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“I thought we showed a lot of character.”
I have heard this old sports phrase at least a dozen times this year already. It’s one of those throwaways, whose sentiment does not appear complicated, but in fact it contains the essential sporting struggle.
All successful paths in sport lead to showing good “character”, which, these days, is to say the discipline to suppress one’s natural tendencies. Suggestions for developing character — that vaguely moral, church-driven concept — appeared in self-improvement manuals for men during the 19th century.
It has been overtaken in recent times with the LeBron James-type of personality focus. Nurture thyself, bring it forth and celebrate it.
Australian football, however, seems driven more than ever by the old idea of character. Football rhetoric is about sacrifice, unification, demonstrating desire, and a new deference to statistics, which dissolves personality entirely. The suppression of self is an imperative.
Leigh Matthews, commentating on Thursday night, seemed to notice this unification, as though for the first time, after a sequence of lightning quick, courageous plays between Hawthorn and Adelaide.
“It’s amazing how all players now will go hard at the ball,” he said, “from any angle, all the time. It’s incredible.”
He was right. It was a relentless, robotic, attack, especially from Hawthorn, which had you placing gold stars next to players’ names, and wondering how they could all be of such good character.
The other commentators were equally impressed.
“It’s just been a team performance,” said Wayne Carey. “Every player has contributed evenly.”
And yet every player’s true self is lurking out there, nipping beneath that carapace of strength and character, ready to shine through should he let go the leash for moment and stop complying, or stop suppressing his random thoughts.
For really, what it means to demonstrate good character is actually to not listen to one’s first ideas, unless, by luck, they are of the confident, proper nature of football.
Modern players are good at burying their own fallible mess beneath layers of discipline and action. Press up, hit up, get low, get body on, corral, punch, set up, push back, spread.
Some players seem to find this more natural, such as Luke Hodge, or maybe Harry Taylor, who appear born with the right disposition, an internal muteness to atmospheric swings that keeps them steady. These are the kind of players who are said to be of good character.
But despite every player’s best efforts to act right, the physical tumult of Australian Rules, its relentless pressure and examinations, creates fissures in less steady minds.
Charlie Cameron let a little light through after he scored against Hawthorn on Thursday, stirring the pot in the fashion of NBA player James Harden. It brought to mind another forward, Mark Williams, who while playing for Hawthorn one season performed what appeared to be a clay-target shooting routine after a goal.
I don’t know what it meant, but it certainly invited suggestions about his character.
Mostly, all of that is gone now, for wherever a player’s self appears on the team stage there is always a whiff of scandal in its wake, or an erosion of his image.
But during the action, a player simply has no say in it, and the character act can break down.
I had some idea about my own true footballing nature by the age of 10, but it was confirmed for me at the beginning of my last junior year, in which I’d been spouting about how I might like to play league football instead of attending university.
Unforgettably, my father dismissed the idea while nursing a glass of shiraz.
“You’re not going to get drafted,” he explained. “They want people with intensity.”
This, a moment of brutal clarity, rang in the air for days. Certainly, I’d spent most of my games stepping about contests, watching better football characters try to get the ball.
But my desire to play league football, and to be of the right character to do it, came from years of watching the Bulldogs side of the late ’90s, which could move you to tears with what I considered to be nothing but its character.
I had to learn how to show good character in football by learning to suppress the wandering hopes and desires that things would be easier than they were. But suppression is, in a sense, acting, and like all performances it got weary and less convincing over time.
Whenever I was tired, or defeated in a match, the true self would be waiting.
Leo Barry kicked four goals in 2007, and two of them a half from full-back while playing on me at the MCG. It was a humiliation that called for a show of character that was not forthcoming.
Instead, there was sulking. Alistair Clarkson – not a man to take sulking well – approached me from behind at one point said softly: “Don’t you start sulking.”
His voice seemed to emanate from within my skull, since only a moment earlier I’d heard myself say the same thing.
“Yep,” I said sternly, a player trying to show some character. “All good.”
But I was sulking, and we both knew it. And I went on sulking for the rest of the game, letting myself pour miserably onto the arena while we lost. The Age SportThis story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.