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.
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.
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?
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