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Pocock and Goodes are the role models Australia needs


As a writer I was pleased that the All Blacks defeated the Wallabies in Saturday's Rugby World Cup final. Before the game the Australian team was described in the Australian press in terms so inflated that they made John of Gaunt's orotund encomium of 'this happy breed of men' look skeletal. This was warfare to equal Marathon, Waterloo, Gallipoli and the Battle of the Bulge. An Australian victory, and the whole English language might have gone pop.

David PocockBut the Wallabies had their heroes whose running, passing and kicking styles and haircuts will surely be imitated by small boys in rugby-playing Australia. And no doubt they will come under scrutiny as role models. It is natural to assume that gifted sportsmen and women influence the behaviour and attitudes of children, and so to demand that they be good role models.

Most conversation about role models focuses not on what we should expect of them but on their failures. When players are found drunk, stoned, abusive to umpires, speeding in cars or harassing at parties, they are execrated as bad role models.

Good role models are defined by what they don't do. They are never in the media for the wrong reasons, offer no opinions on public issues, do not criticise the administration, the press or sponsors, are ferocious competitors who lose their identity in their commitment to the team. They are good corporate men.

Some sportsmen, however, confer on role models a much richer meaning. Adam Goodes and the rugby hero of the hour David Pocock (pictured), for example, refuse to separate sport from life. They attend closely to the ethical dimensions of the big issues of their day. They call out unethical behaviour when they meet it on the sporting field and make a strong critique of their society.

Goodes exposed racial prejudice and abuse among Australian Rules crowds, and Pocock homophobic language among rugby players and supporters.

Pocock in particular has made his views clear. He covered over sponsors' signs on his shoes, suspecting them to be made by exploited labour. He and his partner have declined to marry until the introduction of same-sex marriage overturns what he sees as discriminatory marriage laws.

With a small farmer he chained himself to a bulldozer to protest against coal mining at Maules Creek. With other prominent Australians like Bernie Fraser and Peter Doherty he signed an open letter demanding a moratorium on new coal mines and the export of coal. He strongly criticised the London speech in which Tony Abbott urged Europe to push back people seeking protection.

Pocock and Goodes are compelling role models because they refuse to divorce sport from the other dimensions of their life. They model integrity between personal life, sporting role and pubic convictions. For their integrity they are prepared to pay a price, variously losing income from sponsorship, incurring abuse from those whose emptiness they expose and criticism from those who believe ethics should be kept out of sport and business.

Whether or not we agree with the positions they adopt and with how they embody their convictions, such models of integrity are clearly an enormous gift to society. The primacy of conscience is best commended, not by the privileges it confers on us, but by the costs we pay in its service.

The refusal of such sportsmen to divorce ethics from their sporting lives invites those who admire their sporting skill to reflect on the stands they take. What are spectators to make of Goodes' challenge to racial prejudice? What are they to make of Pocock's outspoken defence of the environment and criticism of coal mining? Or of his and his partner's refusal to marry in solidarity with LBGT couples?

They make space for us to reflect on our own response to large human questions. But that space also invites us to judge our own integrity — spectators to ask whether they can rightly boo Indigenous players; sponsors to ask if they can rightly produce goods in nations where workers' rights are not respected; bankers and government ministers whether they can discharge their duty to the environment while encouraging coal mining. The opprobrium that such role models meet may arise out of discomfort with unwelcome self-questioning.

Pocock in particular is an admirable role model because he makes us question the conventional image of the sportsman as a competitive individual whose entire world is his sport and who loses himself in the team or the nation and the pursuit of the flag, the cup, the ashes or the medals.

By all accounts a consummate team player, he is inspired by gratitude to others for their support and sacrifices. Because relationships come before self, team and country, he does not lose himself in them. Nor does he leave his ethical sense behind.

We should be grateful to rugby and Australian Rules for giving us two such good role models, and thank them for being so demanding of themselves and of us.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Adam Goodes, David Pocock, rugby, AFL, racism, gay marriage



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Existing comments

"Orotund encomium" - like. And I also liked Adam Goodes' appearance on "Who Do You Think You Are?" (SBS). He stood tall, modestly. A great role model. I wasn't surprised the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup final but was proud of Australia's efforts in reaching the final. And David Pocock was our player of the series, on and off the field. Making a stand against homophobia isn't always easy and he has made clear he is prepared to make a personal sacrifice for this cause. Scorecard: Ethics 1, Homophobia 0.

