Sam Burgess and the Thoroughly Modern Phenomenon of ‘Failure’-Driven Sporting Narratives

Sam Burgess has reportedly penned a deal to return to South Sydney.

Here, he will return to the warm embrace of rugby league, where all past sins will be absolved as soon as he lines up for his first staged photo opportunity outside Surry Hills’ Bourke St Bakery with his brothers, George, Tom and Luke.

But Burgess failed, didn’t he? He went to rugby union – the enemy – and tried his hand at a completely different code. At the World Cup, England was humiliated – and Burgess’ legacy was in tatters.

As such, this question must be posed: is ‘failure’ now essential to creating a truly great sporting narrative? Is failure, as TPA analyst Ben Shine posited in our editorial meeting this morning, simply a badge of honour in a post-GFC entrepreneur-deified world? Must everyone encounter initial stumbling blocks, in turn creating a narrative of overcoming adversity? Does the Steve Jobs model apply to sport, too?

Perhaps the perfect linear sporting career is now the real outlier. You know, the players who dominate as juniors, break into first grade and go on to have a long and distinguished career at the one club, accumulating premierships and representative honours along the way. Do these guys exist any more?

It goes without saying that Generation Y is searching for more than just steady long-term employment. This uneasiness is in part fuelled by an uncertain economy, but also by the fact that we’ve been told from a young age that you can have everything. 

Gen Y: we can have it all
Gen Y: we can have it all

Athletes have taken this literally, of course. The modern day athlete is capable of much more than his specific job title may suggest. Personally, I don’t have a problem with any athlete trying their hand at a new sport. I’d do exactly the same thing. If I was expected to take hit-ups and make 30+ tackles every day for 10-15 years, my mind would certain start to wonder whether there’s more to life than copping a shoulder charge from Sam Kasiano.

But back to the entrepreneur-driven concept of failure as career catalyst. We saw Israel Folau struggle at GWS before finding his place at fullback for the Wallabies. We saw Sonny Bill Williams walk out on Canterbury at the peak of his powers and spend some time over in French rugby, in isolation, cast as a money-grabbing villain, before returning to dominate the Super Rugby competition and eventually becoming a World Cup winning All Black and general good guy.

And right now, we’re witnessing Jarryd Hayne in the midst of a huge stumbling block as he strives to make it in the NFL. If successful, he will be forever defined by this triumph over adversity. In terms of legacy, this is huge.

Sam Burgess has the chance to overcome this setback and become a true great of the game. He will have learned things during his time in rugby union that will help him in the NRL.

But most importantly, he will have learned perspective. 

By Dave Edwards 

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