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Every time a top athlete withdraws from an event for the sake of their mental health, I punch the air three times and hiss, “Yes!” under my breath.
It may involve simply not showing up for your match, but it strikes yet another blow to make sport a bit less toxic.
Because – let’s face it – sport has been a macho horror show for ages.
Even as a lifelong sports fan, I’ve constantly been faced with the choice of either adopting, or ignoring a host of offensive, violent and downright scary aspects of sporting culture.
Roaring at the television? Swearing compulsively? Getting outrageously drunk? These seem to be on the acceptable level of sporting fans’ behaviour.
Violence? Tribalism? Verbal assaults of other people? Well, maybe not strictly acceptable, but you never know, and it wouldn’t surprise you to see it.
You witness this behaviour at sporting events, but also in intimate home environments in front of televisions, a braaivleis… and of course the children.
Sporting culture is taught to the young as a type of metaphor for war. Two sides despise each other, and they go into battle to fight without mercy until a winner is declared. These are modern-day gladiators; they never give up; they endure pain, injury and illness in the ultimate quest for victory.
Fine, but it is rather a bunch of red-blooded manly bullshit, don’t you think?
In what other activity is it allowed for people to seriously injure each other – and themselves? Why is it acceptable to taunt, abuse and assault other people because they wear a different club jersey to you? Why must the atmosphere of a sports event be one of barely contained aggression?
My feeling is that this comes from sports culture allowing the worst impulses of violence and bigotry to run rampant among fans. Because of the element of competition, the focus too often becomes adversarial. Us against them. And maybe both of us against the referee!
And then we wonder why bigotry still festers, almost unchecked, despite the anti-racism campaigns, and the earnest, well-meaning taking of knees before games.
All in an atmosphere of battle, a fight to defeat others, or destroy ourselves while trying. Until we break bones, sustain repeated concussions, and develop mental illnesses we got from who knows where.
Whether it’s high-speed tackles, revving engines or women’s badminton, the culture is there.
But then some brave soul says no. I don’t want to destroy myself. They withdraw from the event, from the entire competition, because the mental strain the sport places them under has become too much.
That takes courage. Perhaps a lot more courage than it takes to swallow your pain and go through the motions of rivalry and battle, as competitors have done since time immemorial, when people would fight until they couldn’t go on any longer.
Now others feel empowered to put themselves first. Ahead of the fans, the sport and the imperative to fight and defeat others.
Perhaps it does herald a change. Perhaps professional sport can come to be more like the workplace – which it is, after all, for professional sports people. Perhaps our sports stars can take a break now and then. A day off, if you will. Annual leave. Perhaps get some counselling.
This is modern life. We are adults, not warriors from the 1400s or whatever. Let’s allow our sportspeople the same latitude. Let’s let our sport become a big gentler, more compassionate… Dare I say it, more womanly.
Perhaps because it is becoming the final refuge of many of the worst male impulses, sport and many sporting fans will resist this change.
But imagine if sport was soft and gentle. Empathetic. Welcoming. Forgiving. More fun and less intense. Would it not attract more people? Fans who get a bit put off by swearing, aggression and the whole survival-of-the fittest vibe?
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I haven’t had a drink for three months. Can you tell?