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Chapter Four

Reaping a Destiny

The unassuming 22-year-old Gleeson said today that it was his teammates, St Kilda officials and supporters who deserved most of the credit for his victory.


“We are just like a family at St Kilda,” he said. “We depend on teamwork and we bring each other into the game. Coach Alan Killigrew is responsible for that and the officials and supporters have given us encouragement and confidence.”

Brian Gleeson, St Kilda ruckman, winner of the 1957 Brownlow Medal, in The Herald, 29 August 1957


[Greg] Williams’ manager, Peter Jess, said the charge against his client [of pushing an umpire] was “outrageous”, and threatened his career, which was already in its twilight.


….“If the tribunal takes away his livelihood, then we certainly have to take all steps to ensure he receives the fairest possible hearing at the highest possible tribunal.”


….Jess said [umpire Andrew] Coates…“was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


“These guys have got to understand that you just don’t put yourself in the position where you’re in somebody’s face,” Jess said.

The Age, 2 April 1997


Many Australians have little trouble naming their most memorable football final. For me, it was the 1992 Australian Football League Grand Final, between West Coast and Geelong.


We were still living in Tokyo, but preparing to make our big move to Melbourne. NHK television, the Japanese equivalent of our ABC, announced that it would broadcast the match live on one of its satellite channels.


“This is the game our boys will be playing when they’re bigger,” I told my wife. “We have to watch.”


Born in New Zealand, I had been raised on the heroics of the national rugby side, the All Blacks. I had also spent a couple of years working as a reporter on newspapers in the British West Midlands, and this experience had turned me into a big soccer fan, with a particular enthusiasm for West Bromwich Albion.


But Australian rules football made as much sense to me as sumo wrestling had when I first arrived in Tokyo. Certainly, it bore a definite relationship to football as I knew it - just as sumo was akin to Western-style wrestling - but it was also sufficiently different to make me feel as though I were watching through some kind of distorted lens.


It was one of the untidiest sports I had ever witnessed. There seemed no natural rhythm to the game, and no rules to worry about: offside, forward passes, punching and bouncing the ball and just about anything else seemed acceptable. The umpire was almost irrelevant, except to thump the ball into the ground now and again, or to hurl it backwards over his head.


Through the wonders of Japanese stereo technology, we had our choice of two commentaries: in Japanese, by a man who struggled to explain the intricacies of the onfield manoeuvres, and the original English-language commentary, which assumed complete knowledge of the rules.


My wife gave up after a couple of minutes. Our two sons - then aged four and three - gave no indication of being budding Jason Dunstalls or Gary Abletts; I lasted about 30 minutes, before deciding that unravelling this enigma of the mysterious Occident could await our arrival in Melbourne.


I may not have understood the rules of the game, but there was no mistaking the enthusiasm and commitment of the enormous crowd cramming the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Indeed, it is often said that for Australians sport is our religion, and many commentators have pointed to the central role that sport has played in the development of our nation. In a largely secular land, sport is often seen as playing a spiritual role, allowing Australians a chance to devote their energies and passions into something that transcends their mundane daily lives.


Australian-born academic and China expert Ross Terrill returned from Boston to write his book The Australians, in which he commented:


In Melbourne at a great Australian ritual I savour one of the most mysterious of all Down Under’s contradictions: 80,000 people hunch on benches as at church, except that they are half-naked under a blazing sun, as they watch a distant ballet of white on green, eleven Australians against eleven West Indians, all wearing long white pants. It is a Test Match. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is in the heart of the city—where a cathedral was located in medieval cities….Tension and reverence fill the stadium as the game goes on for four days, six hours a day. This is Melbourne with its mind on the job; this is Melbourne at worship….These pagans have found a God, a surprising one. The earnestness, excitement and sympathy that the Australian seldom expresses in daily social communication turn up on this hot afternoon at the MCG. Bottled-up emotions are brought to an almost religious pitch in watching the banging of willow against leather. Having found a God in top-level sport, the pagans are as tame as mice.


