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Society is in league with footy antics

By Andrew Baker - posted Friday, 22 May 2009

It seems as if some rugby league players can't help helping themselves to their every desire. Almost weekly, we face fresh stories of footballers behaving badly: drunken brawls, sexual exploits, group sex. Society agrees: such depravity must stop. But despite considerable efforts by clubs in past years to punish offenders and re-educate players, flagrant offences continue. Why is it so?

The answer, in large part, lies in our genes. In creating the modern footballer, we have selected for a group of strong, young, risk-taking men and heaped on them valuable resources: fame, fortune, and women. In the early school years we may push these stereotyped males into sport, as they often do not excel academically. We train them to fight as brothers, to live and die by the sword. Size, strength and violence are favoured over attributes more suited to our sanitised society. The very characteristics we promote and favour in our footballers run counter to modern morality. Yet we expect the raw brutes we create and reward with riches to switch off primal sexual urges in their feeblest moments.

When it comes to sex, women are generally choosy whereas men prefer not to discriminate. This is the evolutionary foundation on which gender wars are waged: women have a rare resource they aim to protect (an egg) whereas men have a common resource they wish to promote (their sperm). Our respective urges to protect or promote are powerful. We may have masked them behind a veneer of morality since the days of Socrates and Jesus, but they remain essential drivers of present-day behaviour.


The urge in men for indiscriminate sex may well be as strong as women's instinct to nurture precious young, the former firmly opposed by marriage, the latter eternally cherished. Yet, regardless of whether we believe they define or defy moral fibre, evolutionary instincts are neither good nor bad, they simply are. In better understanding them, we may go far in explaining and modifying the behaviour of our bad boys of football.

If the urge to spread genes far and wide lies restlessly at the evolutionary core of all males, some footballers may indulge such instincts more than other males because society has loosened moral constraints that would otherwise guide their behaviour. We have trained footballers specifically to tap into humanity's brutish heritage, thrust them into ultimate positions of power, and yet cry foul when they are morally reprehensible. Instead, we might have expected as much. Despite our deep moral history, we need only look back a few hundred years to find a more primal age where such conduct was commonplace.

Let me be clear: I am not condoning the behaviour of rugby league wrongdoers: each of us is ultimately responsible for their own actions. I am not blaming the female victims; nor am I suggesting we relax our moral code to make room for degeneracy. Rather, I am trying to understand the essence of the immoral behaviour exhibited by some footballers so we can look for a solution that better suits us all. What might this be?

Given that rugby league is a gladiator sport and most fans like it that way, we will be hard-pressed to remove the pressures applied by society to create and revere these sporting idols. Even so, parents of preschoolers and teachers of early childhood education programs need to shoulder some responsibility. Working together, they may hope to relax stereotyping and create a culture more respectful of self and others before problems manifest in post-teens. The Jesuit motto rings true: Give me a boy until he is seven and I will give you the man. Our lives may not be so strictly preordained, but the general notion applies: evolutionary urges may transcend lifetimes, yet habits learned early can govern behaviour within any given lifetime.

We can also surely reduce wanton misuse of women by an untamed minority of players. Women exercise their right to socialise with footballers and doubtless, for all the horrid stories, much of the time both parties thoroughly and responsibly enjoy themselves. But women ultimately control the precious resource that is themselves and they may need to guard it more zealously.

This will be easier if women more clearly understand what is driving some men in drunken nightclub scenarios.


Alcohol lubricates desire and the frustration men feel in suppressing their urge for indiscriminate sex in these situations may be enormous. Such frustration is more likely to find an explosive outlet in a male used to indulging deep primal instincts of team battle and lust. A woman leaving a nightclub with several such men may convince herself that she can at any time exercise her evolutionary option to choose. But as horrified victims of these misdeeds continue to discover, freedom of choice for women under these circumstances may well be an illusion.

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First published in The Australian May 20, 2009.

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About the Author

Andrew Baker works in the School of Natural Resource Sciences at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. His book Questions of Science (Revised Edition) is forthcoming from Pearson Prentice Hall. Andrew teaches in the Environmental Science and Ecology majors at all levels of the undergraduate and postgraduate program. His research interests are varied and broad in scope, including: environmental management, biodiversity, population genetics, systematics/taxonomy, palaeontology, philosophy of science and learning/teaching methodologies.

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