Sport in Australia: What on earth is going on right now?

This week on the ABC’s QandA, Annabel Crabbe noted that if Australian politicians were considering what they said better than our tennis players were, they were doing OK. Tennis fan or not, everyone in the room got the reference.

In good old ‘Straya, sport is so much a part of our culture that politicians and journalists use these kinds of metaphors, university subjects tackle Sport & Popular Culture together, and the coalescence of sport and popular culture in the Australian imagination are discussed in both the mainstream press and in academia. So if we’re going to look at shifting the shape of popular culture, sooner or later, we were going to have to deal with sport on some level. And sure, I was expecting it to be a kids’ book about a soccer-playing werewolf or something, but since I haven’t come across one yet and this is such a big thing in our nation right now (and only likely to get more airtime with the US Open coming up), it seems like it’s time to look at what’s going on.

This past month the media debate about what it’s OK to say and what it’s not OK to say, on and off a sporting field, has been omnipresent. And it’s ongoing. Recently, rising Aussie tennis star Nick Kyrgios “sledged” his opponent Stan Wawrinka by “letting him know” that his rumoured girlfriend Donna Vekic had at some time in the past allegedly made a presumably informed, adult choice to have sex with someone else whom Kyrgios knew – his teammate and friend, fellow Aussie rising star Thanasi Kokkinakis. All four people involved in this saga are current tennis players on the circuit. Realistically, probably none of them wanted this news broadcast by the omnipresent microphones and cameras courtside. But Kyrgios is the only one who had agency in this story breaking. He really stepped outside the bounds of professional behaviour – not to mention basic manners – and has rightly worn the consequences. Matters were not helped  when first Kyrgios’ Mum and then his brother attempted to defend his actions, saying Wawrinka had sledged him first (which is not, frankly, an unbelievable accusation, but doesn’t excuse anything that came afterwards) and then big bro Christos making an unfortunate comment about Vekic, using a pun on Kokkinakais’ nickname and instagram handle . Kokkinakis was then harassed later in the tournament by an unrelated aggressive opponent who somehow seemed to think that the “Special Ks” were not actually doubles partners, but the same person.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Thanasi Kokkinakis and Nick Kyrgios of Australia look on from the team bench during the reverse singles match between Sam Groth and Temur Ismailov of Uzbekistan during the Davis Cup World Group Playoff tie between Australia and Uzbekistan at Cottesloe Tennis Club on September 14, 2014 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

The Special Ks in happier, less controversial times (Davis Cup tie in Perth, September 2014)

Kyrgios is a 20 year old  who has had a meteoric rise up the tennis rankings over the last eighteen months. He is one of the most talented players I can recall seeing in a lifetime of watching tennis. He is also currently trying to navigate the circuit and all its associated media circus and social media pitfalls without a coach or any kind of outside support team who have experience on the circuit. An overprotective family is not quite cutting it.

nick-kyrgios-tennis-montreal-masters_3336191

I call this Nick’s “Mr T” period

Earlier in the month there was another controversy, this one in stark contrast to the soapie-like qualities of the who-slept-with-whom-in-the-tennis-world drama. This was one centred on one of the elder statesmen of Australian sport, former Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes. I don’t watch AFL and don’t intend to start, so I cannot comment on his on-field behaviour or skill. But off the field, he is ambassador for the Racism. It stops with me. campaign, which basically tells folks that when they see or hear racism, they need to point it out and say it’s not OK. He is currently the face of the “Recognise” campaign, which seeks to add acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians to the Constitution’s preamble. He does charity work to improve the lot of Indigenous kids.

Recognise

Recognise

His greatest sin, apparently, is that he did an Aboriginal war dance on the field after scoring. In the Indigenous round. You know, the one where a particular fuss is made about Indigenous culture. Cos Lord knows, there’s no precedent for this kind of thing.

He also famously once called security to a 13 year old who called him an ape while he was playing. Security removed the teenager. The police interviewed the teenaged. Goodes was asked if he wanted to press charges and he declined. Ever since, there has been a weird undercurrent in social and even some more mainstream media of “he should apologise for what he did to that little girl.” Peter FitzSimons summed this up so beautifully that I don’t think I need to say anything else; other than, I read the girl’s mother defending her actions with the weirdest argument ever while demanding an apology from Goodes: “She was technically still only 12. I mean, she’d only turned 13 a few days earlier.”

Technically, I don’t think you know what “technically” means. And usually the person who’s done the wrong thing apologises, not the victim. I mean, even Nick Kyrgios has apologised (although Wawrinka has claimed it wasn’t done “properly”).

Anyway, so Adam Goodes was being booed and harassed on the field. In fact, he was harrassed to the point where he said it was impacting his mental health and he had to take a break from the game. Some people say it’s not based on race, because other Indigenous players weren’t being booed; some say they have a right to boo and were booing because they don’t like Goodes (my response to this was, “why do we need to boo in sport, anyway? It’s not done in tennis!” But then Kyrgios was booed in Cincinnati after the sledging incident, so maybe I’m really out of step.). But when you followed most social media posts, it seemed that sooner or later the commenters came back to, “I don’t like him because of what he did to that little girl” (ie pointed out that it is not OK to use a racial slur that suggests Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are sub-human). Which is, of course, about race. And regardless of your “reasons,” when is it OK to bully someone to the point where they can’t actually go to work?

In the midst of all this, I unexpectedly received a message from a former student. Kieran is now in his final year of Engineering; I worked with him at Kip McGrath (now Nowra Tutoring Solutions), when he was studying for his Higher School Certificate. Kieran had been so moved by the Adam Goodes story that he had written a piece about it, and he asked me to have a read and suggest any changes. It was pretty powerful stuff, and didn’t need much input from me. I told him it was too good for a Facebook post and he should try to get it published.

And so, here is Kieran’s piece on The Roar, linked with his permission.

If you have any questions for Kieran about the writing, editing or publishing process involved, pop them in the comments below and we’ll be sure to pass them on. As I said at the time, I am one very proud old Teacher-Lady. I love that I have students who keep in touch and still turn to me for writing or other professional advice years later; I love seeing passion for social justice, and I particularly love when they know that if they combine these two things they’re going to be supported in it.

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