But wait a minute. Passion for sport flourishes everywhere. When the Socceroos journeyed to Teheran in 1997 for a World Cup soccer qualifier they played before more than 100,000 fervent Iranian soccer fans, in a passionately religious nation. Every country, religious or otherwise, has its emotional sports fans.


Yet sport undeniably does have an important role in Australian culture. So many people play and follow so many different outdoor activities, and Australia, for a relatively small country, is so amazingly successful at such a variety of sports, that trends in sport can play a significant role in shaping our lives and our society.


While writing this book, I came across a quote from US tennis great Arthur Ashe, reprinted in Character is Everything, a penetrating examination of ethics in sport by Russell W. Gough, an American professor of philosophy and ethics. The words came from Ashe’s autobiography, Days of Grace:


Sports can teach you so much about yourself, your emotions and character, how to be resolute in moments of crisis and how to fight back from the brink of defeat. In this respect, the lessons of sports cannot be duplicated easily; you quickly discover your limits but you can also build self-confidence and a positive sense of yourself. Never think of yourself as being above sports.


I skimmed dozens of Australian sporting autobiographies, hoping to find a similar quote to illustrate this chapter. I came upon many expressions of the great qualities of mateship that had developed from playing together, but little about the transcendent qualities of the game itself. Perhaps our sports personalities (or their ghostwriters) are not as reflective as some of their overseas counterparts. Yet I believe that, if challenged, they would agree with Ashe. Sport develops character.



In 1983, I left Tokyo, where I had been living for seven years, and moved to Yamagata prefecture, a mountainous region in the north of Japan. I hoped to accumulate enough interesting experiences to write an amusing travel book in the style of Paul Theroux or Jonathan Raban.


I chose Yamagata because it was the site of some of Japan’s holiest mountains, known as Dewa Sanzan, and I had spiritual yearnings, which I write about in some depth in Chapter 8. In addition, I had been studying aikido, one of the Japanese martial arts, and had just achieved the rank of shodan – first-level black belt. In Yamagata lived a famous teacher, Rinjiro Shirata, who had trained before the war with Morihei Ueshiba, aikido’s founder. Then aged 72, Shirata-sensei was one of the last surviving teachers from that era, and I was eager to take the chance to train under him.


Aikido teaches a rhythmic form of self-defence, based on the body’s natural movements. Participants practise the same wave-like moves repeatedly until they become second nature -  so engrained that it becomes all but impossible not to do those moves in the required circumstances. But it also teaches character -  notably self-discipline, perseverance, duty and humility - though I found that Japanese notions of character formation are sometimes different from our own.


I had started my aikido training in the beginners’ class at Tokyo’s honbu dojo (head training centre). But I wanted to practise more intensively, so sought out a dojo nearer my home. I found one in Otsuka, just a five-minute ride from my flat, on the Toden, Tokyo’s last remaining tramline. I turned up one snowy winter’s morning, wearing a thick red windcheater.


“Don’t ever come here dressed in red,” snarled the elderly dojo head. “Men don’t wear bright colours. Go home and change.”


He told me to report the next day for early-morning training. But for a couple of weeks I was not allowed to train; instead I was expected to kneel at the edge of the training mat and watch the others. Only then, having apparently decided that I possessed sufficient character, did he actually let me join.


When I arrived in Yamagata I was quickly welcomed into the aikido class. But as a newcomer I was placed in the beginners’ group, even though I already had my black belt. It was another character-testing exercise.


As a teacher of “original” aikido, Shirata-sensei attracted students from around Japan. Often they had been learning for many years, and possessed high-level black belts. But they all got placed straight into the beginners’ class (and during my short stay there several never returned after the initial lesson).



Australia has one particular sporting prize that is centred on character: the Brownlow Medal, awarded annually since 1924 to the best and fairest football player of the year. I doubt that there are many countries where the most esteemed award to the top player in the national sport is for fairness. It is a tribute to the basic sense of decency that underpins Australian society, and the annual Brownlow awards ceremony commands a huge nationwide television audience.


Yet such is the sense of moral ambiguity infecting our culture nowadays that - perhaps inevitably - there have been moves to change the Brownlow. In 1994, the AFL laws review panel recommended that the fairness element be removed, so that the medal would go simply to the best player. Thus, suspension for bad conduct during the season would not be a bar to winning.


A commentator declared in The Age: “It appears a sensible step. Any player suspended for a few weeks during the season is hardly likely to have indulged in anything that a few former winners have not tried a few times over the years.”


But there was a public outcry, and an opinion survey showed a majority against any change. The AFL was forced to back down. The Age quoted a League official: “My only comment is that it’s important for fathers and mothers who have children playing football to tell their sons to aim for the ‘best and fairest’.” Notch up a victory for common sense and decency.


But in 1997 came more controversy. St Kilda’s Robert Harvey won the Brownlow, despite polling one vote fewer than Chris Grant of the Western Bulldogs. Grant had received a week’s suspension during the season for striking another player, rendering him ineligible for the award.


It was the first time such a dilemma had arisen, and at the awards ceremony several League officials made a point of congratulating Grant first. There was even some jeering when Harvey received the medal. Harvey himself declared that, “In a way, it’s a hollow victory.”


Yet he won the award fairly, and in the ensuing media furore numerous commentators and retired football players backed him. It reflected the high regard for the Brownlow in our society. It was a second - albeit, slightly wobbly - win for common sense, and for the traditional rules that glue us together as a community.


But in the midst of the controversy came a decidedly chill moment. Newspapers reported that the Western Bulldogs had considered legal action over the award, and The Age quoted a Bulldogs official as saying, “We’ve looked at that [legal action] and we’ve decided to stay within the rules.” (My italics.)


Think about that statement: “We’ve decided to stay within the rules.”


Has our society really come to a point where we can decide whether or not to stay within the rules that govern us? Of course, the rich and powerful have always had access to lawyers, accountants and other professionals who have worked to keep them at the elevated levels to which they feel entitled. It sometimes seems that the richer you are the less tax you need to pay. But at least this has been achieved while staying within the rules.


The point, clearly, is that when we are able to choose to follow the rules we can, with equal logic, choose not to follow them. The rules, in fact, are no longer rules, but mere guidelines, or suggestions, or, at best, traditions. Raw power is what determines the outcome. Such is the logical outcome in a society which no longer follows moral absolutes.


Similar issues came to the fore earlier in 1997. Veteran Carlton star Greg “Diesel” Williams, a two-time Brownlow winner, received a nine-match suspension for pushing an umpire, one of the most serious of all on-field offences. His club decided to go outside the internal AFL disciplinary system and appeal to the courts.


With Williams thought likely to retire at the end of 1997, many commentators felt Carlton’s motive was really to keep the appeals process going for as long as possible so their star could play out the season. It was a move that was condemned: by the AFL, by many in the media and even by Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, who labelled it “an abuse of the system”. And, certainly, sport in this country would enter a period of farce if every disciplinary ruling was lengthily appealed to the courts. In the end, the AFL tribunal’s verdict was upheld.



Australian rules football dates back more than 100 years. Thanks to its traditions and strong community roots, the sport has been able to resist many of the challenges thrown up by our morally ambivalent society.


I am less optimistic that it will resist another great challenge: big business.


The primary change is cable television. Whole channels now are devoted to sport, and these channels need content. So, international media magnates are spending hugely for the rights to broadcast sports. In some cases, they are taking over whole sporting leagues: nationally, such as with Australian rugby league, or even internationally, as with rugby union.


These events are broadcast around the world, to viewers with short attention spans and an aggressive trigger finger on the remote control. Such spectators often know little about the traditions of the particular sporting league they are watching, and in some cases do not even know the rules of the game. They switch vacantly from Italian soccer to American football to Thai kickboxing to French tennis to Brazilian motor racing to Canadian golf to Australian triathlon. They want action. Often what they are after is violent action.


