Morality plays in sport and politics


One of the beauties of sport and politics is the morality plays that they enact. They display in minor key all the basic human drives, passions and political moves that we find on the larger public stage. Melbourne (AFL) Football Club's sacking of coach Dean Bailey, and the forced departure of South Australian Premier Mike Rann, are cases in point.

The classical morality plays subverted large myths. The public heroes were kings and emperors who fought their way to power and then set out on a plan of conquest that made their names immortal and their kingdoms glorious. The plays presented a human being who was first attracted to wealth, and then used his wealth to gain a position of honour in order to have the glory of conquest.

In morality plays, this is shown to be a path of illusion. It hollowed out the humanity of the king and led him to disregard the humanity of the people he rules. His glory was secured by treating his subjects as expendable. The cost of victory was their suffering and oppression.

Ultimately, too, the glory proved fleeting. It was undermined by the motivation that inspired its pursuit. Because there was no concern for human values, the trust and the cooperation that were needed for large enterprises were lacking.

In Christian morality plays the way of truth was paradoxical. The good king was motivated by a vision of the larger, shared good of human beings as Christ's brothers and sisters. In the pursuit of this vision, the king welcomed poverty, lack of position and humiliation. Through these things a kingdom based in respect and constancy could be built.

Morality plays, of course, are just that. They dramatise an ideal and make available a spiritual rhetoric. Even good kings never embodied fully this large vision. But the values made a claim on the spectators.

And so to football clubs and political parties. Those who are attracted to football clubs are often fairly wealthy. The football club becomes their cause. So they are drawn to seek a position in the club in the hope that the club will glory in a premiership. Similarly, members of political parties are attracted to seek political office in order to share the glory of nation building.

The morality plays that are sport and politics can then be played in two ways. If the goal is to shape a club that develops the humanity of its members, is based on mutual respect and decency, and sets sporting or electoral success within a deeper sense of what matters, the poverty, lowly position on the ladder and humiliation that go with defeat will strengthen character and commitment.

But if a driving force is the desire for personal esteem and reputation for being successful, people will be treated without respect. The quest of glory will undermine the club and the party.

So the replacement of Rann and the sacking of Bailey in response to bad polls and a heavy loss respectively raise questions about the Melbourne Football Club and the South Australian Labor Party.

For Melbourne the walloping by Geelong brought humiliation. Glory departed from the club, and in the media (the tent where glory dwells) former players connected with the club displayed resentment.

A few days before the loss the Melbourne board had decided to let the chief executive go at the end of the year, and to extend the coach's tenure. But the day after the defeat it sacked Bailey, and reappointed the chief executive for a year.

In terms of morality plays, this response seemed to represent the decisive rejection of the way that leads through humiliation to constancy. The lack of respect involved in the summary sacking of a coach whom they had endorsed only a few days ago would naturally lead to a collapse of the trust on which the success of any organisation depends. The change of coach only underlines it.

Even those who themselves are attracted by the myth of money leading to glory will sense that this dream cannot be realised at Melbourne. Those who have more modest hopes of playing a game that they love in good company will see little to hold them. They can have no confidence that the club grasps what really matters.

At first glance the replacement of Rann is the same morality play. It seems that those for whom the glory of electoral success is everything have dumped him when his popularity lessened. Will electors trust a party to whom nothing other than glory matters? 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Mike Rann, South Australian Labor Party, Dean Bailey, sacked, Melbourne Demons, Geelong Cats



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Existing comments

But politics is largely a popularity contest, and the most popular (or least unpopular) party takes the spoils. Rann has played the game for years. His 'tough on crime' stance was only ever aimed at achieving electoral popularity, and emulated similar efforts on both sides of politics. The Liberals constant alarmism over refugees is the same - pure populism. That's the weakness of democracy - poilticians with impure motives can exploit the fears and ignorance of the voters. And it is happening in spades in Australia right now.

Mike H | 04 August 2011  

It may not quite be the same. While the Melbourne FC made an about turn decision to drop their coach which seems very unseemly, the situation in South Australia was a little different. The "King" had been on the nose for some time and over a year many hints had been made which had been ignored by the king. In the end , it has been suggested, the King held out for the glory of beating his idol, Don Dunstan’s record days in office, and being able to sign off the biggest mining deal in the state’s history? Perhaps the king, as many others have done in the past, squandered his record by being corrupted in the end by power and glory? The courtiers are currently allowing him the dignity of naming his own departure time but they may have limited patience?

Peter | 04 August 2011  

Rann has become increasingly facist as the years go by.

Marilyn | 04 August 2011  

Interesting, particularly as Jim Stynes, the person who sacked Bailey, is a practising Catholic and the two people who told Rann he was out, are also practising Catholice. Add to that the fact that Don Farrell, another practising Catholic was involved in the sacking of Rudd. Does this mean that morality, and ethics, go out the door when one gets involved in power plays?

Mike | 04 August 2011  

MIKE: Practising Catholics are sinners too!

AURELIUS | 06 August 2011  

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