I love sport. It is a crying shame that it is reported on and commentated on by a group of people who have the analytical capacity of twelve year olds.
There are exceptions to the rule.
Examples of Good Sports Journalism
I used to love Peter Roebuck‘s commentaries on a day’s play in the cricket. Roebuck was a very good journalist who went beyond painting a picture of the battle between bat and ball. He appreciated the guile of Shane Warne, the lethal threat of Ambrose and Marshall, the brutal power of Viv Richards and the sublime grace of Tendulkar, Gower and Mark Waugh. Roebuck had a deep love for and understanding of the game and its players. This allowed him to combine his technical appreciation for the finer points with the very real humanity of the players. It made for some wonderful copy. Some of Roebuck’s finest work was done in relation to the political machinations done behind the scenes. Particularly in India and Zimbabwe and it’s fair to say that his articles made him a few enemies over the years.
Roebuck loved the game but he never became a sycophant that could be easily manipulated. I often wonder about his premature death…but that’s another story.
The truth is that sports journalism has very few quality journalists.
In Australia we have witnessed the ongoing ASADA investigation into the Essendon Football Club’s use of performance enhancing substances. To this day we do not know if they were illegal or otherwise.
AFL football in this State particularly is a very emotive subject. Lots of people define themselves by the football team that they follow. “Journalists” are no exception. The reporting of the situation quickly dissolved into cheerleading for either Asada or Essendon. Mark Robinson – the Herald Sun’s “man of the people” (I mustn’t be a person) is a case in point. He was appalling in his near crazed sycophantic defense of Essendon and their golden boy coach James Hird. While, at the other end of the spectrum Caroline Wilson at the Age couldn’t restrain herself from crucifying Hird and Essendon on a cocktail of rumour, innuendo, gossip and facts that didn’t actually prove anything.
It was a feeding frenzy. I guess it sold a lot of papers, but there wasn’t one objective analysis of what remains a complex sordid affair that cuts to the very soul of a sport loved by many.
A little beacon of hope in an otherwise murky field of shoddy, lazy reporting which at its worst is brazen barracking.
Australian Rules Football journalism is plumbing depths only reached previously by Channel Nine’s hopelessly biased cricket commentary. Nine’s blokey nudge nudge wink wink double entendre might amuse Year nine schoolboys. However, it does not inform or amuse me.
It’s time that more sport’s people called sports journalists out for being what they by and large are. That is lazy sycophantic hacks that are far too easily manipulated by interests (sporting bodies or clubs) that want their own spin put on situations.
I don’t appreciate the pain that my brother, Grant, must have endured. I can’t imagine what life must have been like for my parents. All I can do is tell how it affected me.
This is for my brother, Grant, the toughest bravest person I’ll ever know.
What is a normal childhood?
I guess normal is what a child experiences. They have nothing else to compare it with.
We are nothing more than the sum total of our experiences and how we cope with them.
My childhood wasn’t “normal,” particularly from the years three to eight when for the most part, my brother’s life hung by a thread and my parents were understandably consumed with his welfare. I get annoyed sometimes with people complaining about pain. I know people get annoyed with me because I refuse to acknowledge that I’m unwell or in pain. I’m not playing some dumb I’m tougher than you are game, I hurt like anybody else – I don’t like complaining about what I see as minor things.
I guess ideas of pain are relative to what you’ve seen and experienced.
When your kid brother has his legs broken and pelvis turned around on the operating table and then after maybe six months has the process repeated, when he is about four years old, you tend to view a dislocated thumb, or a broken nose as a scratch. I used to be able to say how many operations Grant had before the age of ten -it was well over thirty, but I can’t remember now. And these weren’t minor operations; they were serious long drawn out life saving or corrective surgery.
I was a kid, I don’t know exactly what it was that was wrong with him, but I do know he spent most of his early life in the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Talk about tough! I have two clear memories of Grant during that time.
The first is when he was about nine or ten – it must have been around then, because I was allowed in to the ward to see him and for much of those earlier years I wasn’t. I had to sit in the waiting room. He’d had some major operation and he was surrounded by drips and tubes and was clutching his Teddy bear tightly to him. Mum asked if he was alright. He nodded and said “Teddy hurts.”
The second was earlier, much earlier. We’d spent much of the day organising to take him home. We had to queue for hours to get some medicine from the dispensary and we eventually got out in the late afternoon. When we finally got outside, he stopped still for a second and seemed to give a little shiver. “Wind,” he said and smiled.
As I’ve hinted at I spent a lot of time sitting in a waiting room at Ward Eight West at the Royal Children’s Hospital. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be as close to my brother as I could be. I wasn’t allowed in. I don’t know why – they must have had a rule about children.
So I sat there, alone for the most part, waiting for news and staring out the window down at Royal Park watching stick figures playing games on the ovals below me.
For company I had a transistor radio – it was tuned to the football broadcast stations and I followed the Collingwood Football Club fanatically.
There’s an assumption from people that being an old Geelong boy, I would follow them, but I never have. My Dad barracked for Collingwood, so, so did I -it was non negotiable from my point of view.
By the time I was six, I could name every player in the team and half the reserves. I was fanatical. That fanaticism grew sitting in that waiting room, hanging on every word that came out of that transistor radio. Names like Thompson, Tuddenham, McKenna, Twiggy Dunne, Richardson and Barry Price were carved into my heart then. When they won, I walked on air, when they lost I was inconsolable.
I wanted to be like Barry Price, a quick highly talented midfielder who could pass the ball better than anybody. All week after school I’d spend practicing little stab passes and imagining Peter McKenna leading up to mark (catch) them. I wanted to play for Collingwood -they were in many ways everything I had.
Collingwood and my brother who I hardly saw but loved all the more for it and was willing to sit listening to games of football being played across suburban Melbourne, while my parents visited him.
It could have been a miserable existence. It wasn’t. I can still remember games on that radio. I remember a game against St Kilda where we (I thought in terms of us and them) were seven goals down at half time and came back to win with the aid of some Des Tuddenham heroics. I was dancing around that waiting room like crazy that day.
I learned to love Collingwood then. It’s a love that has waned but never died. Nowadays, I follow them closely, but with nothing like the maniacal zeal that I did when I was under twelve.
What kind of person can still name the playing twenty that represented Collingwood in 1970 on that fateful day in September? I was seven. I can name the side from the backline. It’s amazing what you remember when you’re in love.
Over the years Collingwood have teased and disappointed me more times than I can remember. How can you be in front by forty four points in a Grand Final and still lose? Collingwood did it – they were masters of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when the ultimate prize seemed to be theirs for the taking. 1970, 1977, 1979,1980, 1981 – they’re years that burn deep but they’re part of being Collingwood.
We’ve never been a classy team – even in our premiership years, we’ve been dogged and determined – Collingwood teams always give value for money and as a follower you learn to love the hard workers, the battlers who give everything and put their body on the line for the club. You learn to value effort above all else.
I often wonder how life would have turned out if Grant had of been born healthy. Neither he nor I would have been the same. I suspect, I would not have been as passionate about Collingwood as I am. I wish Grant didn’t have to go through what he did, but I still remember that waiting room in Eight West looking down at those stick figures below with the transistor glued to my ear living every kick, every mark and every goal.
I was the lucky one. I could live success with my childhood heroes on the radio. My brother had to make do with trying to transfer his pain to his Teddy bear.
He has always been my real hero. I don’t see him much at all these days, but I love him just as unconditionally as I did when I sat in that waiting room all those years ago.
To be honest I haven’t seen my brother for five years. What’s with that? One day soon, little brother, one day soon. This songs for you….
I wrote this when I was President of Grampians Hockey back in 2005. I read it out at the presentation night and then filed it away somewhere. Grampians Hockey has been an integral part of my family’s life for close to fifteen years.
Grampians were seen as the weakest country hockey association in the State, which isn’t surprising, because we were more like a club then an association. We always went to country week. Sometimes our boys were competitive, mostly not.
The girls found it harder, normally not having enough players to field a side, they either had to play with some other team or occassionally, play with the boys.
This was one of the few years that we fielded a girls team and to be honest, most associations wouldn’t have bothered. We did because our girls deserved for once to compete on their own terms. The odds were still stacked against them, but at least they had a chance.
In two days these eight girls (yes eight) did more to represent Grampians Hockey in a positive light then any other team I’ve been involved with.
