The conundrum of sport’s role model debate

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John McEnroe kicks back a television camera. AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

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John McEnroe was an artist with a tennis racquet. At the net he had possibly the best hands in the game.

Through a storied career he won seven grand slam singles titles and a further ten in doubles and mixed doubles.

But much of the McEnroe story, and indeed legacy, does not revolve around his on-court performances but his myriad antics and histrionics.

McEnroe inherited the role of the sport’s agent provocateur from the volatile Romanian Ilie Nǎstase.

When McEnroe exploded the shrapnel reverberated around the world.

Many people globally referred to him as a bad sport and perhaps even worse in some people’s eyes – a poor role model.

Yet many of those same people switched the TV on whenever he was in action.

It is a perverse way of looking at things – vilify him for his carry-on but tune in hoping to see it.

And therein lays the conundrum that surrounds the role model debate in sport.

Bad news makes news and if something untoward happens on the sporting field of play you can guarantee it will attract plenty of attention.

One of the most violent acts in recent AFL history occurred at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney in early 2008 when Swans’ full-forward Barry Hall delivered a left hook to the jaw of West Coast’s Brent Staker, who was unconscious before his limp body struck the turf.

Left feeling like an un-tuned television that was broadcasting static, Staker took no further part in the game.

Immediately the call went out about what a violent and crude act it was especially as it occurred well off the ball.

The whole episode produced more fall-out than the Manhattan Project.

What sort of example did it set for youngsters?

Just what sort of role model was Hall?

Well, perhaps the best way to find out the answer to those questions is to show the incident on TV as often as you can over the ensuing days.

Hall king-hit Staker on a Saturday night.

During the remainder of the match and after its conclusion, the event was aired extensively by the broadcaster.

The next day it was all over the news bulletins, as it was on Monday and Tuesday, the night he faced the AFL tribunal.

And just for good measure most networks decided to play it again on the Wednesday night when they announced his seven-match suspension.

By the end of it, it’s a wonder we didn’t all wind up with stitches in our eyebrows.

Incidents such as the Hall-Staker one become enormous fodder for most TV networks and also tend to dominate radio talkback air time.

In the case of this particular episode it even found its way on to TV screens as far afield as the United States’ ESPN network and even Denmark.

Now, maybe I’m wrong, but to get up in arms about it on one hand for the shocking example it shows to children and then to televise it ad nauseam seems to be largely incongruous.

Society has always had, and most likely always will have, a large degree of blood lust and fascination in violence, especially on a sporting field.

It is akin to the way traffic always slows down when there is an accident, just so everyone can have a good gawk.

What Hall did can in no way be condoned but to subsequently ram it down peoples’ throats, especially children’s, at every opportunity for four days only highlights the incident, and in turn, continues to be totally counterproductive to the role model theory.

It is often the media who drive the ‘role model’ debate when it comes to sport. Commentators vocally air their disapproval of violent acts when they occur and state how it portrays a very poor image for both the code and in particular the youngsters who follow it.

And then, of course, after the indignation and disapproval their networks decide the best way to show how bad it is is to simply keep showing it – over and over.

Talk about a total dichotomy.

And what about those who bemoan the fact that much of modern day sport has been sanitised in regard to the nature of on-field violence and aggression?

That’s right, some people feel the game is not the same ‘spectacle’ nowadays as the good-old fashioned biffo, which often occurred many metres away from the play, has been policed out of the game.

And yet, when it does return, albeit fleetingly nowadays a la Hall’s actions, there is a massive backlash with people stating how bad and irresponsible such behaviour is.

And back to where we started with McEnroe and tennis.

It wasn’t that long ago that the fans were decrying Pete Sampras’ lack of personality on the court – it would appear that a mastery of his sport and 14 grand slam titles weren’t enough to quench the followers’ thirst.

If we want to try and foster a greater role model example with regard to our sportsmen, how about we cut back on the number of times we highlight the occasional poor behaviour out on the field.

By doing so, the exposure of such acts to potentially impressionable young minds will be largely avoided, or at least, greatly limited.

Or would the bulk of us feel a little disheartened not to be able to relive the ‘moment’ a few more times?

PS: A poser for you. Here’s the link to the Hall-Staker incident on YouTube –

And some of McEnroe’s most famous rants –

I know you’ll simply let them go through to the ‘keeper because you’ve seen it all before.

Or will you?

After 21 years as a sports broadcaster with the ABC, since mid-2011 Glenn Mitchell has been freelancing in the electronic and written media. He is an ambassador for mental health in Australia, and tweets from @mitchellglenn.
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