When the ARU got the phone call that David Pocock had been arrested, was there a twinge of panic?
A natural reflex that most sports administrators feel when their product is brought into the line of fire by another act of either violence or public disgrace. In this case, the ARU were probably relieved when they were alerted to Pocock's civil disobedience.
The arrest over the weekend was not the first time Pocock has publicly declared his support for a cause. In 2011, he declared that he and his wife would boycott marriage as a form of personal protest against Australian same-sex marriage laws. His stance on the issue was welcomed by some and derided by others. It was also far from controversial, citing "I don't think it's the government's role to tell people that their love is right or wrong," which is a view many in the community hold.
He grew up white and Christian in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, ultimately fleeing when the government came to repossess his family's farm. When quizzed about it in 2012, Pocock pointed out the complexity of the injustice. "For me one of the saddest things is that all you really hear about is the white farmers who lost their land, five thousand or so, but there a were a million black farm workers who were intimidated, many went missing and some had flee to South Africa."
None of Pocock's activism seems fuelled by self-indulgence or attention seeking. Rather, it looks more like a genuine outrage at the injustices that are done against others. Sports people should not be role models by default, but if some are willing to stand up and become them, that is a choice that David Pocock has made.
Naturally, with choices come consequences. With the arrest came a range of charges including "trespass, remaining on enclosed land without lawful excuse and hindering the working of mining equipment."
However, the response from the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) was puzzling. The third sentence: "The matter is now subject to legal proceedings and we will now let the legal process take its course," should arguably be where it began and ended. Instead, they took it upon themselves to send a formal warning and public advice to David in suggesting that he focuses on his rugby.
Whilst this could be standard procedure anytime one of their players gets in a compromised position with the law, does it send the right message in this instance?
Michael Smith is a community broadcaster at gay and lesbian community station Joy FM in Melbourne. Michael is a union fan and an amateur player, who got the chance to interview Pocock last year about his support of various causes, namely tackling homophobia in sport.
"What stands out about David are his views. There are more important things in this world than rugby, and that being a professional athlete is a privilege that gives him a platform to spotlight issues of far greater importance."
"For an athlete to have that kind of perspective while in the fishbowl environment of professional sport is a rare thing. It's a shame that rugby doesn't have more people like him."
Smith also reflected on the ARU's decision in comparison with its response to off-field incidents involving players in the past.
"I think the criticism of the ARU's symbolic punishment of Pocock shows how much its standing has been tarnished by its handling of off-field indiscretions. The ARU finds itself in a tight spot because Pocock has almost certainly breached his duties under his contract and should be concerned about one of its players getting arrested. However, it comes at a time when the ARU is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as having let Kurtley Beale and others before him off the hook for quite appalling off-field behaviour."
"The ARU has come out looking petty and inconsistent for criticising one of its most admired players for an act of non-violent political protest, when there's no suggestion that his arrest interfered with his rugby duties. This is in sharp contrast with the undue haste in which Beale has been rushed back into the team, apparently before he had even paid the fine levied against him for harassing a member of the ARU's staff."
Protest and sport has always gone hand in hand, not just as an agent of change, but with the intentions to give back to a public that allows the athlete the ability to live a life of luxury. Athletes have spoken out on apartheid and civil rights, and even this week, players of the St. Louis Rams stood in solidarity with those in Ferguson.
One of the things that has diminished in the commodification of Australian sport is self-expression. For all the great things money has done in sport (improved quality, job creation, ease of access), there are limited opportunities for the individual to freely speak about an issue (rightly or wrongly) without sponsor or public panic that only reinforces the suffocated culture of clichés and doublespeak that's so widely bemoaned.
Pocock's story isn't about climate change, marriage rights, or even the response of the ARU. If sport can be a means for respect, self-development and the evolution of personal character, who learns anything about themselves or the world around them if it's done under a veil of silence?
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