Pam | 04 November 2015  

I think you are being a bit hard on the Wallabies; they received excellent coverage in European papers, better than here in insular Melbourne for example. In fact, the whole World Cup was a wonderful advertisement for rugby. Coming second to a team like the current All Blacks was worthy of the applause it received. Think Sonny Bill, Dan Carter, Matt Giteau, Michael Cheika, Paul O'Connell and the general refusal to blame the ref - Scotland an unfortunate exception.

Frank | 05 November 2015  

Thanks Andy. What I find even more impressive about Pocock is what he does even more than what he says. He and a friend have set up a micro credit fund to support small business projects in Zimbabwe. The project is specifically designed to help poor farmers who can't get assistance from anywhere else. I don't know why you feel you had to support NZ though. Putting the press aside (that were probably just as bad in NZ) i don't know why you would support this NZ team. They were dour and ruthless, they'd won the Cup before and their captain has gotten away with playing off side for years. And I couldn't help but notice that they got caught out celebrating their win at a strip club. I did note, however, that SBW was not with him. He was about the only NZ player i found interesting. His gesture in giving away 2 tickets to Syrian refugees, consoling a fallen Springbok player and then giving away his gold medal to a kid crash tackled by a zealous security guard were all commendable. I also noticed when they won he immediately fell to the ground and prayed.

Nick Dunstan | 05 November 2015  

Hi Andrew, Well written. I totally endorse your comments. Hopefully our young people will emulate these young sportsman both on and off the field.

Gavin O'Brien | 05 November 2015  

Thanks, Andy, for another valuable, thoughtful piece on the better side of our society. This article needs to be reprinted in the major dailies to inform public discussion more widely.

Peter Johnstone | 05 November 2015  

I doubt very much that people who end up being role models set out to be role models - except perhaps people who set out to be celebrities through mass media exposure. I feel for sportsmen who cannot help becoming celebrities because their sporting successes make them fodder for the voracious mass media. If this leads to generous corporate sponsorship they become not just the sporting face of the corporate but the embodiment of its ideal consumer. Remember the days of tobacco sponsorship? Think the current linkage of sporting teams with alcoholic beverages. But thank you Andrew for accentuating the positive social role great sportsmen (of all kinds and in all countries) can play. Pocock and Goodes just happen to be two who are prepared to speak out on political issues for which there is no monetary return.

Uncle Pat | 05 November 2015  

Your piece today, Fr Andrew, reminded me immediately of a quote from Joseph Murray, notable devoted Catholic and Nobel Laureate, rewarded for doing the first successful organ transplant in the world. "Service to others is the rent we pay for living on this planet"..

john frawley | 05 November 2015  

One of the things all professional sports people, in a vastly over-commercialised environment, have to do is realise that they are role models for young people, who will also grow up to be future role models. Sonny Bill Williams was the stand out example of how to behave at the recent World Rugby Cup. He has had a colourful past but has moved on from there. He has always had the human touch which anyone who is a real example needs.

Edward Fido | 05 November 2015  

I agree with the sentiment of this article that Adam Goodes and David Pocock have very good standards of moral and ethical behaviour, human rights and social justice. However, I am not sure that they should be role models for the general public. In my opinion, the significant role models for children and adults are people who have personal contact such as parents, extended family, neighbours, teachers and religious leaders. The Australian media generally treat sports people unfairly by emphasising 'bad' behaviour and ignoring good behaviour. Adam Goodes was treated unfairly by the media and with little respect for his displeasure of crowd racial bigotry. In my opinion, sports people should only be role models for the way that they play their sport within the rules and to show respect to their opponents and officials. Adam Goodes has been an exemplary football role model with the Sydney Football Club. I am not familiar with the football of David Pocock and the rugby union code. There are also many footballers who are excellent football role models, such as Johnathon Thurston, Cameron Smith, Gary Ablett jnr., Matthew Pavlich, Scott Pendlebury and many others. There are also many other sports people who are excellent sport role models, such as Rick Charlesworth (hockey), Karrie Webb (golf), Adam Scott (golf) and Cadel Evans (road cycling)..

Mark Doyle | 06 November 2015  

Just to throw a spanner in he works - why is it seen as a positive thing for someone like Kevin Rudd to visit a strip club, but scandalous for a prominent sports person? And Mark Doyle - I don't think it's a matter of whether they "should" be role models, but simply the reality that they are, for better or worse - even the "bad boys" who either grow up or get kicked out are role models of a sort.

AURELIUS | 06 November 2015  

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