So here was poor Sam Burgess, champion, role model, admired footballer, looking forlorn as he spoke at a press conference.
Three times Burgess said that he was "happy for the truth to come out" about his alleged involvement in the "lewd photo scandal" of the week. Alas, not happy enough to venture some of that truth himself. Of course, the matter was under investigation.
Fronting up: Sam Burgess addressed the Souths lewd video call scandal for the first time on Tuesday.
Here was poor Todd Greenberg, re-reading the same riot act as the week before, with "Bulldogs" rubbed out and "Rabbitohs" filled in. Another atrocity from [Insert club name here]. Again, no real details, and perhaps there’s an idea. Put every player and every club under permanent investigation, so nothing can be said, and we can all get on with our lives.
And here was poor Anthony Seibold, Burgess’s coach, trying to keep his men focused on Saturday’s NRL grand final qualifier against the Roosters. There’s another side to the story, Seibold promised, which we would soon see. Nooooo! What we want is to un-see the side of the story we have already seen. We want zero sides to this story.
Some of this is mere rugby league intrigue of the week. Was Mitchell Pearce’s poodle the informant? Were the evil Roosters playing some convoluted game of revenge porn? That would seem a side issue, part of the theatre around a highly-anticipated game. The lingering matter of importance is not who did what when and who leaked it, but the more fundamental breach in understanding and trust between participants in professional sport and the public who watch them.
Whenever something like this "lewd photo scandal" (my favourite phrasing) breaks out, those of us who don’t want to sound like old people but just are, wonder what the hell is going on. Why would you hold up a phone-camera and do that? Why would someone else then record it? What kind of world do these people live in? Nothing is so guaranteed to make us feel fundamentally alienated from the game as this sense of an alien, incomprehensible world behind the facade. We think we go to the game to watch people who are just like us, only more athletically gifted, and then something like this comes along to tell us no, they are not like us one bit.
Ugly: Lukhan Tui gets in an altercation with a Wallabies fan.
The sane response is to disengage and focus entirely on the sport and ignore any attempts by the PR machine to contrive whole personalities out of the players we are watching. They are just jerseys.
That’s speaking for the alienation of the old. For the young, on the other hand, a "lewd photo scandal" is entirely routine and part of the cut and thrust of daily life on social media. I have teenage children, and to them the sexting thing is no surprise at all. It might be lewd, there might be a photo in it, but don’t call it a scandal. For them, the breakdown in trust is more a personal challenge. The players in this incident couldn’t trust the person on the other end of the call, which confirms that nobody can trust anybody. Life is a dangerous game. Deal with it.
Whether you belong to the old view or the young (and I use those terms only for convenience), both perspectives show a serious breach of trust between players and public. This breach is so pervasive that we only notice it when it erupts into the open. I felt sorry for Burgess, for the smear to his reputation, but I felt more sorry for Lukhan Tui, the Wallaby who got into a scuffle with a "fan" after the loss to Argentina on Saturday.
The "fan", a man who expressed his loyalty, or gave himself licence for grandiosity, by wearing the replica Wallabies jersey over his casual trousers, showed how deeply he cared by berating players for the way they had performed. Never mind that Bald Man in Replica Jersey seems to have missed the main story: the Wallabies lost because Argentina are vastly improved, which is actually a good story for world rugby. Bald Man in Replica Jersey was disappointed and wanted to let the players know. The question was whether the same passion that purchased his ticket and his jersey entitled him to express his disappointment so frankly.
Bald Man in Replica Jersey’s words are, thankfully, lost in the vapour. What lasts is the distress that twisted Tui’s face just before he retaliated. Here was an honest footballer whose character and heart were questioned. Who can blame him for losing his cool? Whatever the result of the game (would the fan have been equally derisive about the Wallabies’ "lack of heart" if Israel Folau had just passed the damn ball to Bernard Foley?), you would think no player deserves that kind of rudeness. Had there been a poll for the next candidate to get hit by Sonny Bill Williams, chances are that that Bald Man in Replica Jersey would have pipped the guy from The Bachelorette.
When it emerged that Tui was in a fragile state because his stepfather had recently died, Bald Man in Replica Jersey said that he would have moderated his tone. Which suggests that he did have some self-control at the time, but he chose not to exercise it.
It’s unwise to be too hard on the Bald Man in Replica Jersey, for he might have had problems in his background as well. Maybe he had suffered a personal blow or bereavement, like Lukhan Tui. And maybe that’s the most important thing to take away from both of these sorry affairs. Before we get carried away with our passions – for bagging players, for putting cameras to our assets – we might ask if we would do this if we were told that there is a real person at the other end whose father might have just died. Or their mother, or their grandparent, or their friend. Bald Man in Replica Jersey was expressing his democratic right. But if he’d asked how he would speak to a bereaved person, he would have chosen a more respectful and civilised form of words.
Bald Man in Replica Jersey’s words are lost in the vapour. What lasts is the distress that twisted Tui’s face.
Bereavement is universal, and it might take recognition of some shared universal experience to rebuild that broken bridge between players and fans. Would those rugby league players have taken down their trousers if they’d considered that the woman on the other end had just suffered some heartbreak? Would she have invaded their privacy if she considered that they were real humans and not just robot celebrities? Would anyone act as carelessly to their fellows if they stopped for a moment and considered that we are all as prone to love and grief as each other?
It might be too optimistic to plead for compassion in this hard world where communications are more and more de-personalised by layers of social media that allow people to privilege their own passions and forget they are talking to flesh and blood. I risk sounding like Kamahl’s self-parodic ‘Why are people so unkind?’ But why are people so unkind? I hope Burgess plays for South Sydney and I hope Tui reconsiders his declaration that he wants to take time off from international rugby and is back soon in a real Wallabies jersey. I also hope that Bald Man in Replica Jersey and the woman at the other end of the lewd phone have learnt something. Their actions were only human, and while dissimilar in so many ways, what they share is that they are all manifestations of a breakdown of mutual understanding between performers and audience. There are no villains here, only people who might have done differently had they considered they were speaking to another human being with feelings akin to their own.
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