Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it’s off to work we go.

Recently, COC’s post on the Ashes series quoted Geoff Boycott describing the English players going about their business “as if it were their office jobs”.

Obviously this was meant to be a stinging criticism of the Poms.  But it raised two questions in my mind.

The first was whether, in an age of professional sport, should we be surprised, or indeed critical, of performances that resemble “office workers”?

Professionalism is a double-edged sword.  The essence of professionalism is honing strengths and eliminating weaknesses to a point where high standards of performance are achieved regularly and consistently.  By definition professional sport is played at higher levels of skill, fitness and mental resilience than amateur sport.  On those rare occasions when professionals of the highest quality are pitted against one another (e.g. some of the recent Grand Slam tennis finals between Nadal, Federer and Djokovic), what you see are spectacles as fine as we have ever seen in sport.  Classic “irresistible force versus immoveable object” stuff.

From this perspective, it’s pretty hard to argue that greater professionalism in sport isn’t a good thing.

But professionalism also implies an environment of “all day, every day”.  Professionalism means regularity, competence, consistency.  In short, people doing their jobs.

I know from years of experience in a professional office job that there are days where performance really matters and days when it doesn’t.   You quickly learn the difference and you certainly don’t bust a gut on the latter.

This is where Boycott’s “office workers” quote is apposite.  In a profession where your body is your most important asset and you work in an environment of year-round competitions where you need to be playing to earn your keep, can you really blame the Poms for conveniently caving in a day or two early in dead rubbers, giving themselves some bonus recuperating time?  Even if it was the Ashes.

The implication from Boycott’s comment, that they should have battled on out of a sense of national pride, is a rather quaint, outdated notion when the individuals concerned may well be drawing their next pay cheque from County cricket, the IPL or some other lucrative source.

Surely the same “office workers” description could have been applied as a compliment to England’s efficient 3-0 series victory in the UK.  It was hardly spectacular but, like competent professionals, they got the job done.

My point is that if we are willing to accept professional sport because its best is of a higher quality than non-professional sport, we must also accept that much of the time, professional sports-people are going to play in a manner that is…well…professional.  This includes:

  • not performing at 100% if the result is unimportant;
  • minimising displays of emotion;
  • eliminating individual idiosyncrasies in the execution of skills;
  • playing strictly in accordance to team rules and strategies;
  • offering one’s opponent professional respect irrespective of the result and providing no grounds to incite hostility (except perhaps in calculated cases of sledging);
  • being entirely cooperative with the media in the provision of information that is entirely factual, self-evident and anodyne.

In short, what we have to accept as part of professionalism is a colourlessness in our participants as their chosen sport becomes less of an exhibition of their personalities, their emotions and their motivations, and more simply a full-time job.

So to my second question.

What does the increasing professionalism in sport mean for creative sports writing of the Footy Almanac variety?

The single most influential piece that motivated me to dip my toe into this stream is Martin Flanagan’s “1970”, a riveting account of, arguably, Australian Rules’ most famous game – the 1970 Grand Final between Carlton and Collingwood.

Re-reading it recently, I was struck by how a story that is ostensibly about a simple ball game, so artfully illustrates the significance of the events of that day to the lives of the protagonists and all those who witnessed it.  Over 90 compelling pages, derived from personal accounts from the players and coaches, Flanagan irrefutably demonstrates sport’s place in the national psyche and cultural landscape.  It should be essential reading for anyone who spouts the elitist nonsense that “sport doesn’t matter”.

Flanagan begins “1970” with a simple premise  – “Sport is drama” – and proceeds to demonstrate it brilliantly.

What Flanagan means by “drama”, I think, is far deeper than the basic concept of sport played out on a stage, according to a script (rules), leading to a clear, decisive conclusion, with actors (players) performing roles for the entertainment of a passive audience.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than when he recounts his interview with Colin Tully, the Collingwood defender who played on Ted Hopkins, Carlton’s reserve and second-half game-changer.

“Sport’s more than a game, of that he (Tully) has no doubt.  Like theatre, it’s a place where people publicly invest their meaning and that is the riskiest of all investments”. (My emphasis).

“A version of history was being conceived and for the next 30 years he would be dragged along behind it like a man on a water ski.  Truth?  Who wants to know the truth?  In bars, there was always some big mouth who wanted to remind him of Teddy Hopkins’ four goals. … If he could erase any one day of his life, that would be the day”.

This to my mind identifies an essential criterion for sport to be worth writing about.  If it doesn’t matter to the participants, why would you bother documenting it?

