Learning to lead

by Julianne Schultz

AFTER THE MAROONS won the first game of the 2016 State of Origin series it was time for another ritual – the breathless post-game interviews as the elated winners left the field. You could predict what would be said as the visibly tired, but excited players, reflect on the great moments of the game, the teamwork, the supporters…

Sometimes a player steps out of line and makes an ill-judged remark that adds a bit of outrage to the drama: a spot taken this time by Sam Thaiday, who literally left the interviewer ‘without another question’ after making what some commentators described as ‘an inappropriate sex joke’ and others labeled ‘filthy’ and ‘pathetic’.

This time, though, the reaction was not dominated by manufactured outrage, and took on another hue thanks to Johnathan Thurston of the North Queensland Cowboys, who although only thirty-three is already being touted as a ‘League Immortal’.

Erin Molan, one of the new breed of female sports reporters, had completed her questions, but Thurston indicated he was not finished. ‘I just want to say a quick hello to the Aurukun school. There’s obviously been a lot of trouble up there, so to all the students there I just want you to believe in yourselves and keep turning up for school.’

For kids in the league-mad North Queensland Indigenous communities, there has probably never been a more powerful moment: they were noticed and had a message of hope, beyond the usual point-scoring and politicking. Thurston is a hero, living proof of the transformative power of self-belief and determination, and he was talking to them directly. Kids and their parents in remote communities know well that sport provides one of the very few paths into the bigger world.

Before the State of Origin opener, the Courier-Mail’s Robert Craddock set out to discover where Thurston’s ‘insatiable streak of pure, mad-capped desperation’ came from, and found a player ready to reflect on his journey. ‘Well,’ said Thurston, before pausing for a moment’s contemplation, ‘it goes back to when I was a kid and was a sook who could not stand losing. That drove me. I think it is why I am so competitive. I was in tears all the time. If we lost I would be that filthy. I remember the cuddles from Mum, “It’s OK son...it’s all right.”’

It has become league folklore that as a teenager Thurston was rejected by every team in the NRL, but he continued to play, using the rejections as motivation – he was determined not to stay working in the cool room at the Coles butchery in Toowoomba or washing cars in Sydney. Fortunately his talent matched his self-belief, and he is on the road to immortality.

We are programmed to admire the extraordinary ability of athletes who move with power, speed and precision, who can read the play and win. But judgement and envy can poison this admiration – and so the below-the-line comments on Robert Craddock’s report were dominated by blokes who have never come close to Thurston’s achievements yet grizzled that he was ‘still a sook’. History is unlikely to support this assessment.


IT IS A long time since former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said he wanted to get sport, not politics, on the front page. That was a time when sport and life, sport and politics, sport and community, even sport and art, were separate categories.

Now sport is omnipresent. There is more reporting in the media on sport than any other interest area; even politics takes second place. And as sport has become more encompassing, a big business, the issues that complicate every other domain of society are also on display – fraud, gambling, substance abuse, celebrity, sexism, racism, social cohesion, class and nationalism.

Sport is now, for good or ill, the prism through which almost every issue is played out.

For example, the gender pay gap has been a matter of concern for decades, but when the difference between the money paid to male and female professional cricketers and footballers became clear, the outrage shifted up a notch. Similarly, concerns about the corrosive impact of gambling, which has bedevilled politicians for many years, reached a new urgency when it was suggested that matches were being thrown to ensure better returns.

The moment when it became clear that sport had become a proxy for life in Australia was in the public show of support for Adam Goodes after he was vilified for his display of pride in his heritage during the 2015 AFL Indigenous Round. That a former Australian of the Year, and football superstar, could be treated with such contempt by people in positions of public power was out-rageous. The old racism that said First Australians should know their place and not rise above their station was shockingly close to the surface.

But so was the counter-reaction. The overwhelming show of support for Goodes when the Sydney Swans played without him during the height of the row not only provided the affirmation that made it possible for him to return to the game, but reflected a profound shift in public sentiment. This was personal and it was not acceptable. The number of Goodes’ guernsey, thirty-seven, became a new code for the urgency of reconciliation.

As sport becomes an elaborate and contested metaphor for life, the pressure on athletes becomes greater – but as Johnathan Thurston and Adam Goodes have shown, exceptional individuals are also able to provide leadership beyond their remarkable physical and mental skills.

10 June 2016

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 53: Our Sporting Life © Copyright Griffith University & the author.