Picking on the powerless: bullies rule, OK

Pro athletes are at the bottom of the pecking order in sport, and get picked on by everyone above them, and by the media, even though they alone carry the responsibility of being drug-free. It’s time we developed a way of giving athletes more say and control in how they work, play and live. Academic Dr James Connor explains the conundrum.

Picking on the powerless: bullies rule, OK

 By Dr James Connor*

The current investigation into alleged doping highlights one key point in the sports industry – professional athletes, by and large, are the powerless victims of the sports they try to excel in.

Sure, a lucky few make millions, become legends and have honours bestowed on them. But for the vast majority of professionals it is a difficult, dangerous and demanding job where all the power rests with coaches, managers, teams, codes and bodies like Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.

The typical professional athlete has been heavily engaged in sport from a young age. Education inevitably comes second for athletes, as the lure of success, fame and money propel them into more sport. While some player associations, for example the AFL, commendably try to encourage further education and training, athletes have little time for educational pursuits. This leaves the majority of athletes who don’t make it big in a very difficult position when they leave sport, as they lack qualifications and experience. While statistics for Australian athletes are scarce, an AFL Player’s Association survey found a quarter of first-year players fell below year 10 standards for numeracy and literacy. A study of Irish footballers found only a third had completed secondary schooling.

Imagine for a moment that as part of your employment it is routine for your physical health to be closely monitored, including diet, sleep patterns and a full analysis of all the exercise and movement you do. Eventually you would get used to just going along with the testing and advice – after all, coaches, doctors, nutritionists, physios and sports scientists are there to make your body perform at its peak. It can hardly be surprising players went along with the advice of their support staff and did what everyone else did in the team.

But here is the rub: athletes work under conditions of strict liability for doping, and they are responsible for any substance in their bodies. Appeals based on “everyone did it” or “we were told to” don’t change an athlete’s liability. Even if athletes were informed of what was happening, you can imagine the pressure on them to conform to the team norm.

The real victims in the Australian Crime Commission and ASADA investigation into doping in sport are the athletes themselves. As has rightly been pointed out, the broad brush approach of labelling many sports and athletes as drug cheats, with little evidence, has seriously dented the reputation of athletes and sports in Australia.

Perhaps the most egregious problem with elite sport is the damage it causes bodies. The risk of brain damage from repeated head trauma and concussion have only recently been acted upon by the main impact codes. Disturbingly, the latest research on American football players indicates the risk is mush more severe then first thought; for example, NFL players are four times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than people who do not play football. The NFL is so concerned that after years of denial it has invested $29 million in research and modified the rules on concussion and playing. We can only wonder at the long-term effect of our favourite contact sports on the brains of those involved.

Playing with injuries is commonplace, often at the urging of coaches. We might marvel at the feats of players like South Sydney player John Sattler, playing on with a broken jaw so that South Sydney could win a grand final, but the long-term damage to bodies and minds is staggering. Any normal workplace would be shut down immediately for OH&S breaches – not so sport, where players are socialised to accept ongoing and constant pain as part of the their jobs. And we cheer it on.

In AFL, despite pathway programs, only 10% make it to the top. Even when they do make it, most last just three years — with fitter, younger, stronger players always waiting in the wings. A few years of reasonable pay and a body broken, with an increased risk of neurological disorders in the future.

Athletes have it all stacked against them. They put their bodies and minds on the line (with most damaged to various degrees permanently), forgo other life chances, become public property and carry all the risk of doping. They are also expendable — ready to be replaced when they are injured or become too controversial.

 * Dr James Connor researches sport in the School of Business, University of New South Wales, Canberra. This article appeared first in Crikey on 25 March 2013

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