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Sport: A School for Scandal

By David Rowe - posted Tuesday, 3 August 2004

This has been an extraordinary year for scandal in sport. Each month has brought new allegations and revelations.  Several women have declared that they have been sexually assaulted by Australian rugby league and rules players, swimming coaches, British footballers, and American basketballers.

Perhaps the world’s most prominent sportsman of the moment, David Beckham, has been embroiled in a British tabloid sex scandal, seemingly torn from the script of a West End bedroom farce, involving alleged intimate encounters with a Dutch personal assistant, an Australian call-girl, and an English vicar’s daughter.

Claims and counter-claims have been made about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by American athletes, Australian cyclists and weightlifters, and other high-profile sportspeople. With the 2004 Athens Olympics less than a month away, previous concerns about finishing the facilities have switched to finished star athletes.


It is impossible to ignore this turn of events, even in an election year marked by its own fair share of unsavoury allegations about the personal conduct of politicians. But top sportspeople, unlike their parliamentary representatives, are held in high esteem by large proportions of the population. When sports stars have transgressed, a common response is outrage and disillusion, rather than confirmed suspicions about self-seeking "pollies".

Sports scandals should be taken seriously because they occupy vast proportions of cultural space, from front page and lead story to "water cooler" and dinner table conversations. They can have significant impacts on the reputations of sports, careers of sportspeople, and the lives of those who come, voluntarily or otherwise, into contact with them.

Because there is such an enormous collective emotional investment in sport, its scandals are readymade opportunities to discuss what is going wrong with the world. Sports fans are prone to project problems within sport onto the wider canvas of society. In this way, sport can never contain and monopolise its scandals.

So, for example, allegations of sexual assault on lone women by packs of footballers involve the specific culture of male contact sport, but have broader implications about sex, gender and power of relevance to all men and women.

When the likes of David Beckham might have been caught "playing away", there is an unmistakable element of public voyeurism and schadenfreude – the secret pleasure in the misfortune of someone as handsome, rich and lionised as "Becks".  But other more mundane issues are highlighted: marriage and fidelity, of course, but also the pressures of maintaining two careers. Victoria Beckham, his ex-Spice Girl wife, may live a very "bling" lifestyle, but she is not the first woman whose career has been subordinated to her husband’s.

When athletes seek to steal an advantage by taking steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, there is considerable outrage. But this "win-at-all-costs" ethic is also condoned both in and outside sport. Doing "whatever it takes" in sport also allows injured sportspeople to have the pain-deadening "needle" before and during games. Such officially sanctioned practices, including excruciating training regimes for children that leave many athletes’ bodies wrecked in early middle age, can also be regarded as scandalous. Such ruthless attitudes to outcomes may be indicative of a more extensive neglect by many employers of the health of their employees


Such examples show that sport scandals have their social uses. By harnessing the popularity of sport, they promote debate about important matters affecting our everyday lives in a way that cannot be easily dismissed as "just political". It also does no harm to bring back to earth those in the sports world afflicted with inflated self-importance. 

But it is also necessary to remember that, without the media, there could be no major sports scandals. We rely on newspapers, radio, television and the internet to provide us with information, but are also dependent on their ethical judgment and reporting accuracy. The media are always in the market for audiences, and may not be too particular about how they "recruit" them. If record attendances and high TV ratings in the 2004 league State of Origin are any guide, scandals may do no long-term harm to a sport, and might ultimately be of benefit by keeping it in the public eye during a slow news period. The scandalous conclusion might be that scandals sell sport.

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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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This article was originally published in The Newcastle Herald in  July 2004.

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About the Author

David Rowe is Professor of Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney, and author of Global Media Sport (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Sport Beyond Television (with Brett Hutchins, Routledge, 2012).

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