Alex Rance retirement shows sportspeople have too many masters to serve

Unfortunately, Rance’s retirement is not a one-off, but a sign of things to come. Sportspeople are constantly being compromised by the multiplicity of masters demanding to be served, and Rance will not be the last to crack.

This week, the Arsenal footballer Mezut Ozil, a German Muslim, turned himself into an enemy of the Chinese state by criticising that country’s treatment of its Uighur people. In response, China blocked Ozil’s social media accounts, shut down his fan club in China, reportedly 30,000 members strong, and directed Chinese internet search engines to delete his name.

Political football: Mesut Ozil made a statement about China’s treatment of Uighur people.Credit:AP

The fact that a government can do these things – shut down a fan club? – is worrying enough. Using more traditional modes of censorship, the Chinese government also decreed that Arsenal’s match on Sunday, against Manchester City, not be shown on television, which at least would have brought some accidental relief to long-suffering Chinese Arsenal fans.

Many in the football world deserted Ozil, just as basketball’s Toronto Raptors were hung out to dry when the champion NBA club voiced criticism of China. The Chinese economic bounty carries a censorship power that is more persuasive than anything threatened by the one-party state.


Like the religious dissidents, Ozil and the Raptors were obeying their conscience. Others, by refusing to criticise China, saying, ‘We just play sport, we are not political’, are serving other masters. Professional sport is so many things now, beyond the game, and each of those facets is a service relationship. Sport is a vehicle for advertising and national prestige, it is ‘content’ to drive pay-television subscriptions, it is an industry on its own. It cannot be all these things and not be political. Whether it is a platform for creating shareholder wealth or a platform for political or religious statements, professional sport is a means to another end. The very last thing it seems to be is a form of play.

The manipulation of sport for other ends makes it fertile ground for conspiracy theories, whether real or fanciful. One of the best, which was aired again this week after an independent report into governance at Football Federation Australia, was that a ‘lesbian mafia’ was responsible for the sacking of former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic.

The image is too delightful to ignore. Butch haircuts walking around in mannish pinstriped suits, smoking cigars in the back offices of strip clubs, carrying violin cases containing not machine guns but sex toys, plotting evilly behind Stajcic’s back. Someone comes up with the idea of getting him sacked without his knowledge: ‘Let’s make him an offer he can’t peruse.’ Rightly, the panel dismissed the conspiracy theory but also found that FFA did nothing to ‘protect the individuals who were the target of this speculation’. Maybe investigating the idea that a ‘lesbian mafia’ was promoting its agenda was beneath FFA’s dignity. Using football as a vehicle to promote a certain idea of sexuality? That’s the territory of Biblical literalists.

The sorry truth, which no kid with an unearthly sporting talent ever starts out knowing, is that once you enter this complicated professional world you quickly lose count of all the masters you are serving. There are the corporate paymasters, whose demands and diktats can be every bit as authoritarian as the rulings of a one-party state. There are one-party states. There are the live-TV masters, who want to swoop down with camera and microphone and capture a player’s thoughts before he has even had them. There is personal belief, conscience, compassion and responsibility, which can all assume the power of an oppressive interior master. There are the decree-issuing fans, who, mimicking the sponsors and broadcasters and political chieftains, take on more and more of the attitude of a master towards their servant-players. Unenviable is the lot of the player who has been taught, from birth, to say yes.

So finally, some of them just say no.

If the year coming to an end will signify anything in the history of sports, 2019 will be seen as a saturation point where individuals had too many masters. Choices that they never wanted or sought were forced upon them. So many masters, such an erosion of their freedoms – this wasn’t what they signed up for. The retirement at such a young age of Alex Rance is one of the last acts of this year; but it’s not an end, it’s only a beginning.


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