Despite all the feel good talk, the rags to riches stories and wonderful qualities that people like to associate with professional sport, when all is said and done, what really shapes and drives it are these three things:
- Results 2. Results 3. Results.
Winning is everything, and self-interest, the “jockey”. In such a hyper competitive environment, gaining an advantage, any advantage, becomes the Holy Grail. Even a one per cent edge can be the difference between winning and losing, between keeping your job and looking for another. No wonder clubs aggressively pursue all sorts of human expertise: corporate heavyweights, nutritionists, scientists, dieticians, psychologists, lawyers, motivators, and so on.
It is a terribly costly exercise that demands a 24/7 focus and a whatever it takes mentality. Within this milieu, risk-taking becomes an essential requirement. The temptations are enormous as administrators and participants weigh-up the pros and cons of pushing boundaries to the limit, of ‘tasting that forbidden fruit’. For some, pushing boundaries means relegating athletes to the status of machines to be optimised. When this happens, all sorts of supplements – legal and illicit – are introduced in order to get the ‘best’ out of a player’s body and to enhance performance.
Thus, sport is reduced to a kind of Machiavellian project where the ends justify the means.
It is de-humanising. It is dangerous. It is likely to end in tears – just ask Essendon.
But amidst this brutal, winner-take-all, corporate back-drop, there is another face of sport; a human face that needs to be seen and heard …
You could barely see her amongst the thousands of other supporters, but she was there. She was always there, wearing her club beanie and scarf, waving the team flag and proudly donning her prized t-shirt graffiti-ed with player autographs.
Pat had followed the club for 50+ years. She was a tiny lady, “Five foot one, dear.” The tape measure disagreed, “Four foot 11 … and that’s it!” There was no argument about her weight, though: fifty kilos ringing wet. But tiny Pat was a giant within the club. She stood like a beacon, shining forth unmatched spirit and loyalty. The players and training staff all knew her, and respected her. Over the years she’d been involved in a host of voluntary activities including organising sausage sizzles for the fans, helping make match day banners, and even washing the odd jersey for “that homesick youngster who still needed ‘mum’ around.”
Not only that, Pat had been to every match they’d played since 1960; she even turned up without fail on Thursday evenings to watch the boys train. She did concede, however, that there was a little 18 months break when she nursed her husband, Bert, through cancer. “He was my first love,” she said. But other than that, Pat turned up every match day (and Thursday evenings) rain, hail, or shine. “Just to encourage the boys, mind you; not to pester ‘em,” she’d insist. “I’m no football groupie. Sure, I love these boys, but I don’t want to go clubbing with them, and I certainly don’t want to marry them.”
Now this day was special for the club. It was their last training session before the Grand Final. Supporters had come out of the woodwork – thousands of them from near and far. What a year it had been: “A miracle”, the papers were saying. A bunch of young upstarts, predicted to finish in the bottom three, now in the Grand Final. The experts were shaking their heads. Pat wasn’t. She didn’t have much time for the experts. As far as she was concerned “They were a bunch of well dressed, overpaid blokes who get it wrong half the time.” Not only was the club a match away from being premiers, but membership had topped 33,000 – the previous best was 25,000 in 1975. Happy times indeed.
Well, that was two years ago. Today it won’t be so hard to pick-out tiny Pat amongst the crowd. They’ll be no crowd. It had been an awful year for the club. They’d won just six games; worst season in their history; wooden-spooners for the first time. The press had crucified them all year, while many of the supporters tore-up their memberships in disgust. Not only that, the coach was sacked and five players were asked to move-on. But amidst the misery and panic, there she was, tiny Pat, faithfully at the club’s last training session of the season. She was the only one at the ground, save for the players, support staff and the interim coach. It was a “bloody” cold day, too. Never mind, Pat had her thermos: four teaspoons of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, and a nip of medicinal brandy. This was her thirty-second consecutive year of watching the boys’ Thursday evening training. She always sat at the edge of the fence behind one of the goal posts. And from her faithful lips you could hear the familiar words of encouragement, words that had echoed around the ground for three decades: “Good mark, young fella; c’mon boys, keep runnin’, keep workin’. Make me proud!”
A journalist got a surprise when he asked Pat why she continued to be so faithful in such miserable times. “Ya know,” she said, “that Jesus fella knew a thing or two. People loved it when he was workin’ those miracles. Even his best mate, Peter, only wanted the highlights package. But he made it pretty clear, didn’t he: ‘If ya wanna come for the ride, if ya gonna love me, you’ll have to accept that along with grand finals come wooden-spoons too.’ It’s a bit like marriage, isn’t it? My husband and me had a wonderful honeymoon, kinda like winning a grand final; wished it’d never end. But life ain’t like that. He also got sick, got cancer … and it killed him. That was like gettin’ the wooden-spoon; that was a heavy Cross to carry. But it was during that time that I really learned about love, about how to love and how to be a true supporter. I reckon ya need wooden-spoon moments to be a better person.
“Son, this ain’t just a club; this is my family – it’s my community. I’ve mixed with all types since I’ve been here: rich and poor; VIPs and ordinary folk; and, ya know what, I hadn’t even met an aboriginal before I got involved in footy; what a blessing that’s been.
“This club – along with Bert, of course – has taught me lots about being there in good times and bad. People need you most when they’re doing it tough, don’t they? When my Bert died, it was this club that paid for his funeral; even held a fundraiser to help with some of the bills.
“I just love this place … It makes me feel like I belong. Not sure whether you’re too familiar with the Good Book, but there’s a passage I’m especially fond of; it’s the one where our Lord says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’. I’m no scholar, but I think He was trying to teach us about the importance of staying close and connected. That’s how I feel here: close and connected, like a little branch clinging to its vine … my club.
“Anyway, son, next year we’ll be a stronger club. We’ve learnt a lot about ourselves this season; can’t wait ‘til training starts again in a few months. Might see you there? Gotta go now, son. God-bless-ya.”
Fr. Peter Day is a Catholic Priest in Canberra.