In an era when nearly all human pursuits are globalised and commercialised, sport is driven by two competing forces: the pursuit of unrealistic achievement and the need to always be entertaining. Victory at all costs is dehumanising, yet entertainment without competition is passionless — either way, we switch off, emotionally, and then with the remote.
This summer Shane Warne and Bernard Tomic, both immature to a fault, have demonstrated the tension between these ingredients. Warne is in the twilight of his cricket career, Tomic is just starting out on his tennis adventure. Over the past few weeks they've reminded us how commerce has hijacked the competition in sport.
Warne highlights what happens when entertainment trumps the contest. Ten days ago he engaged in a heated argument with West Indian Marlon Samuels, in a T20 Big Bash cricket match. The Australian was clearly heard on television saying 'fuck you, Marlon' before throwing the ball into Samuels' midriff in the act of returning it to the wicketkeeper. In return Samuels tossed his bat in Warne's direction, sparking more angry exchanges.
Warne was fined $3000 and suspended for one match for breaching a code of conduct rule. He was fined a further $1000 for using obscene language towards Samuels, who was also charged over his role in the exchange. Both penalties were lighter than a feather duster.
Warne tweeted that he went 'too far' and accepted his punishment. But he then tweeted he had been harshly treated. 'I'm disappointed at the severe penalty I received!'
Would he have behaved like this is in a Test match, wearing no microphone? Would he have shouted at Samuels like this ten years ago in a one-day match? No way. The smash and grab of T20, with its ephemeral character, electronic gimmicks and meaningless results, is driven by one simple rule: whoever makes the most noise wins — whether it's by hitting sixes, getting out strangely, swearing, banter with commentators or body contact.
Warne's behaviour, his tweets and the wave of support for his punishment, reveal the game as a false premise designed to elicit attention-seeking behaviour for the TV cameras. They are templates for testosterone, in all its expressions. And if that is misdirected, no problem. Return to Go and start again, with a slap on the wrist.
Tomic, on the other hand, shows how talent and ambition, driven by a controlling parent, can turn ugly almost overnight. Tomic, just 20, is recovering from an annus horribilis in 2012. Having risen through the rankings, and shining at last year's Australian Open, he played too many tournaments, crashed out early in the big ones, and his world ranking plummeted.
Talent can only get you so far. Beyond that, success is about character, discipline and application.
How did Tomic respond to that learning curve? He threw his father/manager off the court after a falling out, he was publicly accused of tanking in the US Open, was arrested for hooning around the Gold Coast in his orange BMW and later dropped from Davis Cup selection by Australian tennis legend Pat Rafter over his lack of passion.
This summer he seems more level-headed. Yet while Tomic looks to have recovered his mojo on the court, having won his first ever professional tournament in Sydney on the weekend, he still bears the scars of a selfish teenager. Last week, he publicly told Rafter where he could stick his Davis Cup plans.
Yet Rafter's commitment to mentoring young tennis talent in the Davis Cup is exactly the sort of offer Tomic could benefit from. It comes from the same wellspring of modesty that made Rafter such a beloved and successful player, who won two US Open titles and was twice runner-up at Wimbledon.
In his heyday Rafter played a muscular serve-and-volley game, and sweated so much he almost lost clutch matches through cramping. He aimed high, never gave up and when he lost, invariably spoke from the heart after the match. It says a lot about his 'brand' that a decade after retirement, he can model white underwear and we admire his character, not his crotch.
Some sportsmen know how to handle their testosterone. Rafter did. Roger Federer does too. Warne has spent his career playing a buffoon-genius, and now cricket celebrates the buffoon over the genius. It remains to be seen if Tomic can escape the pressure of his own ego, and show he has the right stuff.
Michael Visontay is editor-in-chief of CathNews, and lectures in sport and media at the University of New South Wales.
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14 January 2013
I feel the less said about Shane 'Sheikh of Tweet' Warne the better. However, being a tennis tragic myself, I have greater hopes for Bernard Tomic. His exploits as a junior champion were top notch but his transition to senior professional ranks has been tumultuous. A number of tennis stars have suffered from over-controlling parents, who seem to focus on 'living through' their talented children. Tomic is maturing and, after watching his first-ever win in an ATP event last weekend, I believe his tennis will do the talking. He just needs to stay away from orange BMW's (and controlling people!). Easier said than done, but determination has taken him this far. Go, Bernie - good luck in the Aussie Open.
15 January 2013
"Mojo"is a cliche I expect to find in the very worst of sports' media. I am surprised and disappointed to read it here in a piece by some one who lectures in this subject.
15 January 2013
An interesting article. Thanks. Because I always admired Hewitt’s game I can clearly recall the derision and scorn he received from the media and also friends of mine would remark that they ‘couldn’t bear him’. Yet today he is a family man, making calm and well thought out. His determination, courage and sense of self has carried him through but it is only relatively recently that he has been fully respected (but I heard a commentator describe this 180cm man described as “Little Lleyton” the other day).
Ranked 43, (Hewitt who was the world’s number one at the same age), he is getting as much benign media attention as negative. In fact, criticisms of him tend to be constructive rather than the derision that Hewitt endured. His youthful arrogance has yet to be tamed. We are going to watch his relationship with his father (how many of the coach prodigy sagas have we witnessed! – I enjoyed Agassi’s autobiography), and how wisely Tomic responds to his wealth.
It’s a crazy world of ego, money ,media opinion, travel and strange relationships he has entered. He has great role models – Federer the stand-out – if he chooses to follow them.
15 January 2013
On a parallel subject, would someone tell these idiots who run sport to do away with these silly team names. The Heat, The Thunder, The Cavalry, Wanderers, Heart ... If Perth are playing Melbourne, that makes sense; if there are two Melbourne teams call them North and South; we can follow Newcastle or Gold Coast, Canterbury or Carlton because we have a general idea where they are. Sport is tribal, tribes come from places, we identify with places: we don't identify with silly names.
15 January 2013
The third party in corrupting sporting values is the CEO of Cricket Australia who essentially endorsed the Warne/Samuels affair. The position of the CEO of CA as a leader of sport in Australis is, in my opinion no longer tenable.
16 January 2013
As a tennis player Bernard Tomic needs to be singularly focused in his approach, has shown he is has the commitment to develop his talent with a very disciplined 'work' ethic. This young man is similar to other young 20 years olds, revelling in life, testing their abilities, challenging themselves..stepping up to the mark. He is alone on the court, his words though spell out thoughts of a young blossoming and passionate person who takes criticism for all the brash, impulsive actions of youth.He has not got to where he is by demurely sitting back and being mediocre ,safe. It would be beneficial to Tennis Australia to keep him close with true mentoring and emotional support. Families and people struggle, and tennis and all sport can be a wonderful salve. Tomic has a healthy ego which is necessary in the big money,pressure laden sport/media world. Pat Cash was a rich kid with a bad temper but we adored him because he was successful.
18 January 2013
Unfortunately the whole argument against Warne is undone by the final comments of "Would he have behaved like this is in a Test match, wearing no microphone? Would he have shouted at Samuels like this ten years ago in a one-day match? No way." Actually he would have done absolutely that. Perhaps in a slightly slyer way, and no we probably wouldn't have heard it. So to say he is acting up for the benefit of the stage of the T20 is unfounded. Off the pitch he has certainly become a better role-player in the eyes of the media and society but his passion for the game on the pitch has always been there. Along with being a buffoon of course.
As for Tomic, well he has it all before him. Will be interesting to see how far he go in his career.
19 January 2013
Charles: Now, which is the worst tennis-playing nation in the world?
She: Er ... Australia.
Charles: No. Try again.
Charles: (testily) No... try again but say a different place.
She: Oh, I thought you meant I'd said it badly.
—Monty Python's Flying Circus, "Science Fiction Sketch"
19 January 2013
Great article Michael. I'm no longer a tennis fan, mainly because I can't stand the grunting and screeching. And, I'm not too confident about the improved behavior of the spoilt rotten Tomic. But I do miss the likes of Rafter, Emerson and other gentlemen champions of the game.
As for cricket, I reckon T20 is utter nonsense. It's just not cricket in my view. I never watch it. I'm still a test cricket tragic, but really miss my favourite captain Mark Taylor and keeper Adam Gilchrist. They just don't seem to make sportsmen like 'em anymore.
30 January 2013
Shane Warne was a great cricketer, but as a person he is nothing more than an immature, inarticulate yobbo buffoon. Bernard Tomic is a promising tennis player, whose behavior is no different to 99% of Australian young men. The real issue is the celebrity nonsense of the popular mainstream media, especially radio stations such as the ABC 774, 3AW and SEN, TV stations ABC24 and Sky News and newspapers The Age and The Herald Sun. The mainstream media do not like sports people who are not buffoons, such as Adam Scott, Lauren Jackson, Karrie Webb, Samantha Stosur, Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey.