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Sportspeople behaving badly presents an ugly dilemma for fans

“Tim made a mistake a few years ago.”

They’re the words of Australian bowler Nathan Lyon, speaking about his cricket teammate Tim Paine, who has taken a leave of absence after a sexting scandal attracted huge national and international attention.

Lyon argued his former colleague had repented and should be allowed to move forward. In the meantime, there’s been plenty of criticism of the way Cricket Australia managed the issue.

It’s been a tough time for Australian cricket fans, who only three years ago watched another captain step down amidst scandal. At least then it wasn’t two and half weeks out from the Ashes.

The Ethics Centre’s Simon Longstaff, who conducted a cultural review of Cricket Australia after the ball-tampering incident in South Africa, has said sporting codes must work out what ethical standard they hold their players to, in part to avoid bowing to pressure from the public or a noisy stakeholder.

“Do we really think everybody who is captain of a national sporting team should be refused the opportunity to lead because of private failures?,” he said at the time.

But what happens when the “failures” include such acts as domestic violence, racism or violent assaults? And who gets to decide how tenable their position is then: team management, corporate sponsors or the fans, forced to weigh up their loyalty to the players and the game they love?

‘I just cannot watch football anymore’
To the non-sports fan, the dilemma of how to continue to support your sports team when, for example, a culture of racism is exposed might seem simple to reconcile.

A player or team does horrible stuff? Stop supporting them.

But it’s not that easy.

“A lot of sports fans have their identity tied into the team that they love,” US sportswriter and author Jessica Luther tells ABC RN’s Sporty.

“So the idea of just abandoning it whenever there’s any kind of issue within that team is ridiculous.”

Ms Luther and sports writer Kavitha Davidson conducted 100 interviews with sports fans for their co-authored book, Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back.

“No two fans said the same thing” in the face of reprehensible behaviour among sportspeople and their teams, Ms Davidson says.

“We got people who said, ‘I just cannot watch football anymore. On Sundays when my family is watching football, I go upstairs’.

“And then we got fans who said, ‘I can’t give this up. It’s too much of a part of who I am’,” she says.

Another major reason not to abandon your team is the threat of social exclusion.

Sports podcaster and author Titus O’Reily says, particularly in Australia, societal power structures run through sports clubs and organisations.

Sport is “the biggest cultural power in the country”, he says. To reject it is to exclude yourself from that power.

“To say to a group of people, whether that be women or Indigenous people, ‘Here, if you’re not happy, don’t be a part of it’. Well, that’s the problem,” he says.

“They’re actually leaving society, not just sport โ€ฆ And that’s why it needs to be open to everyone.”

Fans on the front foot
One baseball fan Ms Davidson interviewed had a novel method of reconciling her discomfort with player behaviour.

When the Yankees baseball team signed player Aroldis Chapman, who was accused of domestic violence, “she couldn’t root for him, but she couldn’t stop rooting for the Yankees”.

She decided to set up a charity that donated $1 to an anti-domestic violence advocacy group every time the player recorded a strike-out, “so at least she felt that she was doing some good”, Ms Davidson says.

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Mr O’Reily takes issue with athletes “in various sports in Australia” who “have multiple domestic violence cases against them, but are still allowed either back to play, or allowed to be commentators on TV”.

“You have almost a protection racket run amongst those that run the sport and represent it on TV who protect these players,” he says.

Mr O’Reily argues there’s a disconnect between teams and media organisations continuing to employ such players, and the community of fans who increasingly “don’t tolerate this stuff and actually say ‘this is not okay'”.

“There’s a battle that goes on between the average fan and what they would like the sport to be, and those in the positions of power actually running it.”

Sponsors as moral arbiters?
Sponsors withdrawing or threatening to withdraw their sponsorship can have a significant impact on a team’s response to bad behaviour.

After the ball tampering crisis in Australian cricket in 2018, the players involved and Cricket Australia lost significantly in sponsorship dollars.

Major sponsor Qantas said of Cricket Australia at the time, “We’ve let them know that we want them [the authorities] to urgently complete the investigation and take the appropriate action”.

Mr O’Reily is uncomfortable with the notion of corporate sponsors “reflecting the community anger better” than sports teams or organisations themselves.

“The concern for me is that the fact [corporate influence] is happening is often because the various sports teams or individuals or administrations have vacated the field on these things and are not making the decisions,” he says.

He cites the “very badly handled” Collingwood Football Club racism report as an example.

“It was actually Nike coming out of America saying ‘We’re not going to sponsor you if this isn’t dealt with properly’ that led to it actually being taken seriously.

“So we’ve got this really weird situation where corporates are actually doing what these sporting administrations should be doing anyway.

“It shouldn’t get to the point where sponsors are having to threaten to leave. These sporting organisations should be reading where society’s heading and reflecting it a lot faster.”

But if corporate pressure equates to positive action being taken, Ms Luther says she’s OK with it.

She says for decades Native Americans had been asking that Washington’s National Football League team change its name, which was “a slur for Native people in the US”.

“The owner had dug in his heels. And then lo and behold, there was a lot of pressure in the US following the murder of George Floyd and all the protests around Black Lives Matter,” she says.

Sponsors FedEx, Nike and Pepsi “forced the issue”, she says, leading to the team’s name finally changing.

“I do wish the people would just do the right thing, but I kind of don’t care anymore. If what it takes to have the right thing done is corporate pressure and threatening the bottom line, then that’s just where we are.”

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