When the crowd roars out for more
Bubble Boys: The Increasingly Complex World of Our Nation’s Sports Stars
By Michael Blucher Beepond, 384pp $25 PIANO smasher and Olympic gold medallist Grant Hackett, sans Speedo, staggers around a casino lobby in the wee hours looking for his “lost’’ son; AFL great turned cocaine and booze fiend Wayne Carey has an affair with a teammate’s wife; rugby league speedster Joel Monaghan simulates a sex act with his mate’s dog with the conviction of a method actor.
What are these pampered sports stars thinking? Not bloody much may be an unscientific though accurate assessment.
Stories of player excess and their mild atrocities are as old as some of the games themselves, yet something has changed in the past decade or so as sport has developed a Hollywood-type star system and celebrity culture that the poor old Australian film industry can only dream of matching. Generally the upside of that kind of exposure is increased interest in the players, improving their commercial prospects and the financial wellbeing of their sport. The not-so-good outcome: sportspeople without their pants become breaking news.
Similarly, post-career meltdowns used to involve sporting legends in retirement propped up on bar stools drinking themselves to death in relative privacy. These days athletes such as Hackett or Ian Thorpe head for rehab as cameras give chase, their struggles recorded for mass consumption and fevered discussion.
Just who is responsible for this unseemly transformation? The media and corporations commodifying the dignity out of the sports so intrinsic to our national identity; a celebrityobsessed public too anxious for the next bit of scuttlebutt; or is it a growing portion of contemporary sportspeople who have become petulant, privileged poseurs with a rampant sense of entitlement and too much money and time on their hands?
Michael Blucher, a career behind-thescenes sports writer and marketer, employs his considerable expertise in the media and corporate arena to break down the business and culture of sport and all its moving parts for assessment in the engaging Bubble Boys.
In his comprehensive though cheerfully conversational 384-page analysis, Blucher doesn’t avoid occasionally pointing the finger and naming names. He rightly identifies the 2002 public confession of Carey’s messy affair with Anthony Stevens’s wife, Kelli, as pivotal for the way Australians report and consume information associated with sport. Indeed, the book is littered with juicy anecdotes about individuals on and off the field, ensuring a jaunty read for sport tragics and gossip rubbernecks.
But Bubble Boys is not some sort of glorified compilation of tabloid yarns. Blucher’s focus is to map the forces shaping the extraordinarily competitive Australian sporting landscape. He presents the numbers and does the sums, fashioning a fiscal report card on the games and the players before examining what he describes as “the relationships athletes share with their many and varied stakeholders”: the public, the media, administrators, the corporate community, peers and those who direct their careers.
For the most part the author spares us any turgid moralising about athletes’ shortcomings, opting instead to contextualise their conundrums, evocatively laying out the damning influence of a lack of education, illness and injury and the sometimes spurious activities of managers, agents, sponsors, even parents.
In highlighting the fact the single-minded commitment required in sport sometimes truncates the maturation process of participants and restricts the vision many bring to their lives when the roar of the crowd is gone, he discusses the measures being taken (or not) by administrators to expose their charges to challenges and opportunities not necessarily involving their ability to hit, kick, pass, run, jump, swim or throw.
Blucher doesn’t only shine a revealing light on the players; he also surveys the needs, wants, brilliance and stupidity of the media and corporate sector, explaining why both are an indispensable blessing and curse in the professional era.
Drawing on interviews with “almost 400 people” including coaches, players, administrators, psychologists and academics, he evolves the analysis into a kind of instruction manual, especially useful for young professional athletes being pulled five ways by the demands of their modern games. There are also helpful suggestions for corporate types so they don’t make fools out of themselves when interacting with notable sporting identities.
The inclusion of pearls of wisdom from the sensible and perceptive former Australian rugby captain John Eales and master league coach Wayne Bennett, among many others, hint at Blucher’s Brisbane background, but the book has a multi-sport, national outlook.
Women’s sport, however, is absent. The author explains that is because the boys make the big money and scandals in Australia, dominating our attention. True, but a quick look, for example, at the pressures on female swimmers, tennis players or basketballers such as international gem Lauren Jackson could have been instructive and perhaps put the perceived trials and tribulations of the mollycoddled blokes in an even more telling light.
Bubble Boys, entertaining as it is, revisits the same themes a little too often and occasionally seems stylistically stuck between being a diagnosis and commentary on sport and a life skills prescription for jocks. Yet Blucher has achieved something important with this book. It’s a welcome, insightful addition to the thin body of work about the mechanics of Australian sport and the peculiar cultures driving the nation’s absurdly intense sporting obsession. Greg Truman is a New York-based Australian journalist and writer.
April 26-27, 2014
theaustralian.com.au/review Former AFL player Wayne Carey autographs a fan’s book as he leaves the Melbourne Magistrates Court after pleading guilty to assault charges