Paying the Price of Life on a Pedestal

I watched the cricket over the summer and was amazed at the assortment of retired players Channel Nine churned through in commentary and other roles. Michael Slater, Mark Taylor, Ian Chappell and co must be having the time of their lives, interviewing their mates, still in the spotlight even after their decorated careers have all but faded into history. These men will be able to dedicate their lives to their sport, churn out a couple of books and reap the financial awards. Ricky Ponting, as a champion player and Captain of Australia, will be feted for the rest of his life, his words given sacred status, and his thoughts on any topic will be discussed and dissected. Is this a justifiable reality? It is Australia, more so then any other country, that elevates its sporting heroes to a holy status. It is the poison chalice of professional sport. As a society we place our sporting stars on a pedestal and then wait for them to either transcend to perfection, a la Steve Waugh or Pat Rafter, or to fail, fail so that we can drag them down into the depths of public loathing, think Wayne Carey and Todd Carney.

With AFL and Rugby League, in their respective fishbowl states of Victoria and New South Wales, any discretion is immediately front page news and given extensive radio talkback and air time. The handling of Todd Carney by the NRL was disgraceful, and numerous fingers were pointed; it was the media’s fault, it was the clubs fault. Unfortunately, everyone failed to remember that the image of Rugby League was not at stake but rather the life of a very young man who, like thousands of young men his age, has a problem with alcohol. Ben Cousins is the similar basket-case in the AFL world, he had the ignominy of having a drug addiction exposed to the entirety of Australia. Imagine having the darkest part of your personality shown to millions of people, allowing them to judge and form opinions and with such immense public pressure, making it nearly impossible to fix.

It is a wobbly pedestal that our sporting heroes must balance themselves on, go too far off the beaten track and they will topple, stay on it, and a comfortable, sporting icon life beckons. Would Michael Slater be grinning out of the TV in a ghastly shirt if he had been exposed as a drug addict? Or if he had been unfairly singled out, would his success in his sport have justified his flaws? Was it not a young Ricky Ponting who was put in jail very early in his career for a late night scuffle. Ponting was given another chance yet it took years for him to earn back the publics respect. The clubs of Todd Carney and Ben Cousins must have had an inkling that their star players had a addictive problem, yet both players were in their prime, Cousins captaining the Eagles to a premiership and Carney winning the Dally M award. We as a nation idolise our sporting heroes and their feats on the field, and in doing so we think of them as invulnerable, flawless and perfect, and our heroes start to believe it too. Cousins recently, and publicly, relapsed into drug addiction again. I wonder how flawless he feels now.