I wrote this for those eight girls, Ash Bahl, Bianca Mason, Emily Vearing, Susan Fitzpatrick, Cassie Jaensch, Alice Fresle,the then little Katie Hillier and of course, my daughter Beck. If anyone ever writes the history of Grampians Hockey Association these are eight names that should be written in gold…..
When winning isn’t everything
I have eight new sporting heroes. You won’t find them in the glossy pages of Sports Illustrated or even on the back page of the local rag. They are eight largely anonymous girls aged between ten and fourteen who reminded me over one weekend how winning isn’t the be all and end all.
There are eleven players on a hockey team. Grampians Hockey has five senior teams and four junior teams. The teams are mixed and the vast majority of players are male.
We took the plunge this year and decided to enter a girl’s team in the under fourteen division of the Country Week competition held in Melbourne over June.
We scraped together ten players and were assured that we would obtain fill-ins over the weekend. We lost a couple before we started and nearly pulled out entirely, but reassured that we could access some players we set off early one Saturday morning uncertain of what lay ahead but with eight very excited young ladies determined to put their best foot forward.
Things didn’t start well. When we arrived we were told that no spare players were available and we would have to play with eight players. David Coad took charge of the girls and gave them each clear direction of where and how he wanted them to play. They listened attentively. I stood back and let him talk. I didn’t hear it all but I distinctly caught the phrase “show these teams Grampians can play good hockey.”
The first game was against Ballarat. Ballarat chose fourteen players from a selected squad of twenty- four. They all looked close to over age and highly skilled. I had a sinking feeling that we were going to be in for a long weekend and for the first ten minutes nothing happened to change that feeling. Ballarat were finding their feet and could not penetrate our defensive twenty five-yard line, but it looked only a matter of time before they did. Then our defensive line broke and Ballarat swept forward in a line of four. Only ten-year-old Katie Hillier stood between their attack and a clear shot on goal. Katie did not hesitate. She charged to meet the ball carrier and with one deft move made the tackle and swept the ball clear and to the sideline. It was a play that she would make repeatedly over next two days but for me, it was the decisive moment of the weekend.
Suddenly senior players who had looked uncertain and timid in the face of the opposition were running hard to defend and attack. They held firm stopping Ballarat in their tracks and mounting several promising counter attacks.
Ballarat broke through just before half time, but our team continued to play as if they believed they could win. They probed and attacked Ballarat’s defences constantly but were thwarted by their lack of numbers and a tight defence. Ballarat scored again late in the game, but our players came off buoyed by their competitiveness. There was lots of excited chat about the next game and positive reinforcement from the older girls. We had a team.
The next game against Warrnambool was a revelation. Our team of eight dominated general play and came close to scoring just before half- time. Warrnambool looked frustrated and confused as our girls ran them off their feet, but we just couldn’t find the net. When the match finished neither side has scored, but our girls came off behaving like they had won a Grand Final. The bond developing between them was tangible- something you could almost touch.
And so the day went, the girls narrowly lost the next match to the eventual winners of the competition and had another draw against Latrobe under lights in the evening but the spirit amongst them was unbelievable. Bianca Mason, Ashleigh Bahl, Susan Fitzpatrick and my daughter Rebecca collectively guided and led their younger team-mates superbly, while the youngsters Cassie Jaensch, Katie Hillier, Emily Vearing and Alice Fresle did everything asked of them.
In the evening we caught up with our boy’s squad who were doing extremely well, one of the boys made a smart comment about the girls not scoring, and the girls collectively rounded upon him, asking how well he’d go playing three down. There was something magical at work here – something that made them collectively stronger than they had any right to be.
Come Sunday and the girls were ready to win a game. They gave it their best shot in the first match of the day, working extremely hard, but were again frustrated by their inability to find their way past the extra players that the opposition had the luxury of fielding. They never let up, but were just beaten.
The effort of competing against the odds was beginning to show. There were some very tired girls. Some of the younger ones were out on their feet and Emily Vearing was struggling with a headache, but wouldn’t hear of missing the last match.
They took to the field for the final time, knowing that they could not win but determined to stand together.
The cumulative effects of playing against bigger, more powerful teams started to tell, but they refused to surrender. They weren’t helped when Beck copped a full-blooded drive on her ankle, forcing the girls to play even more defensively then usual as she found it hard to run. When the whistle blew they had been soundly defeated, but were unbowed. They had given everything for each other. Bianca and Ashleigh had to literally carry Beck from the field, as she could no longer put any weight on her foot, Emily looked to be suffering badly from her headache and the others looked totally exhausted.
Someone else with a well- drilled team and the advantage of a home artificial pitch won the trophy. I’d take our girls any time. Their courage, persistence and grace under pressure mark them as champions in my eyes.
Next year we will make sure they have the support of a full team. Next year we aim to win, but somehow I don’t think I’ll be as proud as I am of these eight girls.
Sadly of those eight girls, there’s only one (Beck) who is still playing Hockey. At least four of them were good enough to play at higher levels then Grampians- only Beck has. That’s a problem for Hockey Victoria and women’s sport in general I think. If they all lived in Ararat still, they would make a bloody good team, but life moves on, fortunately, sometimes it leaves memories like this one.
Right now Grampians Hockey is on life support. We no longer have a local competition. The drought, safety concerns and the all pervasiveness of Australian Rules Football have seen to that.
There’s a few of us that keep the flag flying. Somebody asked why I bother. I think this story answers that.
This was hard to write. But I feel better for having done it.
This is for hundreds of people but in particular the following -Ralph Steiner who knew there was something very wrong and tried to save me. Sorry Ralph I’d pulled up the drawbridge. For Danny Connolley – mate you knew the dice were loaded but you tried your guts out anyway. For John Keane for treating me like a man when I needed desperately to be valued by somebody. And for dozens of others who I either shut out completely (you know who you are) or just pushed away with complete ruthlesseness. This is a reason, not an excuse. Finally its for Steve Bisinella for having the courage to speak up.
The moment has replayed in my head thousands of times. There isn’t a week go by that I don’t remember it in minute detail.
The ball bounces high and seems to glisten in the morning sun’s rays as it reaches its apex. I have read it perfectly and am running on to it. I know what I’m about to do, I will gather it in my right arm, steady and kick it to the Centre Half Forward who is in good position. It is a moment in time a moment in thousands of moments of hundreds of games of football that I played. It is a perfect moment. I have read the play beautifully, I will deliver well. I belong to this team.
It is the last perfect moment on a football field that I can remember.
It was Under Fifteens St Josephs Geelong. I’d worked my butt off to make this side and this was my first full game. I played a blinder, if I don’t mind saying so and everything was good.
I was born to play Australian Rules football. People laugh when I say that. I’m not big and I’m not lightning fast, but my head made up for those shortcomings. I could read the play better than anybody I ever played with and my vision was better than most. I always knew who was free and where they were. It’s a talent that you can’t teach and good coach’s value.
Of course playing Under 15s was a step up in class. I understood that and I was coming in to the squad from outside, but it was quickly apparent to me that I was in the best 18 and I could have filled any number of spots. I wasn’t big enough to play up the spine but I could fit anywhere down the flanks. It took four rounds but I got in and I fitted well.
Two weeks later I was back on the bench and I stayed there.
I didn’t know why and yet I did.
I didn’t understand what I saw, I didn’t understand the implications and in any case I suppressed it. Buried it and buried it deep.
Our coach was a teacher, popular with students and he owned that team. He had done so for years. He coached unsupervised, he coached by decree and he brooked no argument. In any case he had a dozen sycophantic players who hung on his every word, so there was very little argument.
I didn’t like that. I thought it was weird. I don’t care if a teacher is the duck’s guts and I’ve known quite a few who I’ve had healthy respect for, but I think a teacher student relationship demands a degree of distance as does a coach player relationship. Our coach had no such reservations. I heard of players spending the weekend at his house. I thought it odd, but none of my business.
In any case, as long as I played well I didn’t care what anyone did.
You have to remember this was mid seventies. It was a more innocent time. Today’s eight year olds would be worldlier than I was and then some.
So I was in the side and had played well. Life looked good.
The next week I started again, but it was one of those days when the ball is played down the other side of the field -All half I held my position and made space, but the ball was trapped on the far wing. I got dragged at half time which was fair enough I was having no impact. We won the game comfortably.
