Former Wallabies captain David Pocock was arrested on the weekend. His crime? Protesting a planned coalmine in North West New South Wales.
In an era where athletes are arrested for all kinds of things – alleged rape, drink driving, the distribution of illegal substances, match-fixing, etc – Pocock’s misdemeanour seems refreshingly rare.
However, back in the 1960s and 70s, athlete activists were extremely common. It was a period of great social change and many (mostly American) athletes took the opportunity to highlight a specific cause, ranging from Vietnam to the civil rights movement.
Interestingly, in Australia, the athlete who reveals a flair for political idealism, or an outspoken empathy for marginalised minority groups, often attracts a bemused reaction. Pocock is certainly the exception rather than the rule.
Indeed, idealism is often seen as subversive – and conservative sporting bodies and societies are generally fearful of any form of subversion.
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Post-career activism works well, in that a respected athlete can leverage their profile and successful career to push an agenda.
We’ve seen plenty of former sports stars go into politics, or lend their name of a specific cause, over the years – most recently and hilariously in the form of Palmer United Party senator Glenn Lazarus.
Former NRL legend Darren Lockyer was hired by the coal seam gas industry in a bid to sway public perception on drilling and show people “the truth” behind CSG. At least Lockyer had the good sense to wait until his career was over before passionately getting behind such a controversial, divisive issue.
However, in 2014, it is somewhat risky to be an activist mid-sporting career. It’s just something you don’t see a lot of here in Australia, where sport is seen as separate from politics and social injustice. It’s a strange separation of powers.
The question, really, is should athletes keep their idealistic thoughts to themselves until retirement? Simply shut their mouths and concentrate on getting the job done on the field?
It’s different with actors, I’d wager. There’s nothing more cliche than an A-lister speaking at a climate change summit on the need to act now, or getting behind Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, etc. This is what they are expected to do in between movies; it also helps establish their personal brand.
But Pocock was the Wallabies captain, which makes this all even more rare. Rugby union is a conservative sport where rareness is frowned upon, from the schoolboy ranks right up to the elite level.
The ARU has made this abundantly clear this afternoon by issuing a “warning” to Pocock over his involvement in the protest.
“While we appreciate David has personal views on a range of matters, we’ve made it clear that we expect his priority to be ensuring he can fulfil his role as a high-performance athlete,” an ARU statement said.
In other words, shut up and play footy.
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Just to be clear, I’m right behind Pocock and everything he stands for.
Pocock’s arrest will presumably invite plenty of punters to say that he “should be focusing on his rehab instead of hugging trees,” but personally I think Pocock’s activism is a good thing for sport, and for society in general.
Clearly he is dedicated to social and environmental change – to the point where he is prepared to head out on a Sunday to a state forest in North West NSW to chain himself to a digger with 20 other non-footy people. He also plays rugby for Australia (when fit), which makes him the ideal Australian, really.
This isn’t a one-off; Pocock has been throwing his support behind several causes ever since he first broke onto the scene. It’s not for show; he’s really into it. He goes on Q and A and holds his own on a range of subjects against both sides of politics. He’s even launched a charity during his career – the eightytwentyvision.org foundation – which aims to improve the lives of those in rural Zimbabwe.
Basically, he’s an educated Gen Y man who genuinely cares about the world.
Pocock is a rare unit if you view the role of athlete through a very narrow prism. In reality, he’s just channeling the likes of Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson in years gone past.
By Dave Edwards