The Demon Drink and Cricket Sponsorship

A strong tone of temperance has characterised discussions about Australian cricket of late. The tone got somewhat more excited with the announcement that Cricket Australia, after two decades, would end its relationship with Carlton and United Breweries, producer of Victoria Bitter.

A veritable whoop of delight could be noted through medical and activist circles: a chance to get a new sponsor, perhaps?  An opportunity to get on the puritan water wagon?  The Royal Australasian College of Physicians president Catherine Yelland was one of the gloomier preachers insisting that Cricket Australia do right by health and morality.  “It is well and truly time for Cricket Australia to consider a major sponsor that does not normalise alcohol for Australian children and is more aligned with the spirit of our natural sport.”

Sarah Dalton of the RACP’s paediatric division was similarly delighted at the ending of the sponsorship association.  “So this is a great opportunity to look at alternatives and there are lots of alternatives.”

As always, children are the great obsession of Australia’s medical and hectoring classes.   Rather than encouraging a responsible attitude to alcohol, such groups encourage temperance and prohibition, the very sorts of things bound to encourage future excess.  If one ceases to discuss it, it supposedly goes away.

A keen glance at the literature on the subject finds a pile of moral assumptions.  The Clearinghouse for Sport on the subject of alcohol sponsorship and advertising puts it in a rather preachy way, if we are to take Dr. Ralph Richards, Senior Research Consultant, to be the main author of one particular report:

Alcohol sponsorship of sporting organisations, teams and events, as well as advertising of alcohol products during sports events (ground advertising and broadcast advertising) pose unresolved ethical questions because of the health and social risks associated with alcohol consumption.

A common theme is one of helplessness and conversion.  Children and adults will see drink and its association with cricket or some other code and become inveterate, mad drunks.  “A generation of Australians,” rages Yelland, “have grown up and become accustomed to a sponsorship that has relentlessly pushed its product and left young Australians as collateral damage.”  The result is axiomatic: “alcohol marketing leads children and adolescents to start drinking earlier and makes young drinkers prone to binge drinking patterns.”

This, Yelland seems to forget, has as much to do with Australian attitudes to drinking as something specific to its cultural context. It assumes minimal education, minimal control and minimal awareness. It also assumes that the advertising industry is a vast magician’s enterprise, wooing the innocent into drinking more because they so happen to like a particular sporting code and follow its sponsor’s habits.

Cricket Australia, however, won’t bite, suggesting that they will simply pick another alcohol sponsor.  The neo-temperance movement, it would seem, has not gotten too far on that score.

There is little doubt that the VB relationship with Cricket Australia has yielded its fair share of influence and merchandise.  Summer marketing campaigns were always vulgar, but they were undeniably expressive and lucrative.  The nexus between sport and alcohol-fuelled money remains an undeniable fact: Australians like their sport, and their booze.

The other side ignored by the neo-temperance movement is how infuriatingly clean Australian sporting codes have become.  If children or adolescents care for sport, it is surely hardly the alcohol than the exploits.  While generally being crude vulgarians, the Australian sports figure – and here, cricket is certainly typical – has become piously clean, even sterile in the pursuit of the healthy culture. Gone are the days when an Australian cricketer could boast, and be praised, for downing twenty cans of beer on a long-haul flight from Australia to Britain.

Under Allan Border, Australian cricket began to witness new fitness regimes.  Captain Grumpy made it clear that he would be leading not so much a team of drunks to defeat as a team of reformed athletes to the trophy podium.

Cricket, in that sense, has always been a gaggle of confused images, a contradiction that has fractured when imported into colonies and provinces of the British Empire.  Gentry, on the one hand, always happy to pass the port despite being empire builders and representatives of Britannic superiority; the champagne break for lunch; the raising of a glass to a century scored.

None of this is conceivable in a modern game where the battle on where the money comes from is as ferocious as ever.  More to the point, the idea that such money might have some root in the demon alcohol seems crudely simple.

For those of the medical lobby barracking for the body beautiful, athletes are meant to be backed by a clean image without recourse to outlets of pleasure, for release, or escape.  Professionalism entails Spartan restraint, gritty resolve before the wickedness of the bottle.  In short, Australian sport is meant to be dull, paternalistic, and controlled, a penal colony of the senses, of the pleasures, witnessed by the immature and impressionable.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.