Friday 28 July 2017

Man cannot survive on sport alone

People attend the Web Summit in 2014, which was held at the RDS in Dublin, and find an unusually balanced marriage of two disciplines which often seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit
People attend the Web Summit in 2014, which was held at the RDS in Dublin, and find an unusually balanced marriage of two disciplines which often seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit

Eamonn Sweeney

I hope you're having a good Easter. I'm having a great one. On Wednesday afternoon I went to the Brass Off concert in the Cork School of Music given by 109 young musicians between the ages of 10 and 18 playing movie themes, jazz, ragtime, show tunes, everything from Danny Boy to Quincy Jones to a packed auditorium.

This children's orchestra made a glorious, exhilarating noise. The kids had come from Mayo and Carlow and Cork City and West Cork and rehearsed together for three days. One of my daughters was among them. The whole thing was set up by Music Generation, an organisation whose motto is 'making music education happen'. What struck me was the enthusiasm of not just the young flautists, saxophonists, clarinettists, cornet and trombone players et al, but also of their tutors. It did your heart good to see them.

You may be wondering what this has to do with sport. Well, the young musicians did a fine job on Scott Joplin's The Entertainer, that perennial accompaniment to World Snooker Championship highlight montages, but that's not it. Watching all the talent on show made me think of how other forms of achievement among young people are undervalued compared to sporting achievement.

There is, for example, a young lad who plays trombone in the Skibbereen Silver Band, to which my daughter belongs, and who is a wonder on it. Like anyone who's really good at something he makes it look easy. And like anyone who's really good at something he's had to work very hard at it. The best young musicians, those who want to be doing this for the rest of their lives, put in hours of practice every day. They spend more time perfecting their craft than most footballers do perfecting theirs. We seem to ignore that. Even the best of them will receive much less notice than thousands of Irish sports stars.

It probably doesn't matter to those kids. Doing something you love can be its own reward. Ego doesn't come into it. Yet a society which prioritises sporting achievement over all other kinds undoubtedly discourages some kids from exploring the creative and artistic sides of their personalities. Children like to know that what they are doing is valued.

The musical daughter entered the Texaco Art Competition this year. She didn't win anything, and looking at the winning entries last week we could see why. The winners were jaw-droppingly talented. I couldn't believe kids so young could be so good. Yet these beautifully gifted children probably fly under the radar locally compared to lads of the same age who score a few goals now and again.

The sporting and artistic fields aren't mutually exclusive, of course. The winner in the 16 to 18 age group, Lucy Deegan, plays underage football for Laois. Yet in Ireland success in the two fields attracts wildly differing levels of praise. It's as if you need to be covered in sweat before your achievement is respected.

I played a lot of sport in my childhood and teenage years. Some of my best and most vividly-recalled memories are of races run and matches played. But I do wish I'd learned to play a musical instrument or sung in a musical or even, which will surprise anyone who has ever seen me dance, learned ballet. I was talking to someone last week who said they'd spent so much time playing Gaelic football as a kid they hadn't learned to swim, couldn't play anything or sing and were still terrified of speaking in public. "I'm not going to make the same mistake with my kids," he said. Same goes for me.

I love sport. So does one of my daughters. The other two take a more agnostic view: one puts music in first place, her twin will draw cartoons until the cows home, and then draw a cartoon of the cows. The best thing is that they're interested in a variety of stuff.

Irish sports journalists pride ourselves on maintaining a relative neutrality compared to our peers across the water. Look at English media coverage of Leicester City hooligans' behaviour in Spain (You know . . . they're our boys so it must be the cops' fault) and you can see the difference. Yet there's one area in which we're not neutral. We're unashamedly 100 per cent on the side of sport.

That may strike you as an obvious point. Why wouldn't sportswriters think sport is great? Yet one thing which struck me while reading a piece in last week's paper by Ger Gilroy calling for greater demographic diversity in sports journalism is that we also need a diversity of viewpoint. We need more pundits who don't think sport is unquestionably A Good Thing.

Consider, for example, the idea that sport is Character Building. Fair enough. But what kind of Character does it build? Would Wednesday's concert have been better had the orchestra been tasked with playing louder than another orchestra situated just across the hall? Would it have been better for my daughter if she hit the cornet player next to her a shoulder when they sat down?

There are guys who'd say that extreme competitiveness in underage sport is good for kids because 'that's what life is like'. But life isn't competitive in the same way that a football match is. Take your moral compass solely from sport and you can end up believing that, in the words of Gore Vidal, "It is not enough to succeed; others must fail". The idea that the world is divided into winners and losers is a core belief of Donald Trump and his ilk. Maybe thinking like this helps you get on career-wise, but it's an awful way to view life.

I love sport because it provides great entertainment but I don't agree with the notion that it also provides moral lessons. This view originated with the Victorians, those great propagandists for the sporting way of life. Compete with distinction for your public school and it'll stand to you when you're battling the fuzzy wuzzies on behalf of the Empire in Africa.

Much of modern sportswriting, with its stuff about moments of truth when men prove they are men, descends from Hemingway, who did indeed see life in this way. That in the end Hemingway became sad, took to the drink and killed himself says a lot about the drawbacks of this world view. Shooting a charging buffalo turned out to be much easier than giving up the booze. The first was sport, the second was life.

On Thursday I went to UCC to see the first graduates of the University's Autism Studies course receive their Certificates. A lot of the graduates were mature students, mainly women, who had taken the course while holding down a job or bringing up a family. For some of them this would have been a first experience of further education. The stories of people who go into adult education are full of bravery and effort, just like football stories, but they rarely get told.

I'd guess that a lot of those people did the Autism Studies course because they have a child with the condition. Sometimes bringing up a child with autism has its rewards but sometimes it can be a challenge. A real challenge in a way that winning a 50-50 ball in the 46th minute is not. The final whistle won't be blowing any time soon.

I came home and switched on the telly and saw a man talking on Prime Time about his struggles to get proper services for his intellectually disabled adult children. And when he spoke about his worries about what would happen to them when he and his wife were gone, all the worry he has had to endure in his life came through so starkly it was hard to watch.

It hit me then how often we buy into the Hemingway myth of sport and suspend our critical judgement as adults while listening to healthy 24 and 25-year-old men talking about the 'unbelievable sacrifices' they've made for the county team. They say it and we repeat it - and it's utterly meaningless.

It's nonsense because those sacrifices, such as they are, are voluntary and largely undergone for egotistical reasons. There's an awful faux-earthy ad for the All-Ireland minor football championships with the punchline, 'because some moments tell you who you really are'. But anyone who thinks a moment in a minor football match tells them who they really are is going to get an awful land down the road.

There will be plenty of real challenges to come when you get older, there will be heartbreak and illness and pain and worry and sadness, and it will take everything you have to come through. Thankfully there will also be a lot of joy and happiness. But when the bad stuff happens it will help if you've had more in your life than just sport. I don't think it's a coincidence that a recent GPA survey found staggeringly high levels of depression among inter-county players, young men who've often maintained an unhealthily single-minded focus on sport and are sometimes managed by guys who believe 100 per cent in the Hemingway view of life.

But when the real tests arrive, the old macho code won't suffice. The wider the range of resources you have to draw on the better it will be for you. Man cannot live on sport alone.

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