The change rooms after were weird. The coach didn’t come in immediately. I was almost changed and ready to go when he made his appearance. I can’t tell how long he’d been but it was long enough for me to get changed and have my bag packed.
He came in with his arms around two players. I was sitting down, not talking to anyone when he came in. From where I was I could see one player clearly. He looked weird. On reflection he looked like he’d was out of it. He looked sleepy and really childish. Armed with the benefit of hindsight, I would say he didn’t know where he was. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I knew him well and I’d never seen him like this – so completely vulnerable.
I didn’t have a clue about what was going on but it felt bad.
Then the player did the most bizarre thing that I had ever seen anyone do in public. He nuzzled into the coach in the most intimate manner, rubbing his face against the coach’s chest and up under his arm. I didn’t believe my eyes. Then the player caught my eye and smiled. I felt sick. I didn’t know why. I looked away and caught the coach looking at me. I don’t know what he saw in my eyes but I know what I saw in his.
He was off balance. I’m guessing that something had happened that had made him bring the players in to the change rooms. I don’t know what. I know that it was a weird unnatural situation and I know that the coach was trying to hide something. He hadn’t hidden it from me and he knew I’d seen something.
I had to get out of there. I snatched up my bag and pushed past the coach and out into the day. My parent’s car wasn’t far away. I ran to it and got in. I said nothing.
I knew what I’d seen, but I couldn’t process it.
In those days to a fourteen year old, the concept of homosexuality was real enough but a fourteen year old boy and a forty year old man? I couldn’t get it. Besides that, I knew the boy well. He was just an average kid; I didn’t understand what he was doing. And he looked so comprehensively out of it. I tried to tell myself that it was concussion. It wasn’t. I saw the game. He didn’t get hurt. I didn’t understand any of it.
What I did get was this.
Our coach had his favourites and his favourites were always going to get a game.
I was angry, I was hurt and I have to admit that part of me, the little boy part who just wanted to play footy was jealous.
What was so special about that player?
I didn’t think in sexual terms I just thought in terms of being accepted by the coach. I still wanted his approval. I wanted to play. I didn’t have any idea of how much danger I was in. I just didn’t know.
I lie awake some nights and think about it. At fourteen years old back then we were still children, trying desperately to behave like we thought that men should. We all came from respectable middle class homes; we had no life experience to speak of. We were lambs to the slaughter. One very sick man and twenty four fourteen year old boys ripe for the plucking – he had his own personal smorgasbord every year. What a sick filthy lying dog.
I think about that player often – did he ever file a complaint? Could I have said something to save him? Did he ever ask anyone for help? Whatever happened to him? I know what I saw and I’ll carry the look on his face to my grave. Its enough to drive you completely bat shit.
I didn’t go to training that week and when the side was named I was on the bench. I expected it but it still hurt.
The coach never asked where I was, he never spoke to me for the rest of the year other than to say “you’re on.” He treated me like dirt.
But I loved footy. I still wanted to play. So after that first week I went to training every week, I went to every game and I played off the bench every week. I got angrier and angrier and it’s an amazing thing to say, but I didn’t really know why.
The world that I thought existed had been turned upside down by witnessing an act that I didn’t understand.
My wife says that it’s good to ventilate your feelings. I didn’t ventilate mine. I suppressed them and tried to get on with life. I made a series of very bad choices; I started to hang out with a rougher crowd. I started hitting the bottle towards the end of that year and I lost interest in my schoolwork. When you embrace darkness it takes you in, welcomes you in and then it starts to bite. I didn’t know that then, I was trying to cope with something way bigger than me and I was lashing out blindly. The only person I hurt was myself.
The football season rolled on, the coach played his favourites. I heard about wild alcohol fuelled parties at the coach’s place. Part of me was insanely jealous – why wasn’t I asked? Part of me didn’t want to think about it at all. I’m not stupid, but I was terribly innocent. What is so bleeding obvious to an adult in this millennium may as well have been written in Braille to me. I only knew one thing for sure – I was on the outer. I blocked out the chatter and tried to focus on footy – surely he’d have to play me sooner or later. I realized that I didn’t love it anymore. It had become a chore.
We got to the semi finals and something snapped inside me. I didn’t go.
Nobody asked where I was. I had become the invisible man.
