Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Sports, alcohol and bad behaviour

It seems as if not a week passes without an elite sportsperson hitting the headlines for some alcohol-related incident. In the past couple of weeks we've seen a number of sportsmen be arrested for a range of alcohol-related crimes, including indecent assault, sexual assault, wilful damage of property, drink driving and driving without a license. The most interesting thing about all of these incidents is watching the 'spin-doctor's' response - it has now almost become a formula ...

Firstly, the player comes forward and repents with a prepared statement usually read from a piece of paper, then the sporting body involved (e.g., NRL, AFL, etc) responds by saying that they will not tolerate 'bad behaviour' and that they will take appropriate action but, at the same time, carefully includes in their response that they still must 'look after' the player. They can't leave them 'high and dry' - they must support them during this time and so the punishment can't be too severe. A punishment is announced (usually talkback radio is swamped with supporters of the sport complaining about the severity of the action taken) and then a few weeks later all is forgiven because they're just young men 'letting off steam' and what is everybody making all the fuss about?

It's a never-ending cycle and it doesn't look like it is going to get any better anytime soon ...

Here is the statement released today from NRL player George Burgess (who plays for the South Sydney Rabbitohs) after being charged with wilful damage of property (ramming a sign he found on the road through the rear window of a car) after a "disagreement" with a resident of a unit complex.

"I would like to apologise unreservedly to the Rabbitohs members, sponsors and everyone in the community. I have let my team and my family down. I acknowledge that I am a role model for kids and I will do everything I can to restore my reputation through working harder in the community. It is my responsibility to ensure that this type of behaviour does not happen again. I will learn from my mistake and bounce back stronger and better as a person."
I don't know if age has made me cynical but I find it very difficult to believe that Burgess had anything to do with this statement apart from possibly reading it out! Is he sorry that this has happened? I'm sure he is - no-one wants to find themselves in court - but really this statement about being a 'role model' for kids - if he really believed that, would he be out drinking until the early hours of the morning when he is well aware of the potential consequences?

Here is the response from the Rabbitoh's Chief Executive, Shane Richardson:

“George accepts he’s done the wrong thing and that there has to be a price. For someone on his contract level it is a big price to pay and he still has to deal with the issue in court. We will support him because he has faced up to what he has done and because this isn’t reflective of his general behaviour at the club. Everyone is going to have to get the message though that the NRL is going to stay strong on these issues and that the clubs will support that stance without exception.”

It has now been announced that Burgess has been suspended for two matches and fined $10,000 by the NRL. He will also pay for the cost of the damage, undergo an anger management program and commit to a further 50 hours of community support work. There are certainly a range of consequences there - he has certainly been punished! I can imagine the outraged response from some NRL supporters tomorrow - not about the fine or the anger management program and not even the 50 hours of community work, but missing two matches - that's outrageous!

Am I asking that he be punished more - should he be tarred and feathered, crucified or whatever? Of course not, he is a man in his 20s who has made a mistake but sooner or later the sporting codes (particularly sports such as the NRL, AFL and cricket) have to realize that apart from all the issues associated with dealing with young, risk-taking men, their sponsorship deals with the alcohol industry contribute to this growing problem and send a very mixed message to their players and the wider community.

I have been delivering alcohol and other drug sessions to sportspeople since 2000, when the AIS contracted me to work with them in developing programs for athletes in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics. Essentially these are sessions designed to assist players to celebrate (or commiserate) in a safer way. Let me assure you, elite athletes do not want to attend these sessions - no matter how great a presenter you are - they are without doubt the most difficult audiences I have ever presented to and it takes a great deal of skill to keep them even remotely interested.

I have been contracted by all four football codes (as well as by Cricket Australia) at some stage or another over the past 13 years. The one comment you hear from many of the players is that they feel the sport is being hypocritical providing alcohol education sessions to them when at the same time their team jerseys or the like have alcohol company logos all over them. Over the years, some have also commented that they also have a great problem in getting their head around the fact that they must attend official club events where they are actively encouraged to drink their sponsor's product!

The sport will argue that they are promoting 'responsible drinking' but the fact of the matter is their players are usually young men in their 20s, being paid quite large amounts of money who have a lot of time on their hands. Many of them are also actively encouraged to take part in 'team bonding' activities that often involve drinking of some description ... To be totally honest, it takes a pretty resilient young man to maintain 'responsible drinking' in that environment.

I was once told by a leading public health advocate that if the Federal Government announced tomorrow that alcohol sponsorship of sport was to come to an end, it would take at least 40 years for the process to actually finish rolling out! It took 25 years for tobacco advertising to be removed from sporting events in this country - from the day Bob Hawke announced the move to the time it was finally fully implemented - but it would be at least 40 for alcohol! That is terrifying! The alcohol industry has done an incredible job of ensuring a long future partnership with sport - it's going to take a great deal of effort to finally break that relationship but it will be worth it.

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