In politics, too, apparently.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria where she founded Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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