Even on free-to-air television we have plenty to choose from, and this, naturally, influences the sports we follow and enjoy. When we arrived in Melbourne in 1993 I had notions of selecting one AFL club as my own regular team and taking our sons to watch it play each weekend.


But now that our boys are old enough to enjoy following sports, they have just minimal interest in football. For a while, their game was basketball, and they became experts on the American NBA. They sometimes appeared to know more about Michael Jordan than they did about any local football player.


Indeed, to hold the attention of viewers like myself and my kids, even free-to-air television increasingly highlights aggressive confrontation. Replays of football matches feature all the hard plays and violence. Channel Seven, promoting its coverage of the 1998 Australian Open tennis tournament, announced that one of its commentators would be “bad boy” tennis star John McEnroe, and showed repeated shots of him in a racket-smashing tantrum. To advertise the match between local hero Pat Rafter and American Jeff Tarango it screened continual promos showing Tarango screaming “Shut up” at an umpire.


Of course, there has always been violence in sport. Perhaps sport is nothing more than a continuation of war by other means. Here is Manning Clark, in one of the volumes of his A History of Australia, writing about football’s 19th-century origins:


That fierce thirst for blood which they [the working classes] had inherited from their ancestors was now satisfied by the game of Australian football. Modern civilisation had found an answer to the human craving for skill, excitement and cruelty. The footballer, it was said, had murder in his heart. The spectators found both entertainment and fulfilment of their wild lust for violence and their desire to satisfy their baser passions in barracking the participants in the new blood sport. They polluted the air with their oaths, their obscenities, and their gift for anatomical wit to the great scandal of those who did not believe the playgrounds of Victoria should be contaminated with anything unfit for the eyes and ears of their mothers and their sisters.



When I was growing up in New Zealand, in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the highlights of life was an All Blacks tour of the British Isles. It galvanised the whole country. For the couple of months that it lasted it was the dominant topic of conversation. The newspapers were full of reports. Boys picked up tour itineraries at petrol stations, filled in all the results and made jokes about the names of some of the opposing teams: Munster, East Glamorgan, Llanelli. We carried these itineraries in our pockets, and at school we would pull them out to settle arguments about the scores. Many men stayed up all Saturday night to listen to radio transmissions of the matches.


The All Blacks seldom lost, so the news was, typically, good. In fact, the newspapers, despite their huge squads of reporters, made sure the news was good. They simply avoided reports of controversy.


Once a renowned All Black got expelled from the team during a British tour. It was clear that he had severely breached some rules, but what exactly had happened was a mystery. The newspapers didn’t say. It was only much later, and very slowly, that reports filtered out about the mayhem he had been causing off the field, including - so I was told, when I was a young reporter - punching a fan who came to the tour bus looking for autographs.


Most people probably agree that the media “protected” us too much in those days from learning about sporting aggression on and off the field. There has been a natural reaction against this. But it is, surely, hard to contend that we have not now swung too far the opposite way. In our open society it sometimes seems the news - even sports news - has to be bloody. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the television news producer’s motto.


I do not know where to draw the line, but I believe the television networks are treading dangerously when they increase so sharply the levels of violence they screen, even if they are doing nothing more than showing us something that has always existed. Of course, they will attract viewers by screening aggression. We are drawn to such images, just as we were drawn to increasingly explicit shots of Princess Diana. And still we wanted more.


Previously there was a natural understanding that humans, being fallible, were subject to temptation, and that television broadcasters, as responsible members of society, needed to show restraint. Increasingly, anything goes. Parents are left to fend for themselves.


It is little wonder that at my kids’ sports matches I sometimes hear: “I’m glad my boy doesn’t want to play football. It’s far too rough.”


But as cable-television money pours into sport, the chances are that we are going to see more sporting violence, not less. The nature of many of our sports will change, too. But am I not right in thinking that fans are becoming weary of competitors whose main focus is money?


