Courting Controversy: There’s No Place for Homophobia in Sport.

Margaret Court in her prime was a force of nature, an ‘Aussie Amazonian’, blessed with a powerful physique which had been trained to near perfection, enabling her to play an aggressive, attacking game which dominated her opponents. She struck the ball like she was on a single-handed (backhand) mission to deflate every single tennis ball ever manufactured. You can imagine the chair umpire wanting to call, “new balls, please,” at the end of virtually every point.  The International Tennis Hall of Fame describes her game as ‘an assault’.

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And by god, was she successful!  Margaret Court was to tennis what Donald Bradman was to cricket. Court won more Grand Slam titles (64) than anyone else in the history of the game, in a reign that dominated world tennis between 1960 and 1975.  Only Martina Navratilova (with 59) gets within 25 of her total.  To put that into context in the modern era, Roger Federer currently has 19.  And although Roger’s have all been in singles, Margaret Court won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and holds the record there as well.  Court won the ‘Box Set’ of all 12 possible Grand Slam titles as an amateur, then came out of retirement to repeat the feat as a professional. On the tennis courts, Margaret Court had all the aces.

Duly, the plaudits followed.  Court has been awarded an M.B.E., made an Officer of the Order of Australia; she’s been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, had postage stamps made with her likeness, and in 2003, one of Australia’s premier tennis courts was named after her.

And now things get interesting.  Because although Margaret Court played tennis like some sort of demi-god, it is her religious views and outspoken opinions which really must call into question the validity of continued reverence for her.  In a radio interview in 2017, Court claimed that a “gay lobby” was trying to “get [into] the minds of children” through Australia’s Safe Schools anti-bullying program.

Speaking about campaigns to allow same-sex marriage, Court suggested,

“Everybody knows that it is wrong but they’re after our young ones, that’s what they are after”.

And her views are not simply the ramblings of an elderly woman entering senility, although perhaps it would be kind to paint it that way.  In her role as a Pentecostal minister, Court has regularly and vociferously spoken out against homosexuality and she has a platform to do so, with television and radio appearances linked to her ministry work. She even wrote an open letter to Qantas criticising their support of same-sex marriage threatening to boycott the airline.

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Now, everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course, and the issue of same-sex marriage has proved to be a divisive one in many nations over recent years.  My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that marriage celebrates love between two people, and their sexual orientation makes no difference whatsoever to their ability to love each other (or to argue over who has to do the dishes). The spread of bigotry and encouragement of a strange sort of homophobic paranoia serves nobody.

Let me be absolutely clear: what she accomplished on the tennis courts was incredible and will stand in the annals of the sport for all time.  However, I believe that we need to hold our sporting heroes to a higher standard. I want the legends of sport to be people for our young people to look up to and aspire to emulate, both on and off of the sporting arena.

And finally, some members of the ATP Tour have started to say the same thing. Laura Robson this week supported Billie Jean King’s consistent calls for renaming the court, stating,

“It’s a tough one because she obviously achieved so much but, if someone is being asked to play on that court and they don’t maybe feel comfortable, or people in the crowd feel a little awkward about sitting on there, then people need to have more of a think about it and decide what is best.”

Given that the current ATP Tour Code of Conduct runs to 46 pages specifically detailing the many ways current players can bring the game into disrepute, speaking out against a Grand Slam host requires some pretty strong feelings.  And if the current players are held to a high standard of conduct, shouldn’t that also be applied to the legends of the game?

Generations of players will grow up dreaming of playing in the Australian Open. I want them to be able to feel confident and comfortable with that ambition, without it being tainted by the name that graces a court.  For that reason, I believe that the Margaret Court Arena should be renamed.

I’d rather join the crowd in a stadium packed to the (Patrick) Rafters than step foot on Margaret’s court.

 

All aboard the money train: is Sanchez worth the money?

The average railway worker in the UK earns £37,500 a year.  It’s not easy work, often working under pressure of time through the night.

Manchester United Football Club was formed in 1878 under the name ‘Newton Heath LYR Football Club, the L.Y.R. standing for Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.  Like many football clubs, they were formed by companies who were willing to allow their employees time off from work to compete in football matches representing the company.  ‘Professionals’ were the fortunate employees who were able to play football and be paid to offset the time taken off work.

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At modern-day Manchester United, Paul Pogba currently earns over £41k a day.

With the rise of spectatorism, gate receipts grew and it became possible for clubs to pay for full-time players. From these beginnings, modern football grew, with the additions of sponsorship, media rights deals, t.v coverage and ever-increasing commercialisation.  Football means money. And in recent times, this is has not been lost on an increasing wave of wealthy foreign ‘investors’ keen to make money out of the enormous financial juggernaut that is the English Premier League.

It would take the average railway worker nearly 8 years to earn what Pogba makes in a week and about ten generations of railway workers working for 40 years each to earn Pogba’s annual salary without even counting the sponsorships, media rights and so on.  Although he’s the highest-paid player at United, Pogba barely scrapes by compared the game’s top three players: Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are all reportedly on almost twice as much.  This is a level of wealth far beyond compensating a player for not being able to work on match days, and is repulsive to some.  But don’t these players earn it?

How do we square the idea of playing football for a living, a game that millions of people play every week as a hobby, with the ludicrous salaries of modern football?

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This week, Alexis Sanchez has decided that he just can’t get by on £130,000 a week, with manager Arsene Wenger admitting to the media today that, “It looks like Sánchez will not extend his contract,” before adding rather tellingly that, “These guys want to win trophies and they want to make money as well.”  Clearly, either two F.A. Cups and a Community Shield plus his salary have not been enough to satiate Sanchez or his agent has bent his ear.

It seems clear from Wenger’s comments that Sanchez wants to board the next express to Manchester Piccadilly and has set his sights on a club that can afford the salary he feels he deserves. Whilst Manchester City showed plenty of interest in Sanchez last summer that interest seems to have cooled now it emerges that Manchester United are perhaps keen to derail the City deal and are willing to enter a salary war to secure the player.  The fact that United already have numerous players earning more than the Chilean’s current deal at Arsenal gives credence to reports that they may be willing to offer Sanchez a deal worth nearly double his current wage at Arsenal.

The fact is, football is BIG business, with an almost insatiable global market funded by enormous deals for television rights, kit sponsorships, corporate tie-ins and merchandising coupled with the ever-rising gate receipts paid from the pockets of the ‘proper fans’.  And with the earning power of clubs comes the desire to recruit the finest players to ensure continued success and market dominance, to protect ‘the brand’ and to ensure debts are paid off for foreign owners who leverage those brands to their own financial benefit.

But it is the players who generate this wealth, and therefore, should we blame those same players for wanting an admittedly sizeable cut from the proceeds?  I do not blame any player for wanting to take the fast track to higher earnings in a short career.  To paint the typical professional footballer as greedy would be to ignore the entertainment they provide, the commitment required to reach such standards of skill and fitness and to overlook the quiet charitable work the vast majority of them do.

However, I do blame players for allowing agents to turn their heads and persuade them to leave a club for a better deal.  I blame them for allowing agents huge percentages of transfer deals which reward disloyalty.  A player is completely entitled to ask for a pay rise, but should they hold the clubs that have given them so much to ransom in the knowledge that top players could derail the ability of a club to remain financially stable?  It’s a fine line between the rights of a player to chose an employer and the expectation that a player should see out a contract they signed with a club.

I would prefer to see the players made rich than see that money lining the coffers of club owners, but perhaps there could be a cap on the percentage an agent is allowed to take, which might reduce the desire for agents to agitate a player towards an exit.

Common Goal is a scheme aiming to unite the world of footballers behind a shared commitment to give back. The idea is simple. Players pledge a minimum of 1% of their wages to a collective fund which is allocated to football charities that create the greatest impact worldwide.

Perhaps if Sanchez does end up with a big-money move from Arsenal to Manchester United then allowing Juan Mata the opportunity to persuade him to pledge some of his salary to Common Goal might be just the ticket. Perhaps there is light at the end of this tunnel.

