Publicity not always a good thing in sport

by Paul Thomas / 17 January, 2013
When it comes to sport, publicity is not always a good thing.
Shane Warne (right) in an exchange with West Indian batsman Marlon Samuels
Shane Warne (right) in an exchange with West Indian batsman Marlon Samuels, photo Getty Images.

Top-level men’s sport is often synonymous with men behaving badly. Its capacity to generate controversy and scandal is one reason men’s sport commands so much more media attention than women’s. For the past two months, men’s cricket has had an avalanche of publicity that has had little to do with the Black Caps’ on-field performances, except insofar as they reflect the destabilising effects of a culture lacking “integrity, trust, honesty and accountability”.

That’s straight from the horse’s mouth – New Zealand Cricket director of cricket John Buchanan. A close reading of his remarks invites the conclusion that he exempts himself from this devastating critique.

Whether all publicity is good publicity is another matter. (Irish writer Brendan Behan surely had a point when he questioned whether this extended to one’s obituary.)

For instance, it’s hard to believe that 43-year-old body artist and former cricketing great Shane Warne evoked anything but disdain with his calculated histrionics in the KFC T20 Big Bash League. (Yes, I’m afraid that really is what it’s called.) What was presumably intended as an assertion of relevance came across instead as an advanced case of limelight deprivation syndrome.

Rudyard Kipling’s view that “the female of the species is more deadly than the male” isn’t borne out by history, statistics or common sense. Department of Corrections figures show that as at March 2011, our prisons held 556 women and 8199 men. To put it another way, when was the last time a former Black Fern assaulted a civilian outside a pub, as ex-All Black Keith Robinson admitted doing last month?

True, cries of racism briefly lit up the social media when the unmistakably Nordic tennis player Caroline Wozniaki did a Serena Williams imitation that involved padding out her chest and rear end to cartoonish proportions.

And sourpuss Australian netball coach Norma Plummer once caused a stir by labelling the Silver Ferns “slappers”. (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang: 1. A promiscuous woman [cf. scrubber.] 2. A prostitute.) Plummer insisted she simply meant they played with mongrel (Collins English Dictionary: Australia and NZ sport toughness and physical aggression). One wonders why she didn’t use that term in the first place.

But neither of these incidents would have caused much of a stir in men’s sport, where racism controversies are a dime a dozen and trash-talk appears to be the lingua franca. That said, women can lay claim to one of the most egregious acts in sporting history.

During a practice session for the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships, a selection trial for the Winter Olympics, leading contender Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted with a tyre iron. It transpired the attack was organised by the ex-husband of Kerrigan’s great rival Tonya Harding, the aim being to eliminate her from consideration by breaking her leg.

The incident, indeed the whole Kerrigan-Harding rivalry, was a story made in tabloid heaven: Kerrigan was a comely brunette of the God, Mom and apple-pie persuasion, whereas the scrappy Harding seemed more suited to boxing, which she later took up, than the Disney-esque world of figure skating. After admitting she had obstructed the investigation, Harding used the threat of legal action to make the cut for Lillehammer where she finished eighth. Kerrigan recovered from her injuries to win the silver medal.

Harding was banned for life after a US Figure Skating Association investigation concluded she was in on the plan to hobble her rival. Her life story from that point reads like one long audition for the Trailer Trash Hall of Fame.
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