September 22, 2022

The Edge

It’s all about having “the edge” isn’t it?

In elite sport it’s all about having the edge over your opponents. Elite sport is determined not even by the one-percenters, but by the tenth-of-a-one-percenters.

Non-elites don’t understand “the edge”. We line up on a local running race with all sorts of types and body shapes and fitness levels. We’re a long ways from the edge. But if you’ve ever been to the airport when a footy club is in the lounge waiting for a flight to a game, you see what true elite athletes are like. You see the edge.

And they’re pretty much the same. Line up the Premiers with the wooden spoon winners for 2022 in that airport lounge and there’s no discernible difference in height, weight, muscle mass, fitness, skill. They all look like Adonises. No discernible difference at all.

Not discernible to you at least. But discernible to those whose role it is within the club to give it “the edge”. And it’s a fierce, unforgiving, driven game finding that edge.

So much so that teams go over the edge without even realising it.

At least the so-called “good guys’ do. The “bad guys?” They know where the edge is because they went past it a long time ago. And that’s why there’s something “East German Athletics 1975” about the allegations coming out of Hawthorn Football Club. Was this a cold-hearted ploy or had the leaders become so lost in the fog of war that they were committing crimes against humanity without even realising the weight of it?

When lone athletes take performance enhancing drugs to further their chance of success, they bring down on their own heads the opprobrium that they deserve. Hello Ben Johnson 1988 Seoul Olympic 100metre final. Johnson’s crime was to get caught, as that race was dubbed “the dirtiest race in history”.

Though, while it may have been the dirtiest race in history, when it comes to the dirtiest sport, cycling takes a bow. Lance Armstrong anyone? That he still feels he was the best cyclist ever, and that he only did what he did because others were, and because his team around him wanted to give him the edge, makes it all the more morally vacuous.

And now for the slow unfolding of the dirtiest race in AFL history. For I am sure that is what will be uncovered. Perhaps the allegations are simply that, allegations. The inquiry will determine that.

But back to East Germany 1975. The number of Eastern European athletes who are only now speaking up about the “win-at-all-costs” system that risked their health and turned them into tools of the regime, is sobering. Of course we all knew it was happening, and Australia’s own track queen Raelene Boyle was robbed of Olympic gold because of the doping that was going on.

But we only find these things out fully, later. The East German regime was constantly looking for the edge, not in order to reach it, but to transgress it. And the athletes paid the cost in terms of their long term health.

As we are finding out about Hawthorn now. If the players are to be believed, and gee their stories sound credible – credible and heart breaking -, then the slow car crash of details that will come out in an investigation will ensure that football is not quite seen the same again.

The players and their mental health, along with their lives outside of football, were expendable for the cause. It would be like sporting codes knowing that head-contact is super risky for athletes but doing nothing about it anyway, and indeed encouraging players to go in hard, even at the risk of serious injury. Oh wait…

And if you’ve seen the documentary on Sydney superstar Adam Goodes, and his awful treatment at the hands of racist fans, then you’ll know that internally the clubs themselves like to hold the moral high ground on these matters, and “tsk-tsk” at their socially unreconstructed fanbase who need to be educated.

Well, I’m pretty sure Alistair Clarkson, Chris Fagan et al are fairly socially educated. Which just makes this all the worse if it proves to be true. And which tells us that you can’t really educate someone into a moral universe. That’s not the way it works.

Here’s the way it works: there’s an internal moral universe contained within all elite level sporting clubs that sometimes does, and sometimes doesn’t, adhere to the actual moral universe. There’s an edge in that universe that looks remarkably similar to the winning edge of the sport.

So walk through the doors of that club, of most clubs, and the moral framework takes on its own plausibility structure. In so many implicit – and often explicit – ways, the outside rules don’t apply. The club become its own alternate ethical community, with its high priest (the coach), the ministry team (the club leaders), the evangelists (the players), and the worshipping community (us!).

We mock. But when Chris Judd left West Coast Eagles all those years back, the headline in the West Australian newspaper simply said “JUDDAS”! Why? Because Judd playing for West Coast gave them the edge. He could twist and turn and find a way out of a pack to the front like nobody else. When he joined Carlton they gained an edge and West Coast lost one. What to do? Shrug shoulders, say “Oh well!” and walk off? No! Time to find another edge.

The famous Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, made the quip:

Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.

