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Andrew Alderson: Idol threat as players are put on a pedestal

Julian Savea. Photo / Getty Images
Julian Savea. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealanders are too quick to create sporting heroes and demand they conform as role models.

Julian Savea scored three tries on All Blacks debut, was touted as the next Jonah Lomu, is on a contract worth six figures and has a surname which makes him a natural go-to guy for headline writers - "A Savea thrashing" anyone?

That's unlikely to get another run.

All this adulation came before his 22nd birthday. Is it any wonder real life can become distorted for top sportspeople in the public eye?

Having the ability to sidestep, bullock or kick a footy opens too many doors too early in New Zealand. There is cringeworthy hero worship on the basis of sporting rather than community deeds.

One example of the latter came in Melbourne, when this writer covered the 2005 World XI cricket series. A former flatmate-now-doctor was asked over a beer how his day had gone. He casually described a hospital scene where he had held the heart of a patient in his hand and pumped it to keep him alive.

The achievements of such people should be celebrated more than Savea's rugby bravado. Yes, it's that doctor's job, just like playing rugby is Savea's job - but a life was saved in the process.

The public (and the media) has to bear some of the brunt for such a distortion in values. Rugby tends to become the be-all and end-all for many. Expectations are high. New Zealand sports fans need to realise their idols will never be a perfect image of themselves.

That is not to pick on Savea, who, until he was charged with common assault, had seldom been in the spotlight for anything other than his prodigious rugby talent and, of course, the odd bit of promotional work, like fronting an anti-domestic violence campaign. Ouch. That has unquestionably exacerbated his problem, not to mention he is the 11th top-level rugby player, according to the New Zealand Herald, to be charged with assault in seven years.

It highlights that representative rugby players, despite the privileges and support afforded them via their status, are just as fallible to irrational behaviour or temptation as any other sector of society.

Average Kiwis, who work solid 40-hour weeks, pay their taxes and mortgages and crave their sporting fix on the weekend will have difficulty relating to Savea's 'predicament'. Yet, in a way, many of them put him on his current pedestal because fans (and the media) demand their heroes have air-brushed reputations.

Consequently players are promoted as Supermen when society is full of kryptonite.

Players are often on the road with high disposable incomes and a lot of down time. Idleness can breed mischief. It is a hard cycle to break. One former Super Rugby player privately mentioned how hard it was in the early 2000s to study in a professional rugby environment because any sort of intellectual aspiration was frowned upon. Hopefully that attitude has changed. A nine-to-five job - where a qualification might be handy - is only a career-ending injury away.

Surely the pressure high-profile sportspeople face is minimal compared to what genuine heroes face in real life. Former Australian cricketer Keith Miller was once asked about the pressures of playing cricket. Miller flew fighter-bombers over Europe in World War II. He said: "Pressure, I'll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not."

We are a bit too quick to talk of heroes when we don't really mean heroes - we are really talking about people who achieve premature fame but who have the same feet of clay as the rest of us.

- Herald on Sunday

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Covers sport across NZME's print, digital and radio brands.

Andrew writes and broadcasts on cricket and the Olympic disciplines for NZME's print, digital, video and radio platforms. His most recent project followed New Zealand sportspeople competing in Europe during the 2015 northern summer. He has attended four cricket World Cups, three Olympics and regularly works as a correspondent overseas.

Read more by Andrew Alderson

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