How did sledging become a sign of manliness?
The bubble. It's a buzzword in sport today. This morning I attended the media launch of a new book called Bubble Boys, by Michael Blucher, a prominent Brisbane identity in the sports media community and a respected mentor to many elite athletes, especially when it comes to the matter of brand perception and image management. The author ruefully claimed that the book was seven years in the making and out of date within ten minutes! He was referring, of course, to the Michael Clarke sledging incident and its impact on the Clarke brand. (Incidentally Clarke's previous manager Chris White was also at this book launch, a wise, decent man whose advice might serve Clarke well right now.)
Picking up the Australian, I then read Gideon Haigh's excellent piece, which also refers to the bubble, this time in reference to Jonathan Trott, and is proof that the best cricket writers need not necessarily have played Test cricket. A quality writer who has distinguished himself in the Test arena, Michael Atherton, added to my enjoyment of the morning newspaper with his erudite and informed perspective, made more poignant by his first-hand experience of playing (and being sledged) at this level. He cautiously chided all parties involved, reminding them that at the end of the day, this is still sport and it behooves us all to not lose sight of that amidst all the trash talk.
Bubble Boys takes a balanced look at the pressures, both internal and external, perceived or real, that elite athletes have to now contend with. My professional life is centred firmly in this space, so I have some insights into bubble boys and it is with some caution that I offer my opinions on the fall-out from the Brisbane Test, conscious of my own personal leanings but not oblivious to the hard-nosed realities of modern warfare, which is what this Ashes series threatens to descend into unless both teams and the media change the mood.
For some, the series has come alive. For me, some of the joie de vivre has died. The cricket was high-quality but I prefer my sport, no matter what the stakes are, to be served in more genteel fashion. I expect the inevitable vitriol from some bloggers, but the tone of their response may just underscore the point I'm making - that sometimes players, media and fans lose sight of the raison d'etre of sport. If this is sport, it doesn't push my buttons, despite my proximity to and familiarity with the bubble boys.
The fact that England have now withdrawn into their shell and refuse to engage with the media is a sad indictment of where things are at. The media played its part in creating this siege mentality, especially the Brisbane tabloid that refused to name Stuart Broad in its reports. The players' behaviour in refusing to talk to the press makes a lie of their claims that sledging never affects them. Clearly words hurt. Or are they only impervious to on-field sledging? That the Ashes media coverage has descended into a race to the bottom, with players hiding behind headphones, is schoolboy stuff. It's like being sent to Coventry in some Enid Blyton boarding-school story.
Clarke is the ultimate bubble boy. Often misunderstood, carefully image-managed, groomed for the captaincy at a young age, living in a goldfish bowl (replete with supermodel female partners), reputation damaged by some team-mates, and now suddenly facing a new reality that is both ambrosia and arsenic. On one hand, his behaviour at the Gabba has been described as unbecoming of an Australian captain; on the other hand, his much-maligned reputation as a pretty boy, a metrosexual (whatever that is supposed to connote, presumably negative, as described in yesterday's Australian), a brand that hasn't resonated with the VB-swilling public - unlike how those of AB, Tubby, Tugga and Punter did - has now apparently been transformed: from pup to mongrel. And according to many, this is apparently the best thing for his image. It took a threatening expletive and a sanction from the ICC to get him into that club! His fantastic batting wasn't enough for us?
It's a concept that I struggle with personally, but I daresay I'm in the minority. I find it disturbing that we equate manhood and toughness with what we've just seen from the captain. The captain no less.
I've always been a Clarke supporter thus far, but not this time. The other main protagonists, Jimmy Anderson and David Warner, splendid cricketers both of them, played their part in the drama, but does that surprise anybody? Brand consistency they call it.
One of the programmes I run is called A Few Good Men, and it is aimed at getting the good men of sport (and there are many) to take a leadership role in confronting the growing problem of violence in society, specifically violence against women. To think that the national cricket captain is being praised in some quarters for enhancing his brand with a threat to someone to expect a "broken f***ing arm" just speaks to the hopelessness of trying to start a counter-revolution that flies in the face of what our sporting leaders are promoting, even if only in the context of a sporting sledge. It's hard to compete with messages that say real men don't walk away from a fight (the Australian rugby league coach implied as much recently when his star player was involved in a punch-up at the World Cup in Manchester).
Michael Vaughan was quoted today as saying that the Lillee-Thomson era was much worse, so there's nothing to worry about. That doesn't really address the core issue of whether we think it is edifying to watch our cricket stars behave like hooligans or not. Just because it has been worse in times gone by doesn't necessarily make it right. The penalties may vary but a wrong doesn't become a right because it's less bad.
Many people not familiar with the environment of professional sport shake their heads and wonder how this sort of behaviour can occur in what is effectively a workplace. Some of the invective hurled by both teams would constitute workplace harassment in most cases. At best, it would be seen as abysmal etiquette to colleagues or competitors. Yet in sport these bubble boys proudly sing the national anthem, represent their countries, are heroes to kids (and cash in handsomely for that), and then reckon that the rest of their behaviour can exist in a moral vacuum. Maybe sport does live in a bubble after all, and so do all those who work in this special industry
My ten-year-old son posed a question to which I had no definitive answer. It was in relation to a Powerpoint slide I use in my work on respect for women that goes something like this: A male librarian says, "We've agreed to put the magazines which are degrading to women out of the reach of children", to which the female librarian says, "I see. And how old do they have to be before degrading women is all right?" In the context of recent events involving verbal and physical violence, my son wanted to know about the shift from being told not to sledge, not to use foul language, not to threaten opponents, to these things suddenly being perceived as a positive sign of manhood. In junior sport, all of these are frowned on. Judging by the endorsement of the new, more masculine, Michael Clarke, my son wants to know when you go from being boy to man, where the sins of boyhood become the proud tattoos of manhood. The only answer I could offer him was that in our family there was no invisible line.
Leadership is turned upside down when grown men are excused for behaviour that would earn a young cricketer a suspension. We expect so much of our boys but should they display those same decent qualities in adulthood, society demands we burst that bubble. Bubble boys indeed!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane