The Role of Women in Sport is to Act as Accessory

It’s a familiar pattern by now. Young athlete bursts onto the scene before suffering well-documented slump in form. Months, perhaps years later, they re-emerge, physically superior and killing it at interstate/club level.

At this point, we, the public, begin to wonder what has driven this spectacular renaissance? After all, it cannot be just the product of hard work, dedication and increased maturity, can it?

No. Because to truly understand why said athlete is suddenly “training the house down,” “clocking personal bests” and in a “really good head-space,” we must look to his personal life. And here you will generally find that it is a woman who has helped this athlete regain their sporting mojo.

Michael Clarke is a prime example of how a rocky personal life can take its toll on one’s professional productivity. As documented in The Public Apology’s critically acclaimed feature series, The Choke, Clarke’s inability to balance his personal and professional lives almost resulted in the complete fragmentation of the Australian cricket team as we know it.

But Clarke has since left his former paramour Lara Bingle and found love in the form of sports model, Kyly Boldy, whom he now calls his wife. And he’s never been in better form, has he?

Well that’s Phil ‘Buzz Rothfield’s take on the issue, for what it’s worth. As he pointed out here in late-2012, Clarke’s average in the six months since his wedding was a stupendous 263.5. Because, as one ‘source’ told Buzz: “With Lara, it was all about her. With Kyly it’s all about him.” 

Bingle, widely viewed as the villain in this cricketing pantomime

Having sufficiently portrayed Lara Bingle as a villain, Rothfield goes on to talk about how sport is “littered” with these types of examples. Here’s another excerpt:

“Look at Quade Cooper since he got out of a steady relationship with Stephanie Rice.

When they were together, he was the hottest player in rugby union. The Parramatta Eels wanted him. He’s now off with the rah-rahs and not one of the 16 NRL clubs wants a bar of him. Today he’s holding a press conference in Brisbane to announce a fight deal. Care factor zero.

Four years ago, Blues Origin skipper Paul Gallen’s reputation was so trashed his agent couldn’t even get him a free pair of footy boots. He tore the bandage off Gold Coast forward Anthony Laffranchi’s head wound during a game in 2008 and was also fined $10,000 after being accused of racially abusing Dragons forward Mickey Paea.

He found a partner, had kids and is now married, happily settled and respected by all.”

You could surmise, from these tabloid examples, that athletes are just simple folk with simple needs. To be loved; to be enabled.

But Rothfield’s thesis is that by choosing a subservient woman who is keen to play second-fiddle over a brash, self-interested headline-grabber, Clarke has found someone who will not disturb his delicate fabric. ‘Buzz’ is obviously of the generation that believes in the importance of a stable home-life, where typical gender roles reign supreme. That a happy wife is a happy life, etc.

That the role of women, in male-dominated sport, is best viewed as accessory.

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In the art world, the role of the muse takes a different shape. Often the female figure is platonic, say, in the case of Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. Perhaps she is a mistress-type, such as Pablo Picasso’s French muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who inspired some of his most famous Surrealist work. And then there are domestic relationships, such as that of novelist husband and wife team, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, where substance abuse and mental illness can somehow result in prolific creative output, based loosely on real-life events.

Warhol and Sedgwick, keeping it mod-style

In the artistic field, creativity is key. Something must inspire you to great heights. Indeed, that is the role of the muse in art: as the Guardian writes, to “penetrate the male artist and bring forth a work from the womb of his mind.”

But in the sporting realm, any form of “other” is generally seen as a threat, when it comes to relationships – best reserved for the Rara Avis, or “rare bloke.” Because for an athlete, it is certainly not ideal to have a wandering, unfocused mind.

That said, the idea of NRL player Dave Taylor as artist, crediting a “muse” for his creative spark as an edge-running forward, is funny.

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How often have you read about how a rugby league player is “playing the best footy” of his life after the birth of his first child? How he has subsequently come to realise that football is just a day job?

The reason he is thriving is because, likely, his wife is picking up all the domestic slack. She is playing the familiar gender role that all professional athletes require in order to achieve on-field success. A messy private life – Shane Warne is the obvious exception here – will usually have a negative effect on a sportsman’s output.