Preliminary final day came. We played Barwon – the team was made up of players from the Little League I had played in the year before and I know if I had played for them I would have lined up in the middle either as centre or rover. As it was I watched them towel St Josephs up. It came to the last quarter and our coach desperately started to swing changes. He ignored me totally.
I felt totally humiliated. I didn’t hang around for the after match speeches. I just left, completely and utterly broken.
I hope he was satisfied.
I never spoke to him again, which was quite an achievement considering he was still a large presence within the school.
I played under seventeens the next year. I desperately wanted to rediscover the magic I knew football could bring. John Keane was our coach and he was a fine one at that. He treated everyone equally and rotated us all through the side. Everyone got a fair go.
I found that my love of footy was dying. I found it difficult to attend training and I hated being in the change rooms. I still hate sporting change rooms, they make me feel ill. Keane kept me engaged and committed. I found that I was no longer playing for me but for the coach. He treated us as adults, he made us commit, and he played no favourites.
Towards the end of the season, he came to me and said, “You’re the smartest little bloke I’ve got, and I need someone smart and small to play in the back pocket.” I thought he was humouring me at the time and he wanted to play two other little blokes on the ball, but I accepted what he wanted.
We made the Grand Final and I lined up in the back pocket. We kicked a couple of early goals and we looked to be on the way. Then the game changed and they had all the play. I don’t know how many possessions I had, but it was a lot and every one went to a teammate. The last quarter went forever and we clung to a small lead. I think in the last five minutes alone I held up four separate attacks. I was so damn tired I couldn’t raise my feet at the end, but we held on.
I didn’t care to celebrate much. I just remember looking at John after the game and him nodding at me. “I told you,” he said.
It was the vindication I needed. Not only had I proved to myself that I could play I had won the faith of a coach.
It was the last real game I played. Keane wasn’t going to coach the next year, maybe I would have played if he did, but the love had gone. Sure I pulled on the boots a couple of years later to play for some reserves sides but by then I was fat and horribly unfit. Even then, I still managed to find the ball.
The truth is that that under fifteens year destroyed my youth and my love of football. I lost all faith in authority and I got so deeply mistrustful of forming relationships that I pushed so many good people away. I became angry and resentful and something happened inside me that told me that good things happened to other people. I became a chronic underachiever.
It was stupid, but that’s what happens when you lock things away and let them fester. They grow into cancerous tumours that eat away at your very existence.
When I turned forty I started to play field hockey. My stick skills were appalling, but I could still read the play better than anyone else and my vision was second to none. Some things never change.
I’ve done the sums.
I think I could have played twelve senior seasons of good level football. I know I was too small to play VFL/AFL but I would have been a very handy small forward/ on baller for most senior metropolitan clubs. I missed two hundred and forty games.
Two hundred and forty games where I may have experienced the perfect moment when I have read the play beautifully; when I know I will deliver well, where I know I belong to my team.
The damage my coach did to me pales into insignificance compared to what he did to others, but he did damage me. It took ten years of anger and stupidity before I started to behave like a normal person.
I remember saying to my mate Chris one night that I drank to forget. He laughed and said “forget what.” “I don’t know,” I said, “I forget.”
I remember now.
I was collateral damage.
Tomorrow when I wake up I will remember …..The ball bouncing high and seeming to glisten as the morning sun’s rays as it reaches its apex. I have read it perfectly and am running on to it. I know what I’m about to do, I will gather it in my right arm, steady and kick it to the Centre Half Forward who is in good position. It is a moment in time a moment in thousands of moments of hundreds of games of football that I played. It is a perfect moment. I have read the play beautifully, I will deliver well. I belong to this team.
And then I will remember other things.
===================================== They say time heals or wounds. My latter teenage years and early twenties were wasted years. I could have self destructed, but I had my music. There were some great underground songs coming out at the time. The one below carried me through one year. There’s a line in it “Once you were a flying thing now you’re on the rocks with broken wings.” I identified with that but it was balanced by the Chorus ”
Hold tight, hold tight, keep those hands on your given birthright
Alright, alright, keep your eyes on the demon in disguise
You must never close your eyes
Right, each night think on back to your given birthright
Hold tight, hold tight, just remember the feeling deep inside you”