Remember, it’s only a game

NRL_TrophyEveryone who plays or follows competitive sport, on any level, needs to take a step back. Take a deep breath. Every single one of you. Because you’ve taken things too far. In fact, you’re ruining it.

Sport has jumped the shark. And players have vaulted further over it than any human rightfully should, fuelled by peptides, human growth hormone and an approach that says that you’re a mug if you don’t do anything that’s not expressly prohibited by the rules, no matter how unethical it may be.

In an attempt to get an edge, clubs have been re-enacting the 1980s movie Weird Science, giving their players “supplements”, and if not breaking the rules, then certainly flirting with danger – much as the two geeks do in Weird Science.

In John Hughes’ movie, the nerds increase their computer-simulated lady’s boobies for the purposes of “humour” – but sports scientists are enlarging footballers’ biceps to similarly absurd proportions – for real.

And the unsavoury revelations keep coming. This week, a murky story surfaced about the Roosters, rugby league’s most consistent team this season, and human growth hormone. Essendon, my AFL team, have already been excluded from the finals and fined after various irregularities. Right now, the country’s two most popular codes seem dodgier than a late-night kebab.

Fans could be forgiven for wondering whether there’s any genuine joy to be had in winning a premiership in this year which contained the “blackest day in Australian sport”. Should it be the players who are feted with a ticker-tape parade, or the geeks in the backrooms who have devised concoctions of ever-increasing complexity? Alongside the coveted Dally M and Brownlow, should they hand out honours for the most devious sports scientists?

Worse still, we’ve seen this week that this absurd competitiveness has extended well beyond professional sport. There have been reports that a schoolboy basketball competition has been manipulated in ways that contravene the spirit of friendly competition.

In response, five of the seven other Sydney GPS private schools have refused to play The Scots’ College, a remarkable situation given the GPS’ gentlemanly pretensions.

It reminded me of when I was in Year 11 back in 1993. That was Scots’ centenary year, and their rugby team improved remarkably amid similar rumours of “music scholarships” going to likely Wallabies prospects. In the end, the school won its first premiership in six years – and that was its last rugby title until this year.

I never heard any official confirmation of whether or not Scots had done anything improper back then (although Paul Sheehan referred to it back in 2002). So let’s just say that to win their one premiership in 26 years in their Centenary year was a delightful piece of serendipity.

I also remember that when that Scots team played my school, the relatively nerdy Sydney Grammar, in round 2, something like half of our First Fifteen contracted season-ending injuries.

That situation made me angry at the time, and it still does when I read about the basketball competition today. A mismatched rugby game can be genuinely dangerous, and our bookish team were never any threat to Scots’ title hopes.

Nowadays, the school has a professional sports scientist on its books. I’m not suggesting there are any peptide-style shenanigans afoot at Scots. But it seems totally absurd that a school should employ a sports scientist to get an edge in something as trivial as high school sport – especially one who previously worked at a first-grade NRL club!

As you can see here, Scots even has an indoor altitude chamber. At a high school. An artificially high school, evidently.

How ridiculous. For one thing, Scots is already located high on a hill so the boys can enjoy water views.

(The school is evidently not enjoying the media attention – the webpages for its “high performance centre” have disappeared. Fortunately, Google’s cached version survives, and makes for an interesting read.)

I know that Scots is not the only offender, and the other schools’ objections a reminiscent of rich, spoiled kids squabbling.

But here’s the thing – when you take sport too seriously, you ruin it. Victory seems ugly, and losing becomes bitter. It rankles to lose to someone when it doesn’t feel fair and square.

Anyone who played sport at school will remember those terrible parents on the sideline, shouting at the referee and getting far too emotionally involved as they urged their offspring to triumph where they themselves had once failed. Those petulant parents should have been made to go and sit in their Lexuses. Instead it seems that their mentality is running the show.

Winning a premiership is nice. It’s a cause for celebration, sure. But it doesn’t actually mean anything. Even the NRL trophy is not that big a deal in the scheme of things. Scale the importance of that down by several hundredfold and you’ll get a sense of how much these schoolboy plaudits should matter.

It’s a quest for bragging rights, I suppose – but as Scots may well be finding, bragging is hollow if the people you beat think you flouted the rules.

I’m not saying they’re cheating, but I am saying they’ve lost proportion – just as professional sporting teams have.

I used to think the professionalisation of sport was a sign of progress – that players could earn a decent wage nowadays. Now I fear that too much money sloshing around ruins sport. Perhaps we should turn our attention to amateur competitions where fun and friendliness is a higher priority than victory.

And as for Scots, perhaps they should get rid of their sports scientist and instead employ someone whose only job is to remind everybody involved in the school’s sports programme that it’s only a game.

A rugby or basketball premiership ultimately doesn’t mean all that much in the scheme of things. And if it does, the person you should be adding to your staff is a counsellor.

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