It’s why the Bulldogs were so quick to stand down Ben Barba when it emerged that he was having some off-field dramas. Because an athlete, unlike us civilians, is seen by his boss as incapable of performing on the field when things in his personal life have gone to shit. Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to show up to work regardless of whatever life throws at us.

A good example of a wife or girlfriend “taking one for the team” involves alleged meth dealer former Olympian Scott Miller. According to this article, his former partner Charlotte Dawson found out that her pregnancy, quite inconveniently, would clash with the 2000 Olympics.  Sensing Miller’s hesitation, they decided to terminate the child and try again later. “Who needed a developing foetus when a gold medal was on offer, eh?” she later mused.

Miller, looking eerily like an extra from Blue Heelers circa 1996

That’s an extreme example, but it does speak of the insane pressure that many wives of elite sportsmen are subject to. Pressure from their husband/boyfriend’s sporting organisation to keep said player in good emotional spirits. Pressure to provide a stable home environment to ensure said player can meet the lofty expectations of both the media and his fan-base when it comes to the crunch.

There’s also pressure to “be there” when the chips are down. If you look back through sporting history, you will see hundreds upon hundreds of stoic wives and partners who have felt the pressure to “stand by their man” in the face of adversity, even when it involves alleged infidelity. In fact, this article, based off an Oregon State study, speaks of the “culture of adultery” that permeates professional sports today.

“At home and especially on the road, these athletes deal with boredom, peer group pressure, team loyalty, opportunity, sense of self-importance, and the availability of women who seem to be irresistibly attracted to professional athletes,” [the study’s author Steven M. Ortiz said]. “There clearly seems to be a ‘fast food sex mentality’ among professional athletes.”

Interviews from the study revealed that, in response to their husbands’ indiscretions, athletes’ wives developed “coping strategies that often evolved over time.”

The wives who were interviewed also identified a category of wives who were drawn to marriage more for the glamour and money than for love or the relationship.  “It may be that women who marry the ‘athlete’ more than the ‘man’ tend may be more accepting of their husbands’ affairs,” Ortiz said. “Not only do they fear losing financial security and the affluent lifestyle, they often possess low self-esteem.” Women who married before their husbands became professional athletes – including most of the interviewed wives – did not tolerate long-term extramarital affairs, though many were forced to deal with their spouses’ one-time only “one-night stand.”

The Good Wife

The case of former NRL player Andrew Ettinghausen is an interesting one. ‘ET’ had an affair with a former teammate’s wife – after his career was over, mind you – on which he blamed depression. Now I’m no Freud, but I’d say that this affair is something of a hangover from his exposure to the aforementioned “culture of adultery,” which is clearly prevalent in professional sports.

If he was going to blame anything, it should have been this culture of adultery. As opposed to blithely insulting all people who suffer from mental illness.

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Now, it would be remiss of me not to consider the female athlete. In the Australian context, where female sport suffers from both a lack of general infrastructure and media attention, the pressures are of a different kind. The female athlete must weigh up several options: how to juggle a sporting career with the need to pay rent; whether to dedicate one’s best years to their craft and perhaps put having a family on hold, etc.

It differs to the male athlete, whose drive to succeed on the sporting field is second to none. The risk-reward is better. The infrastructure and the money is there; it’s yours, for the taking.

I’d really like to see some examples of successful athletes – both male and female – who enjoy non-typical domestic lives. It’d also be a lot easier if several made the decision to come out of the closet and speak of their alternative lifestyle, in turn normalising the whole gay athlete issue. Then they, too, can have their significant other act as accessory.

But if the articles I’m reading are anything to believe – and here’s another funny one, this time involving Australian cricketer Steve Smith – it appears that sportsmen need that 1950s-style personal/professional balance if they’re to succeed. This bedrock of stability will not only inspire them to greater heights, but – if Phil ‘Buzz’ Rothfield is to be believed – also enable them to overcome their racist tendencies, or their inherent desire to break to someone’s apartment and steal laptops.

They need to be enabled, to be treated like adult babies.

That said, the theory doesn’t always work. Take this article, written in 2009 following the news of former NRL bad boy Willie Mason’s engagement to Clare Hallinan.

“And no doubt, the stability of his new fiancee will help tame the once-wild man who was last month hauled over the coals for urinating in public.”

Mason just got done for drink driving earlier this week. Obviously his missus has dropped the ball there.

By Dave Edwards


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