Monday, 24 June 2013

Why Elite Sportsmen Do Dumb Things

I've been working on a theory about why elite sportsmen seem to get in trouble so regularly.


We've been hearing a bit about this recently.  Australian cricketer David Warner has two strikes to his name - tweeting angrily at journalists, and punching an opposing player in a pub.  Souths and Queensland Rugby League player Ben Te'o found himself drunk and in the company of two former team-mates and woman none of them knew.  What happened next is a matter of dispute - did he punch her, or did she injure herself in a drunken meltdown? - but either way the whole situation is completely dumb.   Another Rugby League player, Blake Ferguson, has been charged with sexual assault of a woman in a bar on a Sunday evening while in the company of another former team-mate.  All this in the last month.  A fairly typical month, really.

Of course you could blame alcohol, which is involved in all three incidents.  It's a convenient scapegoat, but alcohol doesn't drink itself. 

You could blame their youth and inexperience, but none of these three are particularly young.  Ferguson is the youngest at 23.  Warner and Teo are both 26.  I know lots of young men in this age bracket.  Most of them are well past such adolescent stupidity.  These three are old enough to know better - and it's not like they don't have enough bad examples to learn from.

So here's my theory.  Participating in elite professional sport is a form of prolonged male adolescence.  It actively prevents young men from growing up.  For as long as they are professional team athletes, there's a good chance their social and mental age will stay in the late teens.

Here's why.  Team sport as we know it grew out of the English public school system.  Sporting participation was viewed as building character.  It taught you to work with your peers and sink your individuality for the wellbeing of the team.  It taught you to follow rules and fit within a rigid structure, to do your job and rely on others to do theirs.  In short, it prepared you for the service of the empire, for participation in the armies of occupation which the British sent to India, South-East Asia, Africa, the Middle East and even Australia and New Zealand.

You may think modern elite sport is a long way from the British boarding school, but you would be wrong.  Modern sportsmen still dress in uniform off the field as well as on it.  They spend lots of time living and working with men their own age in a tight social group - when they travel they even have room-mates.  They live and work in environments from which outsiders, and especially women, are excluded.  Their daily lives are highly controlled and managed by other people - what they do each day, where they stay and with whom, what they eat, how they conduct themselves in public.  They are punished for being late for training.  Four Australian cricketers were recently suspended for not doing their homework.  How different from school does this sound to you?

All this might be appropriate for boys in their late teens, although personally I doubt it.  It's definitely  not appropriate for men in their mid-20s.  By this stage, they should be taking responsibility for their own lives.  Most men and women in their mid-20s find their own homes.  If they travel to another city, they make their own bookings.  They don't have room-mates.  They have jobs in workplaces where there are men and women of all ages.  They can't be out drinking on Sunday night because they have work to do on Monday morning.

The trouble with this state of arrested development is that it has consequences.  If you've ever been with a group of competitive teenage boys, you will know how they egg each other on.  The group mentality encourages them to stigmatise those outside, especially girls who can't be seen as people because they can never join the group.  Group members who protest against this attitude are also stigmatised, so the pressure to conform is huge.  A young man who doesn't drink, or doesn't get drunk, or who is shy around women, will be similarly stigmatised.  In a school environment, boys who don't want to do this will simply seek another peer group, but this is much harder to do in a sporting team because the team culture requires the group to be as one.  Getting drunk together is a form of bonding.  And while socially they are still adolescents, physically and legally our elite sportsmen are adults.  They can drink and enter licensed clubs.  They can stay out as late as they like.  They are past the age of consent.  They have a lot more scope for trouble than your average schoolboy.

Of course not all young men fall for this, and some of the older ones seem able to escape it, especially if they are married and have children.  But I would suggest that this happens despite the culture, not because of it.  It helps if they have an alternative culture to belong to, and an alternative social group.  It's no accident that footballers with strong faith, for instance, seem less likely to get in trouble.  The church provides them with a ready-made peer group to bolster their resistence to bad behaviour. 

This analysis suggests, however, that some other popular responses may be counter-productive.  For instance, strict team discipline, fines, suspensions and team pacts seem to simply perpetuate the problem.  How school-like is it to be suspended for bad behaviour?  How in-group is it to make a pact to change your behaviour together?  And we all know how schoolboys respond to the heavy hand of school authority.  All these things smack blatantly of first order change - that is to say, more of the same.  If you keep on doing the same things you will keep getting the same result.

Group cultures like this are incredibly hard to change, but there are ways.  Here are some ideas.
  1. Diversify your group.  Bring in people from the outside who are different.  Ensure, for instance, that there are women in positions of responsibility and respect.  Make sure the other members of the group share the responsibility for welcoming them and including them.  Make sure they are there as people, not as objects or servants.
  2. Encourage people to leave the group regularly.  Up until recently, most elite sportsmen had day jobs.  Encourage something similar - encourage them to study on campus, to work in a corner shop or a child care centre, even if just one day a week.  Not as a group, as individuals, each following their own bent. 
  3. Encourage them to take a gap year.  Get away from footy or cricket, do something completely different - travel, work, study, meditate, spend 18 hours a day playing computer games.  Then if they come back, they do, if not, well and good.
  4. For away games, give them a travel allowance and have them make their own travel arrangements.  If some of them travel as a group, well and good, but they have to organise it themselves.  If not, the only requirement is that they turn up at training and for the game at the right time and in their right minds.
  5. If they get in trouble when they are not at the game, don't make it part of the game.  If they did it on their own, let them solve it on their own.  Let them hire their own lawyers, make their own statements to the media, clean up their own messes.  Make sure they know this will be the case right at the start.
Let these young men grow up.  They'll be better for it, and so will the rest of us, especially those poor young women who are so often on the receiving end of their adolescent stupidity.

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