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Sport a window on Australia's big issues

Nick Bryant | 07:42 UK time, Sunday, 17 May 2009

I know that some of you think this blog can be a tad sports-obsessed at times. But isn't Australia? I have never lived in a country where the traditional separation between front and back page stories is so very blurred, and often so non-existent.mcg_getty226.jpg

I have never lived in a country where sport is so frequently the gateway into so many weighty societal discussions. Arguably, sports-related phone-ins and discussion programmes are increasingly becoming the nation's "public square", the forum in which a broad range of moral and behavioural issues are thrashed out and argued over - although rarely resolved.

So the most recent rugby league scandal provides the context for a series of over-lapping debates, from the possible need to redefine what is meant to female "consent" (does a 19-year-old woman have the power to say "no" when confronted by a roomful of rugby players?) to what is implied by "mateship" (why haven't Matthew Johns team-mates, who were in that hotel room in Christchurch, come forward?); from homo-erotism in macho sports (why this fascination with watching team-mates have sex - a "bun", in the parlance of rugby league?) to the role of the media in these kind of controversies (could and should the original ABC Four Corners programme, Code of Silence, have offered a more complete and complicated account of the events in Christchurch?).

In recent times, sport has thrown-up discussions about gambling (with Russell Crowe's attempt to banish poker machines from the South Sydney Rabbitohs club); drinking (with the Manly rugby league club's drunken season-opener party); domestic violence (the prosecution of the rugby league player, Greg Bird, for glassing his girlfriend); and violent assault (the prosecution of the swimmer, Nick D'Arcy, for attacking his fellow swimmer, Simon Cowley).

Racism has been discussed in the context of the Bollyline series and the "monkeys" taunts directed towards the black all-arounder, Andrew Symonds. Discrimination against gays has come up with the suspicion that the diver Matthew Mitcham has not been the beneficiary of the kind of corporate sponsorship deals that an Olympic gold medallist could normally expect. Breast cancer has received an enormous amount of media attention partly because it took the life, tragically, of Jane McGrath, the wife of Glenn McGrath, one of Australia's most likeable sportsmen.

National prestige is often judged by the quadrennial Olympic medal haul. Corporate prestige is often judged by the quality of your sporting sponsorship deals (Qantas, the national carrier, goes for the Wallabies, the national rugby union team, for instance, and the Aussie Olympics squad) and appropriating naming rights on the country's sporting cathedrals (imagine the clash of the corporate titans if the MCG ever offered naming rights to the highest bidder?). When Rupert Murdoch locked antlers with Kerry Packer, it was over the right to broadcast rugby league.

On national days when there hasn't been an obvious sporting component, the sporting codes have eventually muscled in. The ANZAC Day rugby league and Aussie Rules fixtures, which only took their present, blockbuster form in the mid-1990s, are the most obvious examples. The opening of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra is another. The then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser cut the ribbon on January 26, 1981 - Australia Day. Admittedly, this works both ways. After his retirement from international cricket, Adam Gilchrist accepted an invitation to chair the National Australia Day Council.

This primacy of sport puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the men and women who run the various codes. Often they owe their positions to being brilliant marketeers, but increasingly they are being forced into the role of moral arbiters and moral enforcers. Sometimes, when alleged crimes are committed, the police and authorities step in. But in instances like the Christchurch sex scandal, where the New Zealand police decided that no crime had been committed, sports administrators and sports broadcasters are increasingly being asked to decide what is right and wrong.

One final observation on the recent controversy, and the search it has sparked for sporting role models. There is near universal agreement over one rugby league player who can comfortably perform that role: the Cantebury Bulldogs player, Hazem El Masri, a non-drinking, non-smoking Muslim, who arrived in Australia with his parents in 1988. Anyone care for a debate about multiculturalism...?

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