17 July 2019

Where have all the characters gone? Quashing personalities in sport

| Tim Gavel
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John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson was a prolific character in Canberra. Photo: Canberra Raiders website.

John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson was a prolific sportsperson in Canberra. Photo: Canberra Raiders website.

Over the past couple of months, I have witnessed some genuine characters emerge in Canberra sport. Unfortunately, those attending fund-raisers and other functions are the only witnesses to the ‘character’ side of some of our local elite sportspeople.

By ‘character’ I refer to the ability to see the personality of the individual through their humour, opinions, values and views. I definitely don’t mean the childish antics of footballers at pubs late at night or abusive behaviour expressed towards others by sportspeople.

A good example of character on the international stage is Ash Barty. People gauge something of her character through her actions and deeds on and off the court. She appears so very down-to-earth and doesn’t seem to ever pose for the camera or act in any way other than to be herself. But she is somewhat of an exception.

Ash Barty with the French Open trophy after her win. Photo: Twitter.

And who could go past Dylan Alcott? Like Barty, he manages to take the “I” out of all that he does and includes all those who have been part of his winning ways in a very refreshing way.

Within our own ACT sports arena, there’s a fair chance those not attending sports-related functions or not having direct interaction through personal connections or club involvement will miss out completely on glimpsing the character of some of our sportspeople.

In Canberra, it should be possible to really gain an understanding of the people representing us through sport. This can cement a stronger relationship with the sport itself, and it can also add to the fabric of our society.

But this appears to be harder than ever to achieve. One of the reasons could be connected to money. Many sports at the elite level are perceived as a business, and as such, there is a corporate message that must be maintained.

Another reason could be associated with the significance of social media. The fear of being ridiculed on social media or putting people offside by stating an opinion seems to have stifled intelligent, thoughtful contributions by many sportspeople.

The smallest display of personality can either result in a torrent of abuse on social media or an avalanche of praise, often in equal proportions.

There is also the danger of everything being reported at any time and any place with anyone with a smartphone being a citizen journalist. Comments can be taken out of context and in turn become a major distraction with mainstream media adding kerosene to these social media grass fires.

The result? Sportspeople become reluctant to express their true personalities.

Sam Kerr’s message to critics of the Matilda’s to “Suck on that” in the wake of her side’s come-from-behind win over Brazil is a case in point. According to many on social media, it was akin to the worst thing anybody could have said, while others declared her a hero.

Another example is David Pocock and his “jazz hands” episode. Miranda Devine admonished Pocock on social media after he scored a try by writing, “Did David Pocock actually do jazz hands when he scored a try?!!! What a tosser.” A short time after, Pocock politely responded on social media, “It was actually Auslan/sign language for clapping. I have a friend who’s first language is Auslan so it was for her.” To Devine’s credit, she apologised.

I am writing this column in the lead up to the induction of three new members to the Canberra Raiders Hall of Fame. This will bring the total number of inductees to 17, with 14 inducted earlier in the year.

Every one of the 14 already on the list had unique personalities. Steve Walters was the funniest player I have encountered with a line for everything, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Mal Meninga and the list goes on, had plenty to offer.

Not every player demonstrated character through what they said, it was more about just how they were. My favourite in this category was John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson. I don’t recall ever interviewing him even though I commentated and reported on the 1989 team, of which he was an integral member.

It was rumoured that he sometimes had a nap at half time although I have heard differing accounts. I do recall after one of the grand final wins in 1989 or 1990, when the team were officially presented to the awaiting crowd, a chat for ‘Chicka’ echoed around the clubhouse. The MC sadly informed the crowd that Chicka couldn’t make it as he was at home looking after the kids.

There was another time while I was working at the ABC that word quickly circulated that Chicka was in our building. He was there in his role for Wormald. Eventually, a crowd had gathered to watch Chicka inspect our fire extinguishers.

Before John Ferguson arrived in Canberra there was Terry Regan. At one time during his playing days for a variety of clubs in the NSWRL, it was reported that he once took a dog to the judiciary.

Regan was fighting a biting charge from the previous weekend and offered the dog up as exhibit A. Regan suggested that if you put a finger in the mouth of a dog or human it is likely to be bitten. According to the report, he encouraged the judiciary chair to put his finger in the dog’s mouth. The chair declined the invitation and Regan was subsequently suspended, and not by any stretch of the imagination, for the first time.

He sometimes displayed too much character.

I don’t necessarily blame the players or the player’s clubs for feeling ‘gun-shy’ about bringing characters to the fore, as they all know how social media can generate unexpected consequences from the most innocent of acts.

But if we want sportspeople to display their character we need to be less judgmental and give them some space to do so. Perhaps this is easier said than done?

Original Article published by Tim Gavel on The RiotACT.

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