Blaming The ‘Fishbowl’ For Everything

The details aren’t out yet – and they don’t really need to be – but already journalists are hypothesising that Ben Barba’s downfall is due to the ‘fishbowl existence’ he leads.

That a “shy, retiring” boy from the country has been swept up in his own stardom and the alluring bright lights of the evil, exotic temptress that is Sydney. That this flashy, vacuous metropolis has mercilessly corrupted the naive youngster and exposed him to demonic vices like gambling, alcohol and fast women with the loosest of morals.

Now Ben Barba obviously has some issues and it’s a good thing that they’re being addressed. It is a bold move by the Canterbury Bulldogs to indefinitely suspend their best player – presumably on paid leave – and it does demonstrate a level of understanding that many civilians could only dream for from their employers. Obviously, his high-profile status means that this will all be played out in the public spotlight, but if it raises awareness of certain issues and he can come out the other side a better person, then that’s undoubtedly a positive outcome for everyone involved.

The alluring bright lights of Sydney

But I think it’s interesting how often the ‘fishbowl existence’ is being blamed for the downfall of athletes who have come from a small town and made it big in the city.

I am not a high-profile anything, so I have no idea about this so-called fishbowl. But from what I can gather, it basically refers to everyone wanting a piece of you. It’s the incessant media attention, the constant adulation from fans in the street – and on the flipside, the unwanted scorn from punters who think they’ve got the right to tell you exactly what they think of you. Moving from a small country town in Queensland where everyone’s got your back to, as Robert Craddock puts it, the “sizzling epicentre of rugby league,” must take some adjustment.

But people have been moving to cities for years, in search of a better life, despite the inevitable hurdles they’re set to encounter along the way. In fact, Steinbeck put it best when he wrote that in the eyes of the hungry there is a “growing wrath.” In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. 

It is increasingly difficult, however, to draw parallels between the Joad family as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, and the modern rugby league player. The Joad family persisted – along with thousands of similarly hopeful Oakies – in their epic struggle across America to reach the fabled, fruitful state of California, much like the Group 14 rugby league player makes the pilgrimage from Coonabarabran to Sydney in search of a trial with the Roosters.

However, while the Joads find life tough in California – due in no small part to the animosity of locals, the oversupply of labour and the general absence of employee rights – the rugby league player who makes it to Sydney suddenly gets everything he dreamed of. Suddenly, a big paycheck comes in every week – and you’ve got plenty of spare time to figure out what to spend it on. Nightclubs in Sydney appear more alluring than the local country pub, and you cut the line to slap it up with the Polynesian doorman who says he has a brother who played with one of your new teammates in Jersey Flegg. And while women don’t necessarily know who you are, they’re nonetheless intrigued by the bordering-on-homoerotic male attention you’re receiving in the bars; blokes buying you drinks, taking their photo with you. You’re loved by everyone, as long as you’re playing good footy.

Naturally, you’ll form a tight friendship with John Ibrahim

This can all flip in an instant, though. One nasty comment – be it racist or otherwise – and the party is over. And it’s all over the Daily Telegraph the next day.

I think the first time I ever heard the phrase ‘fishbowl existence’ was when Barry Hall said he moved to Sydney to escape the pressures of playing for St Kilda in the AFL-mad city of Melbourne. But since then, I feel it has been used exponentially as something of a scapegoat; not just in Australia, too, but internationally. Young NFL recruits must quickly adapt to this new-found notoriety, as must any promising young college basketballer.

Is there any way around this? Or is this a form of Groundhog Day? Will young talented athletes from country towns continue to fall victim to the perils of urban life in an unforgiving city? I’m sure NRL clubs do try their best to ease young rural players into the spotlight – I’ve heard that many teams conduct mandatory tutorials on how to handle yourself in public, for instance – but perhaps this is just a sad and inherent reality of life, of rural-to-urban migration?

rural-to-urban migration, a tough transition

I have no doubt that Barba’s issues could have been dealt with privately while he continued to play football, but his high-profile drove the Bulldogs to proactively play his crisis out through the media. It seems that, had they not, some scurrilous journalist would have fueled the rumour mill in a tabloid column by saying ‘Barba was seen out at 3am at *insert place with pokies*’, quoting unnamed witnesses, etc. Had the Bulldogs not acted on this now, perhaps it would have all ended in the form of a public apology after a highly publicised incident, ala the Andrew Johns scenario.

