Death of a sportsman: gladiatorial guilt


The untimely death of cricketer Phillip Hughes has garnered enormous media and public attention – the biggest Australian news story of the week covered extensively in the international media. Even the Google landing page, the online world’s most militantly uncluttered site, displayed his commemorative image of a bat leaning against a wall, casting its melancholy shadow.

Google commemorates Phillip Hughes.

This outpouring of grief had echoes of the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, as multitudes with little connection to the deceased person or prior interest in their lives, felt moved publicly to express their sorrow.

Only those with an iceberg for a heart could be blasé about this young life cut short, a much-admired person lost to humanity by a cruel accident. But we should still ask some awkward questions about why this death among so many others should gain such prominence and absorb so much interest.

Public profile is a factor, of course, and the fact that sport in general, and cricket in particular, has so many passionate adherents. If cricket is the definitively Australian sport, then the demise of a national representative cricketer provokes a national sense of loss, especially when television images of the incident are available for all to see.

But I would highlight another, troubling element to the massive reaction to the passing of Hughes – a nagging guilt about our collective complicity in the damage that sportspeople can do to each other and to themselves.

Phillip Hughes.

Every year, tens of thousands of balls are bowled on national television for the pleasure of the viewing public, not to mention many more heavy collisions in contact sport. In this case, the visual record is of a relatively minor Sheffield Shield game, and the retrieved screen action is less glossy than for the big test, one-day and Twenty20 matches. But it could have happened at any one of these games, and we could all have been ’live’ witnesses to the catastrophe.

Last summer, there was much celebration of the Australian men’s cricket team’s resurgence on the basis of an old-school, aggressive brand of cricket. Much was made of the baying of the crowd as moustachioed Mitchell Johnson ran in to bowl 150km per hour deliveries at the bodies and heads of hapless English batsman.

Favourable reference was made to the golden days of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson in the 1970s. The latter has reminisced:

It’s Sydney, 1975, and it’s Keith Fletcher’s turn to come out to bat. I’m bowling a million miles an hour and I’ve already put somebody in hospital, there might have even been blood on the pitch. So Fletcher comes out and the crowd are yelling ‘Kill, kill, kill’, you couldn’t hear yourself think. Dennis Lillee is down at third man and he runs up from bloody fine leg to Fletcher, who was at mid-wicket walking in, to abuse the shit out of him. Finally Dennis lets him go, this poor bloke, after telling him he’s going to kill him if I don’t.

As we savoured the gladiatorial spectacle and freely partook of its language of violence, the troubled Jonathan Trott was baited by David Warner and Australian captain Michael Clarke warned Jimmy Anderson to “get ready for a broken fucking arm”.

It was as if cricket had become a violent video game, with no real harm or blood spilt after symbolically exorcising our violent impulses. ’Thommo’ had observed that, in his day batsmen “just had a cap on” whereas “these days they come out like Sir Lancelot”. Technology was meant to protect batsmen from ultimate harm, freeing the viewer to enjoy the thrills and spills from many angles, supplemented by slow motion replays, performance statistics, close-ups and heart monitors.

Live sport derives its power from happening before our eyes, but most of its watchers are far away, cocooned by technology from the hurt and the dirt. The players are encouraged to push the boundaries and to do “whatever it takes” in a culture where winning trumps all.

But when a player is badly maimed or dies, gladiatorial sport’s illusions are suddenly exposed. This may be a theatre of dreams, but that is real flesh and blood on the stadium stage.

Last week the series against India was eagerly anticipated as the legitimate start to an epic summer of cricket that will end next March at the MCG with the ICC World Cup final.

However, after the Hughes trauma, last summer’s braggadocio has suddenly shrivelled. Now the psychological readiness of the players is in doubt, and questions asked about who will bowl the first bouncer – or even whether one should be bowled at all.

Previously published by ON LINE opinion (Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate).

Copyright © David Rowe 2014
Twitter: @rowe_david

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David Rowe, FAHA, FASSA, is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath; and Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London. His latest book is Making Culture: Commercialisation, Transnationalism, and the State of ‘Nationing’ in Contemporary Australia (co-edited, Routledge, 2018). David’s work has been translated into Chinese, French, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Arabic.


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