The drowning of Mason Crane

Mason Crane has dreamed of this moment all his life. The moment when he stops being a spectator and takes on the role of participant in the gladiatorial world of test match cricket.  As he stands at his mark and prepares to bowl his first delivery, an expectant hush descends over the S.C.G.

Crane is the tenth genuine spin bowler to play test cricket for England in the 21st century.  Of those, three could be deemed a success (Swann, Panesar and Moeen Ali).  Of the other seven, none of them played more than Adil Rashid’s 10 tests, and none even get close to Rashid’s 38 wickets. In fact, Tredwell, Dawson, Patel, Ansari, Batty, Borthwick and Crane have a total of 39 between them.

England aren’t alone in this with Australia ‘experimenting’ with the likes of O’Keefe, Krejza, Agar, Maxwell, Doherty, Holland, White, Beer, Casson, Hogg and McGain in trying to fill the post-Warne vacuum.  It’s taken four years for Ashton Agar to even return to the Australia squad after his test debut in an away Ashes series at almost the exact same age as Crane is now.

So spin bowling is a difficult craft and establishing yourself as a spinner in test cricket takes resilience from the players and wisdom from selectors and team captains. And spinners tend to  continue to improve with experience.  The blossoming of Graeme Swann for England and Nathan Lyon for Australia in their later twenties have demonstrated the value of patience for test spinners.

Famously, Shane Warne’s first match figures were 1/150 against India at this same venue.  After just half an innings of test cricket, Crane has figures of 1/135 after 39 overs. His captain has shown faith in continuing to bowl him, but his pitch map looks like a sheet of paper after my 3-year old has been let loose with a fresh set of stickers, and he’s been unable to stem the flow of runs from the Aussie batsman.  However, the Australian selectors stuck with Warne and he bowled a spell of 5.1 overs, 3/11 in his third test against Sri Lanka before bowling Australia to a win in front of his home crowd at the MCG with 7/52 in the fourth innings against the West Indies in his fifth.

Edit: Since writing, Crane finished the 1st innings with 1/193, the most expensive England debut ever and 5th from all nations. 

Hopefully, the selectors will show the same faith in Mason Crane.

I like to take my son swimming some weekends.  We live right near a couple of pools, but I drive 20 minutes in the car to take him to a pool that has a kids’ pool next to the adult version.  The deepest it gets is about a metre and the water’s a lot warmer (hopefully intentionally rather than due to the undoubted urine content).   I want him to build confidence, develop his skills and have positive experiences to fall back on when we make the step up to swimming out of his depth.

In the Premier League, young players struggle to get appearances, but there is a widespread acknowledgement of the need to ease players in gradually.  A promising player will almost invariably debut in a home game, often against inferior opposition and in a lesser competition than the all-important league matches.  If they do well, they’ll get gradually more challenging assignments.

The Ashes is the ultimate competition in cricket.  Australia are almost always a powerful side at home and playing a debutant spinner in that environment against the likes of Steve Smith and David Warner isn’t like throwing them in at the deep end so much as dropping them from a helicopter into the shark-infested surf of Jefferies Bay.

Whilst talking about the struggling Moeen Ali last week, Graeme Swann recalled his strategy for rebuilding confidence by watching old footage of his best bowling spells.  Having those previous experiences can help a player who is finding it tough, as long as they have plenty of past successes already to draw on.

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Jefferies Bay, South Africa

Mason Crane may take more wickets this match.  He is undoubtedly a talented cricketer and good ‘leggies’ are hard to find.  He may even end up improving his figures to the point of respectability.  But Mason Crane is 20 years old.  Mason Crane has played in 29 First Class matches in his lifetime. He should have been given the opportunity to develop his game, grow in experience, make his test debut in familiar conditions and against opponents less likely to crush his confidence as they crush his long-hops into the boundary ropes.

Mason Crane may in future be England’s greatest spinner.  But right now, he’s just been thrown in at the deep end.