We scoff. But we believe it. Not outwardly, but we tacitly believe it. We crave the success of the club we follow and we feel every gut churning last minute loss in a preliminary final (I’m looking at you Collingwood). Truth be told, if the fans of a losing final were told that their team failed to go to the edge during the season, and the reason they lost was because of that, well they’d be entitled to be upset.

There’d be hell to pay. There’d be a review. There’d be talk about more extreme “pinch tests” and more monastic off-seasons. There’d be talk about aggressive boot camps in which indigenous players felt so traumatised by the way their private lives were raked over that they’d need psychological help. Is anyone else starting to see a theme here? A couple of intersecting themes actually.

And what would it take to turn that one point loss to a one point win next year? Having the edge of course. It’s just that next year the edge might have to be moved a little. Moved to the point that, internally at least for those making the decisions, the edge was always arrived at, leaving them teetering on it, but without crossing it.

Now launder, rinse, repeat that internal mantra as the head of a football club. You’d be amazed at how far over the actual moral, ethical edge you might go. And most fans will take “the edge” if it comes with a piece of silverware at the end of the season. And all without pushing too hard to discover what gave their team the edge in the first place.

In the research for this article (I have to confess I’m not a footy fan), there was a loving picture of Clarkson with his three lovely children (and how must they be feeling today?) and the headline “Family inspires the coach of the Hawthorn Football Club”.

Clearly, it would seem that that inspiration only pertained to his own family. Everyone else’s family, especially the families of young indigenous players who, you know, might have all sorts of complexities (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)? Well, not so much. They’re not inspiring the club, they’re a threat to the club. Especially a club looking for the edge.

The fact that they might inspire the player, beyond the DEFCON level threat that senior coaching and management can see, seemed beyond their ken. Internally it seemed like a wise decision – the kind of tough decision – that a coach should make for a player for the sake of “the edge”.

But leaving inspiration of the player aside, it’s a clear case of profiling a person. It’s the equivalent of stopping the Middle Eastern bloke with the long beard at the airport security – every time.

Lest we all tut-tut at absolutely everything going on, it also shows the lack of moral capacity in the wider community. That a pregnancy was terminated in order to further the cause is par for the course in our culture at the moment. Babies are threats to careers. All careers, not just football.

It’s just in this case that decision was outsourced to her partner’s boss. We should be rightly shocked that a young woman felt pressured into ending the life of her baby. But I am somewhat intrigued by the rush to mourn the loss of a child for the sake of a career. It seems the only thing that gave that baby its worth was the wanting of it. When it comes to edges, our modern culture has crossed that particular one so long ago that it can no longer see, never mid articulate, where the crossing of the edge began.

It was just dreadful reading of the long term psychological damage to “Ian” and his partner. For it will be long term. Footy clubs like to think they operate with long term thinking in mind. They do – for the club. But for the players? As we’ve seen through the number of suicides in recent years, once you’re delisted or you’ve retired, you pretty much are on your own.

If Hawthorn are looking in the midst of the mess for someone they can trust to provide a moral framework to the club again, perhaps they should look no further than their former premiership ruck-man, Stephen Lawrence, now an author and speaker, and who, along with his wife, runs a marriage enrichment course for the Catholic church. In a book he wrote back in 2019, Make Your Mark, Five Hidden Keys to Great Leadership, Lawrence observed that the one missing ingredient in so many sports books about the topic, was “character”. Lawrence states:

“Everyday leadership, I think, is what people are called to live in the most simple and unexpected moments. It’s about readiness to do what’s right, readiness to step through doors that open, readiness to recognise that our life is not actually for us but for others, readiness to find collaborators who we can help become great.”

Everyday leadership, it turns out, is a life lived for others. That’s the way of Jesus. You’re only ready to do right because you’ve been doing right. You can’t take out of the bank what you have not put in.

A commitment to “a life for others” may well have pulled Clarkson and his particular group of collaborators back from the edge. But maybe that’s the point. Once you’re committed to the edge, you’ve already decided what’s important. When it came to perceived success in life, Team Jesus, won the wooden spoon, or at least the wooden cross, for the sake of others.

And for Clarkson et al? They have now fallen over the edge. And that’s sad too. In this graceless culture, in which there is no safety net, no equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission such as in South Africa, there is every chance it will be a bottomless fall. He could do worse than pick up the phone to Stephen Lawrence. It might walk him back from the edge.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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