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A NEW TASTE OF FLESH AND GLORY

The lyrics, “Dear landlord, Please don’t put a price upon my soul,” has stayed with me ever since I first heard them sung by Bob Dylan. At this later stage, I can sense the words merging even more with my own lengthy journey. Music has always held sway within the souls of people. Sport has also found its way into the souls of people, nowadays more than ever. Why sport matters (and matters to me) begins in concepts of homeland and fair play.
Edward Hopkins

Many of Dylan’s songs are driven by a desire to return to the homeland. In Dear landlord, within his imagined return home, is a plea to end unnecessary and unfair exploitation. In modern sport, unfairness on the field of play is also frowned upon, except in circumstances that acknowledge home ground advantage effects as real. Hence, the staging of sporting events according to a home and away fixture and draw is a reason why sport prospers. It spells out an adherence to fair play.

But far more than fair play is needed to explain how modern sport now occupies the lives of so many, and in forever escalating proportions, to an extent that International and National Sporting Organisations in association with broadcasters are seen as the landlords constantly insisting on our attention while also demanding the rent. Like Roman deities, they offer flesh and glory. And always, there is a price, and as the song asks – is the burden too heavy and are the dreams beyond control?

The ongoing essay series titled, Home Ground Advantage, delves into the origins of modern sport. To tell this tale of Why Sport Matters, let’s not forget that so much begins in the homeland. As an elite athlete at a young adult age, I have personally experienced flesh and glory on a major sporting stage. Later, as a sport theorist and writer, I began questioning how all this could have possibly happened, and where it might be heading.

My dad, Les, was not that good at playing football, but as my youthful sporting prowess sprouted he absorbed the elements of how sport ticked and what it meant to people: its economy, values, on-field tactics and set plays. He understood the connections between business and social acceptance. He became my early trainer. He knew that sport wins votes. He instinctively grasped the answer to the famous question posed by the German philosopher, Frederic Nietzsche [1844 – 1900]: God is dead. What festivals of atonement, what sacred festivals shall we have to invent? Or, as when Jos’e Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was first elected the Spanish Prime Minister in 2004, he provided an answer; More sport, less religion.

Though the most influential philosopher of a New World expanding its tentacles to all parts of the globe, Nietzsche was not aware of how sport was swelling all around him. But he did describe a looming and vast vacuum of despair engulfing western civilisation. In his famous philosophical novel, Thus spoke Zarathustra [1883-1885] (Zarathustra meaning what comes out of mouth) Nietzsche depicts a Superman hero with a will to power that can transcend the level of primitive apes.

Soon after his death in 1900, came the darkness and oblivion of WW1. I guess if he were around today, Nietzsche would be glued to the television screen watching Germany play in the World Cup. He had also said; without music, life would be an error. In hindsight, he might have expanded the phrase; without music and sport, life would be an error.

It seems most likely my talent at sport was inherited from my mum, Marie (nee Krelle) and her side of the family. For her, sport intersected with her love of patterns. Rhythm. Participation. Barracking. Preparing for match day. Sewing dresses in club colours. At local games in which I played she prowled the sidelines, yelling Keep the ball low, keep the ball low. She once approached the committee of the local Yallourn Football Club that I once played for and asked for modern waltzes to be played over the public address system so that the players could move with greater rhythm.

The committee men ignored her request – they never took mum seriously. They did, however, award her with the title of No1 fan for colourful team barracking. Yet she often saw better than they did how a football game unfolded on the field: saw the connection between music, differing patterns, and colour – all combining within a chaotic frame that somehow made sense. The committee men too, in various ways had expressed a love of sport, which implies some form of passionate flow, as men have always desired.

As modern sport started to blossom beyond the confines of privileged British Christian and private schools, a groundswell of detractors began to question its origins and its purpose. Novelist and political commentator, George Orwell [1903-1950], famously wrote: Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence…it is war minus the shooting. Perhaps, there are elements of warfare in modern sport, so I can agree with Orwell.

However, my view is that Orwell’s perspective cannot explain why, within little more than a half a century, the world witnessed a quantum shift from casual village games to the codified rules of conduct and fixtures of modern sport that are now embraced and loved by so many people everywhere – irrespective of class, gender, age, or religion.

Rather than a modified warfare version, what is it that first opened the door to modern sport?

All deities offer an invitation to eat at the table before entering the divine kingdom. For Judaism and Islam entry is in exchange for monotheistic worship. The New Testament Gospels According to Saint Paul and Saint Luke differed by offering polytheistic entry. The Gospels said when entering the Church Of God you can eat bread, which is the flesh of Jesus, God made in human form. The cost of a ticket into the arena no longer required an obligation to believe in a single God.

When Nietzsche blew the whistle declaring the arrival of atheism the cost of a ticket for entering sacred turf decreased again. Tasting the flesh of Jesus was not essential. The philosopher’s Zarathustra – what comes out of the mouth – now belonged to the sport commentator and barracker. Administrative committees began codifying the rules, and the regulations of sporting codes and respective scoring systems, fixtures, and draws. To protect precious territory, religious deities had to adapt accordingly. Modern sport is permitted within the realms of a sacred church, synagogue, or mosque. Relegation to a forgotten minor league is neither desirable nor acceptable.