The 1970 example is interesting in the context of professional sport.  The players back then weren’t professionals.  Most pursued careers outside of football and many claimed that footy wasn’t even a big deal in their lives.  Yet the message in all the perspectives that Flanagan recounts is how profoundly and indelibly the result affected the lives of all participants that day.  For winners and losers alike, this was truly a life-changing moment.  The drama of this contest extended far beyond the period of the match or the confines of the arena.  It mattered to them then and it matters to them now.

Paradoxically, professional players, whose livelihoods depend on their performances, seem less affected by these sorts of results than the amateurs of yesteryear.  I’m not sure that if Flanagan were to do a similar exercise with the recent Ashes participants, whether now or in 20 years time, that he would get the same sense of the importance of the contest.  Even for the triumphant winners, I get the sense that whilst there are team and individual achievements to be savoured and celebrated, next week is business as usual.  Another day, another tournament.

The other factor that made “1970” such an interesting account is the fascinating and eclectic bunch of characters who played this match and whose personalities strongly influenced the way they played the game generally and this game specifically.

Again, in my view, there is little purpose in writing about sport at a level beyond basic reporting of matches and results, unless the writer is convinced that that there is sufficient human interest in the performers and/or their performances that warrants deeper analysis.

When I look at mainstream sport today, I see a huge ration of a consistently higher standard compared with the more amateur fare of yesteryear.  But what I find singularly lacking in most of it is the essential human drama that Flanagan describes in “1970”, the characters, their attitudes, motivations and idiosyncrasies – stuff that makes sport worth remembering, reflecting on, writing about.

I don’t doubt that they exist.  Anyone who reaches high levels of their chosen profession has some sort of a story to tell.  It’s just that it’s so hard for us as observers and potential chroniclers to penetrate beneath the suffocating monotone of professional sporting behaviour and manufactured public image.

This individual dullness is exacerbated by the increasing homogeneity of the sporting stages on which they perform.   Whether it’s the obsession with playing pre-match national anthems for any flimsy reason, the mandatory circular team hugs as a last bonding gesture before the contest commences, intrusive PA hype throughout, right through to the obligatory orgasms of appropriately coloured confetti accompanying trophy presentations, every sport seems to be dropping its own unique features in favour of globally accepted common practices.

Recently, Peter Baulderstone posted a really interesting article by Brian Phillips about the effects that revelations of corruption in professional sport have on the critical requirement for fans to suspend disbelief in order to really accept the vision of glorious innocence that sport provides.

Phillips writes:

“Between concussion scandals, PED scandals, match-fixing scandals, construction-workers-dying-in-quasi-slavery scandals, fallen icons, lawsuits, investigations, homicides, suicides, bombings, and lies, you couldn’t watch sports in 2013 and not know that things were deeply, anatomically messed up. It was not possible to pretend, even if you wanted to, that things were mostly fine. And yet you went right on watching, and while you were watching you probably didn’t think much about how toxic the system was. You just thought about all the fun you were having, because in 2013, sports were also as exciting and beautiful and great as they’ve ever been.”

I don’t disagree with anything that Phillips says, including the key point that despite all the scandal and murk that is revealed, the essential beauty and drama that sport can throw up keeps us addicts coming back for more.

But …”as exciting and beautiful and great as they’ve ever been”? 


I wonder to what extent the relentless, pervasive transformation of sport into professional business isn’t an even bigger threat to its essential charm – sport as exciting, beautiful, great drama – than corruption is to its integrity.

I’m certainly finding less and less inspiration to write about it than I once did.

Given the tone of this piece, readers may think this is a good thing!




About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Sam – you are certainly of the meditative, philosophical bent in this one. I find myself agreeing with much of what you say about professional sport, and at the same time thinking ‘so what – it was ever thus.’ There were memorable inventive games like the 1970’s GF, but they were the exception not the rule. Fitzroy in the mud at Brunswick Street or St Kida at Moorabin? No thanks.
    Great writing about sport is not about great games. It is about great creative observers who put the game (good, bad or mediocre) in the context of their lives, relationships and wider society. That is always interesting in good hands.
    Read Gideon on the ’05 Ashes we lost; Dips coming third at Stawell; Harms coming second in almost everything. Pafko at the Wall. The Dodgers were the story going into that game – but the scope and drama of the writing made a surprise win by the underdogs memorable.
    Great drama; pathos; humour – often about unremarkable contests.
    For good or for ill, my starting off point in any writing, is what was I thinking about; or feeling – internally or about society – at the time of the game; and then I try to find something in the game that gives my experience popular currency that others might attach to.
    Great writing about sport does not require great sport. I think its almost the opposite.
    Thanks for writing such a provocative, stimulating piece.
    More please.

  2. A very thought-provoking piece, Stainless – thanks. I remember reading an autobiography by David Gower years ago. He said that the main difference between him and Gooch was that Gooch insisted on being super-professional in all things, whereas Gower liked to enjoy himself and saw no point in ‘turning cartwheels with joy while some bore blocked for a draw’. The public tends to like players with individuality like Gower, Greg Matthews, Neil Harvey, but as you point out professional sport requires people to be more like Gooch (and even Bradman – isn’t Australia’s greatest sporting hero, in fact, a super-professional run machine?)

    The fundamental paradox is that, as you say, everything pushes elite sports people towards being automata in the Bradman/Gooch mould. But we don’t want our sporting heroes to be automata. We want them to represent heroism, grace, passion, courage – all that stuff. We want people we can emotionally connect with, even if it’s in a negative way, like say Jason Akermanis or John McEnroe or Stuart Broad (because we want villains too). We want to believe in them. Hence the disappointment when they don’t display heroic qualities – Bernard Tomic the other night was, arguably, just being a pragmatic professional when he pulled out.

    I think the space for great sports writing of the kind we all love lies in exploring these kind of paradoxes and tensions between what we want sport to be and what it actually is. And every now and then, a sports person emerges who is both a great professional and a great character – I’d nominate Usain Bolt.

    Thanks again for asking such intriguing questions.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    a very interesting article and 1 which provokes great debate I thought the raw emotion showed by the Aust side immediately after the match in Sydney was amazing and showed clearly how much I meant to them and surely the crowds and occasion would have been enough to get you up and about in Melb and Sydney . Englands problems may run a lot deeper than we realize yet .
    I think if you interviewed players from any Grand Final there jubilation and despair would be the same as the 1970 participants .
    I do see your point tho Stainless and agree with you Players with so much money at stake consider programming issues and rest there body etc and in some regards you can’t blame then but personally and I am sure this would be the same for 99 per cent of members of the Knackery give me a baggy green over the riches of 20 20 any day
    ( Shaun Tait and others have a different point of view )
    Great stimulating debatable fantastic read Stainless

  4. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Heartfelt and poignant, Stainless. Been feeling the same about elite sport for a few years now. I have got some meaning by going to back to local grounds to watch, smell and hear football/cricket. Having a kick on the ground at Vic Park with my older brother and daughter has been a treat. The ‘Tetleys’ are back at Punt Road this year and I will definitely be going along. If there is a lack of meaning, I guess it’s up to us to make our own.

  5. It is one of THE questions of contemporary top-level sport. Your piece opens up a dozen areas of discussion.

    One strength of contemporary Australian football is that despite the industrial process which has grabbed it, the players still love the game, and want to play. The senior players will tell you that.

    Will get the word out on this terrific article.


  6. Hi Stainless,
    I reckon that’s a real gem. It’s had me thinking for days.
    Of the many questions swirling around this hive of thought, time and again I come back to this one: If the players cease to invest meaning, where does that leave the fan?
    I see Phil_D has trodden that path, too.

    If we see the engaged viewing of sport as a choice (some don’t), then that implies that somewhere along the line I have chosen to spend 2-3 hours (for a footy game, let’s say) of my life on this pursuit AT THE EXPENSE OF ALL OTHERS. In a time-poor world, that’s significant. If I also pay to travel, to attend, to imbibe, then I invest money as well as time.
    I effectively become an investor.
    Here I imagine parallels with the placebo effect in medicine, in which two unknowing parties receive different treatments, one a proven treatment, one a nil treatment, yet each having paid full fare, each claiming to have felt great success as a result of their consultation.
    If we are financially (or otherwise) invested in the practice, we choose to believe in it.

    So I will choose to enjoy the game perhaps because I have already given up the time and money. I have paid in time and money and I would expect a return on that investment.

    But is it actually a good investment?
    I guess that question can be answered by answering: would I go again?
    With footy, lots of people repeatedly turn up, so I guess the investment is seen as worth it by most. This is not the case in many other sports, I gather.

    A second (related) question is to do with allegiances. If support of a particular team is seen as a personal choice, what motivation do I personally have to support Collingwood over Gold Coast?
    Sure, there are historical reasons.
    There are emotional reasons.
    Family reasons.
    And that’s fair enough. A lot of investment and a lot of shared history should be recognised.
    But what degree of support should I invest? Attendance at one game? A club membership? There are many shades of grey in here relating to my level of emotional (and then financial and time) investment.