When I was a teenager, it seemed that most of the world’s top middle- and long-distance runners - Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Bill Baillie and many more - came from New Zealand (at least that’s how it seemed to us in New Zealand). And not just from New Zealand, but from the western suburbs of Auckland, where I lived. I would sometimes see them running down the local streets, men with leg muscles of iron who powered themselves along in enormous strides and never seemed to tire. The famous Arthur Lydiard was coach to most of them, and his kids went to my secondary school, where naturally they topped all the school athletics tourneys.


I idolised Peter Snell. I remember when he broke Herb Elliott’s world mile record, in 1962, on my 13th birthday. I was in my bedroom, listening to the race on an ancient radio which had huge brown knobs and a dial with the name of every New Zealand broadcasting station printed on it, and can still feel the excitement generated in our house when I rushed downstairs to tell the news to my parents and grandparents, who were playing Scrabble in the living room after a small family birthday celebration.


A minor industry developed in books by and about all the runners. Like many of my school friends, I used to read them all, and tried to copy the techniques: sweaty street jogs one night; punishing sprints the next; long, hilly runs at the weekend. None of it seemed to do me any good.


I recall the hilarity, in 1963, when our papers reported that a new book about New Zealand running achievements, called Lap of Honour, had been seized by Australian customs for inspection because its title aroused suspicions of lewd content. For some reason, in those naive days many in New Zealand regarded Australia as a bit of a cultural and social backwater compared to our own perceived refinement and sophistication.


In any case, it was well-known that the runners made huge financial sacrifices in order to compete for their country. The All Blacks did the same. Many found themselves quite poor, with no job skills, once their sporting careers ended. But most would say it was worth it for the honour of representing their country.


The same is still true for some sports, especially for women competitors. But with so much money around - including plenty from the government - many sports people are well paid, and there has been a pervasive corrupting influence.


For example, in 1997, having lost out to Iran in the World Cup soccer qualifiers, Australia’s Socceroos went to Saudi Arabia for the Confederations Cup contest. Each player was promised $22,000 for reaching the final. But then, word leaked to the media that team members thought this insufficient. They were planning to strike for more. “We were representing our country and we should get what we deserve,” an anonymous senior player was quoted as saying. Also in 1997, our top cricketers, some on $400,000 a year, threatened to strike, ostensibly for more money for junior players.


When the Greg Williams umpire-shoving episode erupted, his manager made much of the earnings that Williams stood to lose, and it seems that in the AFL money is becoming increasingly important. There are depressing signs that teams are splitting into two factions: an elite group of superstars, with their own bands of managers, lawyers and accountants, and allegiance to whichever club best meets their demands; and the lowly foot soldiers. The team as a single unit, representing and serving a community, fades into memory.



Yet I remain an optimist about sport in Australia and its ability to shape character. And every weekend I join hundreds of thousands of other optimistic Australians in a strange ritual, criss-crossing our cities in cars, station wagons and old pick-ups. We are the mums and dads of this country, and we are transporting our kids to their sports games, to basketball, tennis, cricket, netball, little athletics, footy, swimming and a myriad of other pursuits.


We do not do this because we enjoy it. Have you ever met a parent who enjoys the work of driving children to sports practice, piano lessons, Little Joeys or whatever? No, we do it because we believe that through sport our kids will develop character. While the international media magnates rip the soul from big-time sport, parents throughout Australia maintain the faith at the community level. Like the very modest Brian Gleeson, St Kilda ruckman and winner of the 1957 Brownlow Medal, who was quoted at the head of this chapter, we still try to see sports teams as a family.


In Character is Everything, the book about sports ethics that I cited earlier, the author, Professor Russell Gough, cited what he called one of his all-time favourite quotes. It comes from the 19th-century English novelist Charles Reade: “Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.”


In others words, seek to perform good acts regularly, and they will become a habit. Through such habits you will develop character. And from people of character comes a society’s destiny.


I and my weekend fellow-travellers believe that through the traditions and disciplines of sport our kids are developing character. And out of this will come the fate of our country. We are out there driving our kids around every weekend because we love and believe in Australia.




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