"As a leader, I always thought if the boys weren't getting along or we weren't performing then the best thing to was to lock everyone into a room with some music (and) alcohol"
Shane Warne on his Facebook page*, March 12 2013
As if we didn't already know, Shane Warne has just made it crystal clear why he was never made captain of Australia, despite possessing a sharp cricket brain and tactical nous. For a man whose on-air commentary hints at a considerable intellect, his off-field behaviour often suggests the polar opposite. This latest gem for his British newspaper column underscores the very problem that Australian sport, not just cricket, is confronting at this very moment.
It is the elephant in the room that male sport has long ignored - men behaving like boys with alcohol as the social glue. Then the elephant tramples you!
Ever heard of the term "musth" in an elephantine context? It's when a male elephant is in his breeding cycle and reeks of testosterone. As a wildlife guide in Africa, it is arguably the most dangerous animal we have to contend with because of the heightened aggression levels. I know a thing or two about ignoring musth elephants, even when they're not in a room. You do so at your own peril.
Rugby league in Australia has long ignored this huge beast; it has now reached a point where the NRL clubs seem to be on a roster for throwing up a new scandal each week, every one of them linked to an alcohol problem. The latest sacking of NSW rep player Josh Dugan is a story about team rules and standards slipping to the point where coach, captain and board could no longer tolerate such excesses, even from a talented superstar. Sound familiar anyone? In this case, alcohol was the main culprit. If it was left to Warne to address the issue, he'd throw another carton into the mix. Another elephant, just ignore this one too fellas. It won't hurt a bit.
At a time when Australia is grappling with a considerable binge-drinking and social drug epidemic, the panacea offered by the cricketers of yesteryear in relation to the crisis in India is breathtakingly naïve and irresponsible. Like Warne, the common theme seems to be around the notion that when behavioral standards are slipping, just add alcohol. It's a quaint, old-fashioned notion that used to work in an era when your reputation for drinking 52 cans of lager on QF52 to London was the ultimate symbol of manhood. That was then, this is now. The legacy is a plastic doll made in your image by a beer company. Oh to reach such dizzying heights of human achievement.
Despite Cricket Australia's close marriage with that same beer brand, to the point where the captain addresses a serious behavioural issue while adorned by that logo, it is clear why Warne was never destined for that role. It is a job that encompasses more than just tactical acumen. It is the role befitting a statesman, even if that person is perceived as a battler like Allan Border. Dignity under fire was always part of his brand. Is Warne unaware of the current sporting climate in Australia, where all manner of shenanigans are being highlighted, many of them connected to a culture that has encouraged the very thing that Warne is now canvassing as the sure cure?
A bunch of highly-paid alphamales (as they like to see themselves) behaving in ways that would not be tolerated in any other workplace that pays similar wages, and thinking that it can all be fixed in a locked room with music and alcohol? Really Shane? You honestly think that'll fix the problem in the long run? That's your fair-dinkum solution at a time when we are swamped by sporting scandals and alcohol-related problems in society? He might think it, he might even implement it if he was captain but to actually come out and say it in the current climate says everything we already knew about his utter unsuitability for the role he always coveted but never got. That was one elephant that was thankfully not ignored.
Sport is at a major cultural crossroads at the moment, grappling with the conundrum of alcohol sponsorship and the associated perception that it has contributed to a relentless normalising of the binge-drinking culture in Australia. All the sporting codes I work with highlight impaired decision-making associated with alcohol as one of their biggest dangers for subsequent behavioural issues involving fights, respect for females, drink-driving and social media.
It is a moot point whether any of the Australian sporting codes that have signed up to a program called Be the Influence: Tackling Binge Drinking Program (where they enlist sporting heroes to speak directly to young people about the dangers of binge drinking) feel any sense of discomfiture when they get those same athletes to crudely promote an alcohol brand. Just today in NSW, the police are hosting an international conference on drugs and alcohol abuse, highlighting the massive societal issues being faced by these twin evils. For a society that has 50% of hospital admissions being related to alcohol, tobacco and obesity, in other words, entirely preventable diseases, it is astounding that some sports continue to simultaneously bank cheques from government agencies, alcohol companies and fast-food giants. Warne himself is no stranger to promoting any of these products but to actually suggest that alcohol solves serious problems is breathtakingly irresponsible in the current context.
What was acceptable, nay promoted even, a decade ago can no longer be realistically canvassed today. Is Warne that much out of touch with reality that he honestly thinks that the problems in the Australian camp can be fixed as simplistically as that? At least he's not a hypocrite, pretending to be concerned about issues that stem from the abuse of the product of your main sponsor. With Warne, what you hear is what you get, often because the mouth and brain operate in parallel universes.
Does he not realise that sport is going through a massive period of change in Australia at the moment? The mood has changed, tolerance levels are at an all-time low at CEO and board level. The Australian Rugby Union, one of my clients, have given me "riding instructions" to target their next generation of stars with the clear message that the quality of the 'rugby man' is as important as the quality of the rugby player. The one-week suspension of Digby Ioane, a current Wallaby international, for an offence that hasn't even been fully investigated by the police is a clear message that rugby's line in the sand is not necessarily the try line. Sporting administrators are (belatedly) waking up to the realisation that the Australian public (and government funding) is tiring of repeated scandals, mostly involving male athletes who are still living in Warne's World of beers, cheers and eventually, tears.
The other revealing thing about Warne's quote was the reference to "boys". A colloquialism it may have been, but it hints at a deeper truth that underscores the problem in male sport. Grown men are constantly referred to as boys, conferring an air of irresponsibility that manifests itself in boyish, laddish behaviours. Frame that conversation in a different context and it starts to sound a whole lot more serious. "These men did not complete the task asked of them by their employers," puts a whole new spin on how we perceive (and excuse) blatant misdemeanours. All sports do it, most of the time with no sinister intent but the long-term legacy of it is that it creates a mind-set that allows grown men to think/act like boys. It provides immunity from maturity.
In Africa, the most dangerous animal we face on foot are referred to as 'dagga boys', grizzled veteran buffalo bulls who are cantankerous and prone to charge without provocation. They're the farthest things from being boys but yet, that title suggests we associate boyhood with diminished responsibility and judgement. Perhaps that is the essence of Warne - the man who thinks/wishes he was still a boy. Some problems can't be fixed with alcohol or plastic surgery!
*1345 GMT The Shane Warne quote was erroneously attributed to the Daily Telegraph.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane