Tuesday 16 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Let's get our priorities right

Hold the Back Page

Eamonn Sweeney

On Thursday's RTE Radio One Drivetime programme, a woman by the name of Sara Burke was proclaiming the merits of the Government's proposed ban on sponsorship of sporting events by alcohol companies with what can best be described as evangelical zeal. Host Philip Boucher-Hayes interrupted to suggest that the positive effects of sporting participation on the public health shouldn't be forgotten.

His guest was having none of it. Actually, she said, people who indulged in team sports drank more than people who didn't. And, she added triumphantly, they also had more unprotected sex. Big Phil tut-tutted about the 'macho culture of sport,' and a cloud of mutual self-righteousness enveloped the studio and out over the airwaves.

Listening to this farrago at home, I thought to myself, 'Ah, this is what the ban is really about'. Because while the likes of myself and yourself might take the misguided notion that sport is good for you, we appear to have been mistaken. Sport is actually driving people to drink and sex. The ban's initial champion, Róisín Shortall, also suggested that sport made young people drink when she appeared on Vincent Browne Tonight earlier in the week, though she at least left sex out of it.

It was easy, listening to these discussions, to get the impression that Irish sport, by its acceptance of alcohol sponsorship money, is a public enemy. And it was striking just how intemperate the language used by the supporters of the ban was. Shortall compared drink sponsorship to sponsorship by heroin dealers. On the same show an addiction counsellor accused drinks companies of 'grooming' young people, a phrase normally associated with paedophilia. What we have on our hands, it seems, is a moral panic. And in a moral panic common sense goes out the window.

Drinks companies and publicans, it appears, are the equivalent of drug pushers and paedophiles. Really?

You don't need to agree with this kind of nonsense, of course, to realise that there is a problem with alcohol abuse in Irish society. It does, however, tend to be exaggerated. The latest World Health Organisation survey places us a modest 15th in Europe in terms of alcohol consumption per capita, between Portugal and France. We generally tend to think we're worse than we are on these matters. For example, despite the widely held notion that there's perpetual carnage on our roads, Ireland actually has the third lowest rate of traffic accident fatalities in Europe. Our suicide rate is 22nd and our murder rate 26th, both figures which also belie a dystopian public perception.

But, whatever the size of our alcohol problem, you'd have to be seriously deluded to think that drink sponsorship of sporting events is a major contributor to it. This society had a long and troubled relationship with drink, for many historical and cultural reasons, long before the invention of advertising agencies and poncy foreign lagers with bubbles in them.

So it was bizarre, for example, to see Vincent Browne, in full Old Testament Prophet mode, berating Sarah O'Connor of the Federation of Irish Sport, as if it were sport itself rather than the drinks companies which has to answer for all the evils wrought by booze.

Browne fulminated against alcohol with such rhetorical force that no one could be left in any doubt that this curse must be banished from our shores forever. But if alcohol is such an unmitigated evil, why are we not taking the very strongest of measures against it? Closing all the pubs and off-licences would surely reduce the number of drinkers. Or raising the price of the pint to €20. Perhaps the underage drinking laws could be properly enforced. Maybe the drink-driving laws wouldn't be undermined by allowing a senior politician to decline a breathalyser test on the grounds that he was a bit short of puff.

Or, if these seem a little extreme, how about a ban on all alcohol advertising? Because if having the name of a drinks company attached to a sporting event can lead people to drink, surely there's much more damage being done by the television ads which directly promote the product?

That's what would happen in a society where alcohol advertising was seriously regarded as a public health problem. But the government doesn't propose to do that. In fact, it's going out of its way to make sure that this ban applies only to sporting events. The proposed legislation expressly exempts cultural events and arts festivals from the ban. Which would lead one to believe that the motivation behind the ban has as much to do with sticking it to sport as protecting the public health or, as was repeated ad nauseam last week, keeping young people away from drink.

After all, there's no suggestion of banning the various Arthur's Day events where the glorification of alcohol is the very point of the event rather than a side effect of the sponsorship. What's the point in preventing Heineken from sponsoring a European rugby competition while allowing them to continue as main sponsor of Oxegen, the country's biggest music festival on whose website you can read that, "Oxegen title sponsor, Heineken unveils headliners Leftfield, Brandon Flowers and Primal Scream as part of the line-up of the Heineken Green Spheres stage . . . music fans will be able to enjoy Heineken served extra cold from all the bars."

Why for that matter should Stolichnaya Vodka be allowed to continue as main sponsor of the Dublin Film Festival and a major sponsor of the Galway Arts Festival if alcohol sponsorship is so debilitating to Irish society?

I am not for one second suggesting that the sponsorship of music and arts events should be banned. Many people will have a wonderful time at these events which, in this economically parlous time, might not take place at all were it not for this sponsorship. And the fact that rock festivals usually turn out to be large-scale carnivals of teenage drunkenness is beside the point as far as I'm concerned. Young people behave unwisely from time to time, it goes with the territory. The fact that, for example, a large part of Primal Scream's oeuvre is about the joys of taking drugs doesn't bother me either. People have free will in these matters.

The point is that it is utterly unfair to single out sports sponsorship in the way that the government proposes to do. In fact, it completely defies logic never mind fairness and it shows that the bill's proponents are more bothered with grabbing a few cheap headlines than tackling the problem of alcohol misuse.

Now that we've established that the ban's supporters don't care about the effects of drink sponsorship at festivals whose audience, unlike that of most sporting fixtures, is made up almost entirely of young people, the question remains as to why they're so determined to damage sport.

And there is no doubt that this legislation will damage sport in this country. Alcohol sponsorship is currently worth €30m, money which the sporting organisations largely use to promote sport at grassroots level. The government itself only spent €44m on sport last year. The suggestion from Róisín Shortall that Google might sponsor the Heineken Cup instead was risible.

If that money goes, it will be extremely difficult to replace. But, let's face it, the likes of Róisín Shortall and Alex White, the Labour Junior Minister currently trying to push the legislation through, and the various fanatics who want sport's scalp, don't care.

I'd wager that quite a few of them belong to the '25 men kicking a bag of wind around a field' school of thought which sees sport as relatively unimportant, perhaps even undesirable, a waste of time which people could be spending at a Moldovan movie about existential alienation among mushroom pickers in the Stolichnaya Dublin Film Festival. The consequences for sport don't bother them because they see its players and its fans as belonging to a lesser breed.

Taking a cheap shot at sport is an easy way to make headlines. Witness the doctor who called Katie Taylor 'a disgrace' last year for promoting an energy drink. There are people who resent the prominence of sport in Irish life and its 'macho culture' and wish it could be put in its place. And this moral panic about alcohol abuse gives them an opportunity to do so.

Because while there is a problem with alcohol abuse in Irish society there is a much greater problem with obesity. We're fighting it out with the UK at the top of the European charts. The puritans who've been in evidence over the last week haven't done a thing to tackle that

but people in small sports clubs all over the country are fighting the good fight against it week in, week out. Should this legislation go through, their ability to do that will be severely impaired. And should TDs allow this to happen, they'll have disgraced themselves. Sports Minister Leo Varadkar has already expressed his doubts about the ban, other Fine Gael deputies should have the gumption to back him. I've given up expecting anything from Labour.

You know the worst thing of all? There's not a shred of evidence on the effect of alcohol sponsorship on drinking patterns in this country. The fundamentalists can flourish all the international surveys they like but mapping a foreign example on to an Irish situation is a very imprecise way to be going on. Although, if you do follow them down this road, one thing we do know is that a similar ban in France ended up making very little difference to alcohol consumption.

So what we have is a proposal that might perhaps, but probably won't, have a small positive effect on public health but will definitely have a large negative effect on sport. It is not sensible, it is not justified and it is not fair. It makes no sense. It is merely a chance for the usual suspects to mount the moral high ground and spout pious platitudes. It will do more harm than good and it should be scrapped.

Because if the puritans win this one, they'll be back for more. Next stop, the campaign against the funding of team sports. All that drink and sex can't be a good thing. Better to spend the money on cycle lanes or frisbee parks.

Meanwhile, this weekend the rugby coaches, the football managers, the hurling trainers, the soccer men and women will have been out there on the local pitches. Helping their communities, setting an example, enriching the lives of kids, doing good. And being helped to do so by alcohol sponsorship. The pro-ban lobby might not like that but it's the truth. Just as it's the truth that we're actually not the boozing champions of Europe but a slightly better than mid-table team. We are, however, top of the fat arse pops. Undermine grassroots sport by reducing its funding and we'll soon be challenging the Americans for the world obesity title with all the nightmarish medical consequences this implies.

Let's get our bloody priorities right.


New boss hasn't lost his old habits yet

This weekend last year the Irish soccer team began its Euro 2012 odyssey. The only problem was that this trip really did resemble the odyssey in the sense of being fraught with disaster and tribulation from the word go. There was, however, no happy ending.

I was in Cork city on the Sunday night when we played Croatia. There was a palpable sense of excitement, a feeling of optimism that we were about to begin one of those great festivals of national celebration which had attended our appearances at previous major finals.

Half an hour after the final whistle, the city of Cork, and I suspect most of the country, was so hushed that a foreign visitor wouldn't have known there had been a big match on at all. The nation was in shock. It wasn't just that we'd lost 3-1 to Croatia, it was that the manner of our defeat let us know that Euro 2012 was going to be a nightmare and that, worse again, Giovanni Trapattoni's reputation as Irish manager was founded on sand. It was the end of footballing innocence.

The high spirits with which we entered that tournament now look like the most ill-advised expression of national optimism since we were told Brian Lenihan had secured our future with the bank guarantee.

It seems like much more than a mere 12 months have passed since then. Because that was a different world, one where Seamus Coleman was judged to be not good enough for our squad and where the lunacy of ranking him, and Marc Wilson, behind Stephen Kelly, Kevin Foley and Paul McShane went largely unremarked. Trap, it was generally assumed, knew what he was doing.

Which is why it's slightly worrying to see another upsurge of that misguided optimism. This idea that everything is in fact A-OK with the team seems solely based on our 1-1 friendly draw with England. There is a big difference between obtaining a 1-1 draw in a World Cup finals or a European qualifying tournament and getting one in a meaningless end-of-season kick-about.

Similarly, all the sentimental encomia concerning Robbie Keane's record number of caps shouldn't hide the fact that the striker has contributed little in recent times; he'd scored once, from the penalty spot, in his previous 10 appearances before that brace against ten-man Georgia. Keane should have given way to Shane Long by now.

The sad reality is that the pessimism which followed the Euros has been proved correct. Since then we've suffered a record home defeat against Germany, avoided humiliation against Kazakhstan and dropped two points at home to an uninspiring Austria. The draw against Sweden was a bright spot, but we are third in the group behind Germany and Austria and fourth placed Sweden are, effectively, also ahead of us as they are three points behind but will have a superior goal difference after their game in hand against the Faroes.

Hammering the Faroes changes nothing. Remember this weekend last year. The new boss, who'll still pick a Simon Cox ahead of a James McClean, is the same as the old boss. Don't get fooled again.


Irish Independent

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