After young Eagle Patrick McGinnity's suspension and fine for allegedly threatening to "rape" Ricky Petterd's mother, it's perhaps time to examine how much we value winning and the extent to which we're prepared to go for victory.
To threaten sexual relations - especially rape - to someone's relatives is off limits and the AFL has made a statement by penalising the player alleged to have made the offending remark. That McGinnity's manager David Sierakowski effectively accused Petterd of having a "thin skin" is akin to a guilty plea. It also reflects poorly on Sierakowski as it legitimises McGinnity's choice of words. Agent or no, to attack the Melbourne player for not obeying the "code of silence" is undignified and of Sierakowski we can say, to paraphrase his own words "if he had his time over again, I think he'd do it differently."
The AFL has led the sporting world in racial vilification laws and now respect for women. Unfortunately it will take incidents where players are rightly made an example of to raise public awareness about those lines not to be crossed.
In Australian sport, we have a proud history of letting what happens on the field stay on the field. The same phrase could be used to hang Ricky Petterd, saying these things happen in the name of healthy competition. But surely competition which some people believe so important that they threaten to rape an opposing player's Mum cannot be healthy? By saying such things as McGinnity has been suspended for - and Adam Selwood was accused of in 2007 - competition has ceased to be healthy and become pathological.
(Even though Selwood was proven not guilty, is it coincidence that both these incidents have come from the West Coast Eagles? He certainly said something to which Des Headland could take offence. Am I theorising too much on this? Perhaps.)
As the late Terry Jenner described "Cricket in the '70s", when he began playing sledging was something as simple as an finely-placed comment about a player's technique. Even defenders of the art suggest sport has always been full of sledging, they do so in ways highlighting the differences between eras: while W.G. Grace was renowned for gamesmanship and sledging, his most famous such utterance "They're here to watch me bat, not you bowl" still refers to on-field, rather than off-field habits. Over time, cricket sledging degenerated into the celebrated insults such as possibly-apocryphal-but-probably-not "What does Brian Lara's c**k taste like?" and it's inflammatory response "Ask your wife".
Feel free to blame Patrick McGinnity. But also look for reasons behind why he chose to use such a slur: it was to gain a competitive advantage. Rather than being a player willing to do "whatever it takes" to win, this player was prepared to - accidentally or deliberately - compromise his integrity to gain a small victory over an opponent.
So what leads such a player to this position?
Since being a second-rate sporting nation during the 1970s - a funk which came to a head with a haul of one bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics - Australia has funded successful sportsmen through social, business and government means. This has produced a number of world-class athletes and some dominant sporting teams. Moreover, it's created the expectation for results. It's a simple matter of cause and effect: you stop performing, you don't get funded/sponsored.
That expectation of results is reflected in the basest terms in professional leagues across the country. Professionalism and athleticism are perhaps the most sought-after qualities in all the major football codes. It takes incredible discipline from a young age to "make it" in any sport and successful athletes generally put more pressure on themselves than any other outside force. They do so to get the best out of themselves and to help a team win.
This is not to say that Patrick McGinnity personally felt pressure to perform or to win (though it may be the case). It simply reflects that as the dollars and time invested in sport increase, those doing the spending expect some Return On Investment. The fans and coach expect their players to do their absolute best to win - and often, if that includes "mentally disintegrating" their opponents, that's OK. McGinnity undoubtedly understands that fans and a multitude of support staff have given of themselves to a cause he values (himself or his team), so wants to do his bit to repay that favour. He just miscalculated how to effect this repayment.
It can, however, be a slippery road. As Stephanie Rice discovered last year, sport is a business: certain brands refuse to be associated with other corporate or social identities seen as damaged goods, no matter how much short term gain there may be. In time, a "just win, baby" philosophy can backfire. Perhaps the greatest Australian example of this occurred when the TAC pulled sponsorship from AFL clubs Richmond and Collingwood as a result of several traffic offences levied against players.
The league could take a lesson from the NBA, who suffered a partly self-inflicted black eye as a result of a late-80s "Bad Boys" publicity campaign built around then-champs the Detroit Pistons and their unsociable basketball. The AFL wants none of this. To ensure their brand integrity, prevent any recourse and hopefully, in the name of good common sense, they have censured Patrick McGinnity.
Competition has created great leagues for all of Australia's football codes. But as a sporting community, let's ban hackneyed journalistic phrases like "win at all costs" until we work out if that's actually what we want. Winning is great, but it isn't everything.