Man of perspective who saw football was only a game


We usually praise famous men when we bury them. So it is with Neale Daniher who coached Melbourne Football Club for the last time on Saturday. He was a good coach and a transparently decent man. The manner of his departure from the Club was relatively bloodless. But it also suggested dispiriting reflections about the direction that football is taking.

My dyspepsia, of course, comes partly from childhood attachments. I used to support the Demons in an era when the nobs played for nothing and ordinary blokes for a couple of quid each week. The club won premierships as a matter of routine. This year they have hardly won a game. We might have expected a review of the performance of coach and team members at the end of the season when contracts had been honoured.

But the destabilisation and resignation of the coach in mid-season also provoked questions about the extent to which we have ceased to view football as a game. Although games are played by adults, they are best seen imaginatively as children’s play, to which the participants and bystanders give themselves wholeheartedly as if their lives depended on the result. This imaginative world is still reflected in footballers’ custom of referring to their team mates as ‘the boys’.

Like all children’s games, football can be played wholeheartedly because we imagine it to be underwritten and benignly overseen by mature adults who know what really matters. We expect that they will intervene to make sure that no one actually gets killed, that rules are enforced and that cheating is discouraged. Their tacit presence preserves the distinction between the game and life beyond it. This allows players and bystanders to go away from football with some perspective on its place in the moral universe. The relationship between the game and moral values like honour, goodness, trustworthiness and a sense of proportion is expressed in gestures like awarding prizes to the best and fairest, shaking hands, speaking modestly of one’s achievements, and drinking together after the game.

This is, of course, an imagined world. In real life, footballers play for money as well as for enjoyment. Those responsible for the game have never all been mature human beings. But today this imaginative understanding of football as a game is under threat as the roles of the notional children and adults are reversed. Now the expectation that players will play as if their lives depended on it is seen as a moral imperative. Players are also expected to act as mature adults who know what matters. They are castigated when they behave as children – when taking drugs, carousing in nightclubs or consorting in undesirable company. Such behaviour ‘brings the game into disrepute’.

When players and coaching staff are imagined as mature adults who know what matters, the notional adults who oversee and underwrite the game are freed from their responsibility to act as mature adults. Many media commentators claim the privileges of players, acting as if winning and losing were matters of life and death. At an organisational level, the making of money is routinely taken to be what supremely matters.

Those responsible for managing football clubs are also free to play out childhood playground fantasies by acting as if winning were the only thing that mattered. They can also use playground skills to ostracise failure, arbitrarily change the terms by which performance is evaluated, and manage public relations in order to undermine their employees.

These changes are culturally destructive. They blur the difference between play and moral reality, and corrupt both. Games and their players are burdened with the responsibility to reflect to society what matters. Immature adults find support for introducing into their work and personal relationships the childish attitudes the see expressed in games.

The events that led to Neale Daniher’s resignation were dispiriting because they showed how easily games can be corrupted. Certainly other coaches have been 'boned' with rustier knives. But he was notable for behaving in football consistently as a mature adult with high moral values. He put great weight on honesty and respect, and saw football as a game to be taken seriously but not earnestly. His nickname, The Reverend, was given half mockingly, half enviously, because he so consistently refused to confuse games with the real moral world, and so resolutely judged what is done in football by adult moral standards.

But not all is dispiriting. In the manner of his departure he paradoxically reasserted the claims of football to be a game. He joined the many sports people who have asserted the claims of maturity over childish values. The young Boris Becker, when defeated unexpectedly in a major title, commented to an overearnest press gallery that it was after all only a game and that nobody had been killed. Nicki Winmar bared his chest to the crowd to show that in an adult world it was contemptible to use racial to secure an advantage. When Neale Daniher recognised that his loyalty to his club was not reciprocated, he resigned without bitterness. He also publicly refused to collude with any apparatchiks in other clubs who might seek to 'bone' their coaches.

Men of such perspective almost make it possible to take games seriously.



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Existing comments

Good to see that commonsense can prevail even in this "sacred" area of football. Money has been the bugbear for football for some time now.

Monica Szalla | 06 July 2007

Andy, Without disparaging the NSW State education system I note that "Play the game" is the motto of many a NSW state school. Your insightful analysis of the difference between play and moral reality made me stop to think about
many other areas of male(and, female) adult activity -workplaces, politics, educational institutions, and lots of other endeavours- where the mantra "winning at any cost" reigns supreme. There your "notional adults" still seem to view almost everything as they did as children. Neale Daniher's departure shows him to be a real adult, not a notional one. He stands apart. His involvement in, and departure from, the game are a "wake-up call" for all of us. It is arresting to see a real man not accept the "winning is everything" ethos now abroad in our Oz society.
Maybe you could keep up this topic of the game/real divide. You may finish up not blaming schools at all but Shakespeare's insistence that the world is a stage on which each must play his part, with its available interpretation of life beinga stage performance. Neale Daniher's hasn't been. Congratulations to him. And you.
Tom Byrnes | 06 July 2007


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