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Friday, May 16, 2008

Spoiled sports

Too much money? Too much time on their hands? Too much adulation and temptation?

Much has been made at times of the amount of money paid to elite sportspeople, suggesting that this has been the cause of the downfall of many.

This sort of behaviour has reached a new, horrific low in the person of Michael Vick, a star of the National Football League in the USA. Vick, on a $170 million ten year contract, has just been sentenced to almost two years in gaol for organising dog fights.

Dog fighting – two vicious animals, slavering, baying maniacally at each other, quite literally howling for blood, are thrown into a pit to fight to the death. All for the ‘pleasure’ of excited ‘fans’. Why not throw a few Christians to the lions whilst we’re at it? Or butcher a few babies and pack-rape a couple of women for the crowd?

While a long outlawed practice, Vick organised and hosted this barbarous practice on his own property on an ongoing basis. The court was told that animals which failed to perform sufficiently well were killed by either drowning or hanging. A total of 54 pit bull terriers were removed from Vick’s property and taken into animal care, with Vick wearing a maintenance bill for them of some one million dollars.

One could be forgiven for thinking that with a $170 million dollar contract, many millions more in endorsements and essentially playing sport for a living, Vick would have enough opportunities for reasonable entertainment. With what he had available to him, there was very little that he couldn’t have done if he wanted to. But Vick went for putting together one of the vilest blood sports imaginable. He was hardly short of a quid, so why else would he have done this if not for some sort of sick ‘entertainment’. I think everyone would have been better served if he had instead opted for getting his kicks through something like diving off a deep sea fishing vessel in stormy weather, wearing a cast iron overcoat.

As a kid, my hero was Australian fast bowler, Dennis Lillee. I modelled a lot of my own on-field behaviour on his. Now a lot of years removed, I will admit that I grew my first moustache (long since gone) because Lillee had one. I collected news clippings about him. I worked my guts out practicing in my quest to become a fast bowler just like the great man. The neighbours still remember the maddening and almost never ending sound of a cricket ball crashing into the practice net I put together out of an old iron farm gate. Crash…..crash…..crash. But more importantly, I learned other lessons from Lillee. I learned to play on through pain, injury and hardship; the importance of never giving up on the field; to play it hard but fair, leaving the aggression on the ground; and to have the heart and attitude of a champion even though I sure has heck didn’t have a champion’s ability. My hero was far from perfect, but I learned so much of positive value from him.

What is Vick’s legacy going to be? What has he inspired in his fans? What has he done to inspire youngsters as Dennis Lillee inspired me? How many are going to think, despite Vick’s gaol sentence, that it really is OK to engage in such sickening behaviour? With the publicity that this case received, how many bored louts are going to decide to start dog pits because it is a thrilling, forbidden and dangerous thing to do? Given a choice between the two, I think that my long-suffering neighbours would agree that I made the right one.

The bulk of Lillee’s career was played before cricketer’s received anything like elite sports monies. Even now, the highest paid cricketer in the world only earns a fraction of the likes of Michael Vick. Yet elite sportspeople and the sporting clubs that they may play for, all too often forget one all important thing. If it were not for the fans, their elite sport and elite status would disappear. Elite sportspeople are essentially products that need to be sold to fans. If they don’t sell, then the sponsorship etc disappears. As the money goes, so do the elite players from that body. With the players disappearing, eventually the club goes as well. If there are fewer elite clubs in that particular sporting profession, then there are fewer playing positions leading to even fewer elite players. It is a classic symbiotic relationship. What fans want to see their ‘heroes’ behave like gutter scum?

As much as some of these clowns think that the world revolves around them, it doesn’t. To be a professional, you have a responsibility to act like one. Nobody forced them to be there. Becoming drugged out problem cases like the otherwise supremely gifted Australian Rules footballer Ben Cousins, simply doesn’t cut it. Yet the offences of the Cousins of this world, pale into insignificance when compared to that of Michael Vick. My own hero was far from perfect, but Vick’s vile behaviour overrides any otherwise redeeming qualities he may have, to the point that I am sure many people will join me in objecting to him ever being readmitted to the human race.

It is to be hoped that Michael Vick will never be allowed back into American football at any level ever again, giving him a much more substantive and justified sentence than a maximum gaol term of less than two years. And maybe some other ‘spoiled sports’ will learn from his downfall.

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