It’s a shame that the “face of the NRL” will probably not lace a boot this season, but it’ll help him in the long run. But this isn’t the last time you’ll hear of a young footy player failing to negotiate the “fishbowl existence.”

By Dave Edwards


So What’s The Deal With The Whole ‘Co-Captains’ Thing?

Keen readers of this website will know I occasionally enjoy throwing some business-speak into the odd article.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the increasing commodisation of sport as a “product.” Global CEOs have turned their hand to sports administration and are constantly on the look out for emerging markets; for a “greater slice of the pie.” And while we don’t hear Andrew Demetriou talking openly about revenue from commercial operations and the net increase in cash holdings, there’s no doubt that the AFL in particular represents the rapid evolution of sport from humble past-time to grotesque, money-making corporate behemoth.

“We need to take a holistic, cradle-to-grave approach…”

But I want to backtrack a second and talk about one of the more annoying business traits that has slowly crept into the sporting world. I’m talking about the tendency for coaches to choose “co-captains” – occasionally known as a “leadership group.” It is a goodwill exercise with the focus on ‘culture’ and ‘360-degree thinking’, designed to facilitate a more open, approachable top-tier.

What it does, in reality, is create a cohort of self-important executives with diminished accountability.

Let’s go back to the Allan Border days, when men were men and boys were boys. The grizzled veteran cast a frightening aura over his young, inexperienced team in the tumultuous post-Rod Marsh/Dennis Lillee/Greg Chappell days. Back then, youngsters were straight-up scared of AB. He’d sit in the corner of the change-room, keeping a watchful eye on everyone. His vice-captain, Geoff Marsh, was nothing but a sycophantic right-hand man, bless his heart.

The sweet taste of Ashes victory

It was just AB calling the shots, with the assistance of coach Bob Simpson. But there was a clear and obvious hierarchy – and everyone respected AB because they had to.

There is nothing wrong with this autocratic model. A singular, uncompromising leader with a strong backing can really make some inroads – Hitler’s regime springs to mind – and sport, while not the Third Reich per-se, is one of these situations. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and all that lark.

But the needless creation of executive jobs something that should remain in the business world. Having a ‘backs’ captain, a ‘forwards’ captain and a ‘press conference specialist guy’, for example, is bureaucratic overkill.

I think the Sydney Swans were one of the first sporting organisations to install a leadership group. Then-coach Paul Roos – a America-phile – had come back from the states enamoured with how progressive their professional set-ups were. Arguably, it worked – in no small part due to the ‘no dickheads’ policy, a code of practice installed by the players themselves to govern bad behaviour.

Roos in monochrome. This photo was likely used in a ‘Good Weekend’ feature on leadership

Ironically, the Parramatta Eels have just announced a leadership group of their own – consisting solely of dickheads. Ricky Stuart has handed the co-captaincy honours this year to Jarryd Hayne and Reni Maitua, with Tim Mannah (not a dickhead, yet) also expected to play a role. It is yet to be seen whether this gamble will pay off. But I don’t think it will. For starters, Jarryd Hayne “tweeted” the announcement last week, which is already an ominous sign of immaturity:

Huge honour being told by the coach that ill be CO-CAPTAIN of the Parramatta Eels with @renimaitua n @tim_mannah club captain. #eels2013

This wouldn’t happen in cricket. The term ‘captain’s knock’ would have to be re-defined, for starters. So why do football teams persist in creating co-captains? A single captain is someone to be inspired by; his performance can gallivanise a team when the “chips are down.” If there are too many captains, it by nature spoils the effect of the captain’s knock/tackle/hit-up/goal.