In the agnostic and atheistic cauldron of modern sport the services of a priest, rabbi, or mullah are no longer essential. However, in special circumstances they are allowed to stand on the sidelines and offer a blessing. More prominent are the trained rhetoricians engaged as expert sport commentators, who are nearly always male and had often played at an elite level. What comes from the mouth is mostly expert opinion confirming a man’s superior knowledge of what is happening on the field of play. In addition to serving male interests, their other purpose is to enthuse crowds while ensuring feral intrusions are kept at bay. Control and subservience are just as prevalent in modern sport as any other societal and cultural domains. How then is modern sport different from anything else?

Where a person grows up matters a lot. Both dad and mum were fond of describing the Latrobe Valley region of south-eastern Australia as a modern Garden Of Eden. What they saw in the region’s vast open-cut mines, which feed nearby giant power generation plants was progress, surrounded by a lush arcadia hinterland. In the home kitchen and around the dinner table both parents was mentioned the despair they had felt during the WW2 years and the previous Great Depression. Rarely was religion mentioned, and if it was, it was mainly about its foibles. Their faith lay in sidelining past atrocities while latching onto the prospects of modern progress. Throughout the region new sport facilities began popping up. And both parents were delighted to soon discover that in our neighbourhood their youngest child was the best kid at sport. In the family home and car and at school the yabbering of sport occupied the air. Even as a preteen, I knew I was good at sport. But then a form of loneliness began to sink into the soul. Could I kick and think at the same time? Classmates kept getting higher marks than me.

During my youthful rise to an elite standard in International water skiing and Australian Football, my parents came to watch me compete and offer support. Mum carried with her a basket containing a thermos flask of hot tea or soup, sandwiches, and snacks. Even when I played football in front of large crowds, after I had changed and left the dressing rooms, they’d wait patiently to greet me. When my team, Carlton, won the 1970 Victorian Football Grand Final before an attendance crowd of 121,696 spectators at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground, it seemed to take hours before I could leave the tumultuous celebrations happening in the change rooms.

After halftime I came off the bench and kicked four goals that were instrumental in changing the course of the game. Never before and ever since has a team trailed by as much as 44 points in a grand final and comeback to win. Carlton finished defeating its archrival, Collingwood, by 10 points.  After the hours it took to leave the dressing rooms, as usual I found my parents were still there, sitting patiently in the deserted grandstands. As I sat beside them I could see dad was filled with joy while mum offered a cup of hot tea and sandwiches. On both sides of the equation, on and off-field, I had tasted flesh and glory.

The expansion of modern sport into so many aspects of society and culture warrants a critique. Sadly, this analysis is missing, in part, due to sports’ own flood of shibboleths and expert-opinionated guesswork assigned mostly to the back pages of newspapers and to primetime broadcast viewing and listening.  At the elite level, the new landlords are often seen as entrepreneurial marketeers draining the pockets of fans. Money matters a lot, and their privileged status gives them the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with star performers.

Yet, despite any unpleasantness, modern sport still continues to thrive. Why? While individual participant fitness and heath benefits and recreational pleasure are good things, more is needed to explain the current status of modern sport.

The competitive nature of modern sport can provide us with sources of knowledge. In addition to what is learnt from the homeland and gleaned entering the away territory, lies the departure and return between both. Essential to both is the notion and the practice of good citizenship. Home & away competitiveness cannot exist without a general acceptance of proper governance and administration as a balancing instrument at the centre.

Another appeal of home and away is its openness and fairness. As each sporting event code unfolds the individual, participant or spectator, is given a unique mental picture (aside from what any expert or official might say). Within this mental picture are the performance elements of genuine talent, endeavour, and chance. Officialdom plays the vital role of arranging and administering leagues and competitions at all levels in a manner that gives participants a fair chance to succeed and recover during an event, plus time to prepare for the next event and the next season.

As such, the specific instruments required for modern sport to flourish are the remarkably humble inventions that occurred primarily in mid-19th century in Britain. Each sport code includes its own scoring systems, performance statistics, fixtures and draws, laws and regulations, along with independent referees or umpires and tribunals to ensure unwanted, feral behaviour does not interfere with the game. Done properly, it is the common openness, and access to measurement and recoverability within a given framework, that has helped kick off modern sport.

As these factors emerged, during the 18th century other societal and cultural innovations were also appearing such as the popularisation of democratic institutions, literature and arts, education reforms, the appearance of stock markets, and burgeoning media. Inventions such as steam driven engines and trains, telegraph messaging, synchronized time keeping, street and public lighting, and daily newspapers played a vital role in the blossoming of modern sport.

And the cherry on top of all this that has made modern sport so appealing to the public lies within its creative competitiveness. For me it is witnessing Roger Federer on the tennis court, Lionel Messi on the football field, and Cathy Freeman on the running track. Modern sport gives everyone the same privileges to watch and decide who provides them with creative inspiration. Today sport offers measurable fairness within the framework of talent and creativity, and the chance to recover. These are the essential elements that entered the contemporary picture, which created a new taste for flesh and glory. They outshone older religious deities, to which Nietzsche was not privy, and that Orwell never saw.

And as in sport and the music of Dylan there is always a chance for a return to the homeland, real or imagined.

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