    What about choosing between the T20 franchises of Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades?
    I lack meaningful connection with either of these outfits. To align myself with either, I must create a link. It’s artificial. It feels contrived. It is a place devoid of emotional involvement.
    Is it a coincidence that I’ve not seen a ball bowled in T20 history?
    Emotion is required from the supporter before they will invest.

    Sports writing can be brilliant, of course, and I look forward to reading “1970”.
    Perhaps the best writing is done by those on the periphery, anyway, rather than those fully engaged. Regrettably, I have no evidence of this to offer right now. The social and societal angles of a story make great reading for us herd animals.
    Thanks for lighting this fire.

    American author Richard Ford (“Independence Day”, “Canada”) called the first of his Frank Bascombe trilogy “The Sportswriter.” It’s a beauty. Frank is a wonderful philosophical character.
    In Richard’s Frank’s words: “If you lose all hope, you can always find it again.”

  7. Thanks for the terrific feedback folks.

    Peter – totally agree about connecting writing to broader things that you’re thinking about at the time. It’s just that when I watch modern professional sport I often find myself thinking about very little indeed!

    Nicko – as a sports writer I want to be watching Matthew Richardson, but as a heart-on-sleeve Richmond fan, I want Trent Cotchin to be swooping on the footy at the 30 minute mark of the final quarter with scores level.

    Malcolm – no doubt an Ashes whitewash has got the Australian cricket public and the team seriously excited, but I maintain I was underwhelmed by the quality of the cricket, with just a few notable exceptions – Johnson and Harris with the ball, Rogers’ batting in Melbourne and Haddin (in everything he did – should have been Player of the Series). I really think Engalnd threw in the towel once Trott went home and can therefore not give Australia the credit that a 5-0 result would suggest is due. Ask me again after the South Africa series.

    Phil – PRO curtainraisers – I’ll be there! Pity that almost every new structure at that venue seems to have a sponsor’s name attached to it. Jack Dyer would not be amused!

    John – I’m sure you’re right about the players’ love for their sport. I just don’t think it’s unconditional love any more. To go back to my favourite, Mr Cotchin, he has spoken eloquently about his love of playing for Richmond, but then went on to say that if perchance he could play in a Premiership side, he’d seriously consider early retirement. A thoroughly pragmatic, modern form of love!

    As a postscript, no sooner had I posted this article when I witnessed the tail-end of the ODI on Friday night. James Faulkner’s nerveless innings encapsulated many of the themes that I’ve tried to cover here. It was a steely, perfectly calculated endgame, even to the point of refusing singles when many would have risked exposing Clint Mackay, a pretty competent No.11. As if to underscore this, I heard shortly after that Faulkner’s new contract with CA will be in the order of $3 million per annum – not bad for a bloke that all but keen cricket fans wouldn’t have heard of. Yet at the end, I was pleased to see some pretty genuine unprofessional excitement from the man himself and the rest of the team.

  8. Hi Mountain Ash

    Very good questions you raise here.

    I think it’s a pretty simple equation for players and spectators alike. Sport is fundamentally a trivial activity. Sport doesn’t actually matter in the way that food, shelter and healthcare matter. It only derives significance because people choose to abandon their normally rational mindset and ascribe significance to it.

    The value of the investment is therefore a very personal one, because there isn’t a generally agreed value to following a team, experiencing a Premiership or scoring a winning goal in the way one there is a generally agreed value to a house.

    The fundamental appeal of this to a writer is that you can write about people doing extraordinary, unusual things, on and off the field. There is something inherently interesting about this irrational behaviour because it is just that – irrational.

    Once you make sport a big business, you remove the irrationality from it. Pay me big bucks and it makes perfect, mundane sense for me to do anything you want me to. If the club down the road offers me more to do the same, I’ll go there. I might still love what I do but my attitude will irrevocably shift from “I’m doing this for the sheer exhilarating hell of it” to “I’m getting paid to do a job I love”.

    Likewise, the spectacle might be just as good and worth watching for entertainment. But being entertained is not the same as investing emotionally, and that’s where I firmly believe that professional sports that lack a really strong emotional connection with their audience are in dangerous territory. Without that connection, there is nothing to stop today’s T20 fan from moving to the next exciting, glitzy diversion.

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Stainless does it come down to the individual how some are pragmatic and it is going to work ( players to there many varied 20 20 franchises where they chop and change like the wind ) to others who are loyal and desperate for that team to win
    There are many players thru the years like Trent Cotchin who are super loyal etc and then as they get older the reaility that they won’t play in a flag sinks in and it is still a burning desire and switch clubs eg Stan Alves John Rantall Neville Rocky Roberts
    Stainless unfortunately I have to agree re the standard of the test series , Englands effort or more correctly lack of in Sydney in particular was deplorable
    A fascinating stimulating discussion Stainless

  10. Peter Fuller says

    I’ve followed this thread, fascinated. I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to organize my thoughts (inherently difficult for a mind as disorganized as mine). I think you’ve nailed the fundamental dilemma of modern sport, where a player makes a dispassionate calculation about his self-interest, which runs counter to the “fan’s” idealized commitment to the cause.
    If his (her) sport loses its fun reward and becomes entirely a matter of how he or she earns an income (in many sports, one fabulously beyond their wildest imaginings in an alternative occupation), training becomes a grind in an analogous fashion to the less congenial aspects of even the most satisfying conventional job. It takes considerable mental strength to work through such phases, and to maintain a high level of performance.
    While the contest is in progress, I’d guess that even the thoughtful performer is “lost” in the moment. I’d be surprised if Buddy Franklin spent much time on Grand Final day last year (especially between 2.30 and 5.15 p.m.) reflecting on the prospect of his new contract with the Swans.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece – typical of your writing. I also appreciate your stimulating me to revisit my copy of MF’s 1970.

  11. Peter Schumacher says

    I guess that I will be just a cheer leader on this thread both in terms of the original contribution and the responses. Really riveting reading, and as has been said, so many openings for discussion.

    I happened to be looking at an ABC program last evening discussing sport from the point of view of the ABC archives in which the impact of the Packer version of cricket as seen at the time was featured. I found Barry Jarman’s take interesting. He didn’t think that the Packer version would succeed because (my take on what he said) it had no soul but yet he hoped in some ways that it would succeed because players deserved proper reward given that in the circumstances of the time playing elite cricket was costly to those playing in terms of “where to after that”?

    When seeing Shane Warne , or Mitchell Johnson, or Haddin they were playing with their heart and soul, all of the time, it seemed to me and it would in my view have been a completely sports dead onlooker not to have been taken in by this stuff. I d have to agree though that generally speaking those involved seem to be going through the motions at press conferences which makes the viewing of such a boring waste of time.

  12. ‘the essential beauty and drama that sport can throw up keeps us addicts coming back for more.’

    I think you nailed it right there. Sport is an addiction and quite frankly, I don’t think there is another form of entertainment so unpredictable.

    I think the athletes are in a lose, lose situation. They are either too professional, or not professional enough. English cricket team vs Johnny Manziel. As ‘supporters’, I believe we feel entitled to judge. But honestly, who are we to judge when we are not in their position.
    If our day to day job was based purely on performance, I wonder how much more ‘professional’, we would be.

    I certainly won’t stop watching sport because of professionalism. If I’m entertained, I couldn’t care less about which sport I’m watching or how it is played….

  13. Barb Jamieson says

    Much of what you are saying, are words that I have muttered to friends and family for some time now.
    However, as much as I could be considered cynical about many aspects of the sporting arena, my love of sport is as deep today as it ever was . On reflection , I suspect that the cynicism began , and rapidly increased , as I watched the evolution of a family day at the football, and the footy team playing the game for the love of the game , turn into playing for big dollars. Now that doesn’t mean that I have an issue with sports players making a living from the game they play , but it certainly has moved the goalposts as to how the game is played, and how important winning is at all cost has become . Gambling on sport has also been a big player in the evolution of the game , and I am no anti gambling campaigner , in fact, I work in the gambling industry . In the beginning, you could basically gamble on the final result, now with the big grab for the gambling dollar, and the introduction of exotic forms of gambling , you can have dozens of forms of betting on each game .
    I often compare the game of football to the Christians and the Gladiators now , and many times I walk away , glad that my team has won , but shaking my head at how they won. I have no rose coloured glasses on , and think that our anti doping body , ASADA , is a toothless tiger, but I don’t believe that many clubs would put its hand up willingly , to acknowledge what seems to be fairly common knowledge about cutting edge stuff that tethers on verge of being unethical .
    So having said all that, I guess I’m saying that , while I agree with your column, and despite believing what I believe , I am just another one of the people who turn up week after week , and will probably continue to do that , and that my cynicism has not changed my love if sport , albeit, it has changed how I see a lot of the individuals within certain sports

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