When the crowd roars out for more

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Greg Tru­man

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

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