Introducing the Parramatta co-captain for 2013

Co-captaincy smells like pandering to me. Senior players with a sizable market value like Jarryd Hayne are offered the “honour” of being named co-captain. It bumps their salary up a bit and they feel important; they feel tied to the club just that little bit more.  But we, the sporting public, have realised that the concept of co-captaincy is a thinly veiled attempt by the club’s board of directors to keep their best players under contract. We are not stupid.

While I ardently long for sport to return to the halcyon days of the 1980s and (early) 1990s, I’ve reluctantly accepted that sport is now a  “product” and codes compete for “market share” in an increasingly “competitive environment.” And I know that means we’ll never again see folksy advertising campaigns like  Greg Champion’s AFL ballad, ‘That’s The Thing About Football’, Tina Turner’s sexually-charged rugby league homage, ‘What You Get Is What You See’, and, of course, Channel Nine’s legendary World Series Cricket tune, ‘C’mon Aussie C’mon’.

But some things must remain sacred – specifically, that each sporting team has one inspirational leader to guide them towards the coveted premiership. After all, who wants to see three “co-captains” simultaneously hoist the Telstra Premiership Cup on NRL grand final day?

By Dave Edwards


Tall Tales Involving Current Athletes

Is it too early to announce to everyone within earshot that I hit 137 off 146 balls against a bowling attack that included Australian test cricket debutant Moises Henriques back when I was 16?

Probably. It’s also amazingly self-aggrandising. But it’s every failed sportsman’s right to publicly state their association with and against any elite sportsman once said athlete has made it to the top – and to shamelessly embellish any actual success you had against them on the sporting field.

Most people have at least one or two yarns up their sleeve involving a current athlete. Usually, these stories fall into three main categories:

1. He tried to score coke off me in Kings Cross on a Saturday night when I was 19.

2. He dated a friend of mine/an ex-girlfriend/a girl I knew loosely

3. I played against him and enjoyed a modicum of success

A common sighting in the pre-iPhone era

Obviously, the third category is the one that draws the most approval. No one really wants to hear your story about how [Ed: name has been deleted on advice from the TPA legal department] was scouring the men’s urinals for “zingers” at Wallaby Bar in 2003 after the Rugby World Cup Final, or that a fringe Wests Tigers player had an embarrassingly drunken, futile crack at your then-girlfriend in the pokies section of Cabana Bar circa 2005.

That stuff is funny, certainly. But what most blokes want to hear is how you hit Steve Smith out of the attack in a second grade encounter when he was probably about 14, or that you – yes, you! – were the 1st XV halfback at Newington College in 1979, picked ahead of future Wallaby Nick Farr-Jones for your superior defence and ball-running.

A Farr-fetched prospect

Of course, the sad reality is that they persisted at their chosen sport into adulthood, while you probably frittered away any potential you might have had. While they were getting busy with skin-fold tests and ironing out their technical flaws with the help of the latest sports science available at the Australian Institute of Sport, you were living a beatnik share-house life in Newtown, or out getting blind drunk in the cobbled streets of Prague, or perhaps struggling through an undergraduate degree in between lunch beers.

But you could have been really good, if you wanted to be. That’s the beauty of not living up to your potential; you’ll always have those tall stories to tell – and you’ll never have to back it up on the park, ever again. It’s cowardly, but also quite ingenious, to stage an early sporting retirement. You don’t want to be one of those poor old bastards battling away in fifth grade into their 40s – unless you hate your wife, in which case it’s perfectly acceptable.

The ultimate fifth grader

But by staging my own early retirement – through injury, mind you… not because I suddenly became shit or anything *ahem* – I have given myself a free licence to gloat loudly whenever a cricketer I played against back in the day makes the big stage. Perhaps I’ll even lie a bit and say we were mates. Because none of my mates will know the difference, will they?

For the record, we lost that game I mentioned in the last over. Henriques hit 70-odd and they chased down a target of around 240-ish. I was also sadly informed that then-NSW coach Steve Rixon, who happened to be at the game, slept through my entire innings.

Not that I’m bitter, but 137 off 146 obviously isn’t scoring at a decent enough click for ‘Stumper’ Rixon.

By Dave Edwards