21 Apr 2017

Anzac Day sporting events: Lest we forget the profits

4:54 pm on 21 April 2017

Opinion - High-profile sports matches are becoming a regular feature of Anzac Day. Are they a cash grab or a true commemoration?

Simon Mannering after the 2015 Anzac Test between the Kiwis and The Kangaroos.

Simon Mannering -with a red poppy on his sleeve - after the 2015 Anzac Test between the Kiwis and the Kangaroos. Photo: PhotoSport

It's Anzac Day on Tuesday, which means this weekend's football codes will show their support for the RSA in New Zealand and the RSL in Australia. But is it becoming a cash grab, leveraging the dignity of solemn remembrance to sell jerseys? Or is that fine with the sporting public, who don't mind Anzac Day being shoehorned into games?

Anzac Day is, undeniably, becoming at least an attempt at cashing in - and by more than just sports teams and competitions. But you have to be extremely careful with the way you do it, as Woolworths Australia found out a couple of years ago. Their clunky take on remembrance led to a serious public backlash and embarrassing backtrack.

For some reason, Australasian sports don't seem to face the same scrutiny as other private enterprises when it comes to Anzac Day. This weekend, we'll see the Hurricanes and Brumbies take each other on, with a traditional service before kick-off.

Then, on Anzac Day itself, the Warriors will play Melbourne, while St George will take on the Roosters in similar fashion. Meanwhile, in the AFL, Essendon and Collingwood will play each other in the traditional Anzac Day match at the MCG.

All of these games will feature mention of the occasion, and the league and AFL games will have special jerseys printed. These jerseys will be emblazoned with poppies and military graphics - right next to the usual corporate sponsors' logos (the Warriors' last Anzac jersey being a gaudy over-design incorporating bourbon and gambling ads). Of course, these jerseys are available for sale.

And of course it's going to be like this. Sports events, like supermarkets, exist primarily to make money. The upsurge in interest in all things Anzac in the last couple of decades hasn't escaped the marketing departments in these competitions.

Bringing awareness to Anzac Day is, on the one hand, laudable. But not if it's going to be some sort of contrived, whitewashed and overly simplified version of what was a very complex historical event.

How close is this taking us to the mawkish displays of so-called paid patriotism seen in American sports, particularly the NFL? Even though US sporting events have a reputation for being completely over the top, it was revealed in the last few years that a large amount of military displays and performances at football games were in fact paid for by the Pentagon as part of their recruitment efforts.

It's a fair way off having gigantic flags draped across the field and flyovers (especially since we don't really have an air force anymore), but this coupling of war and entertainment is most definitely a step in that direction.

After all, just a few years ago the ludicrous idea of playing a rugby league test match at Gallipoli was being seriously floated around. The supposedly sacred Anzac name was used to denote a rugby team made up of Kiwis and Aussies that took on the Lions back in 1989. The Roosters have made a habit of playing in camouflage jerseys, which bear more resemblance to a modern soldier's uniform than a World War I digger.

It becomes even more complicated when you factor in the codes' history and relationship with war. Rugby league kept their competitions going through both world wars and actively discouraged their players from serving. Super Rugby only started the tradition of having the teams from the capitals of Australia and New Zealand playing each other a couple of years ago when they realised that was what the NRL was doing.

But is just giving the public what it wants? The recent backlash against Nicky Hager's book Hit & Run showed a large proportion of opinion-holders seemed almost predisposed to believing exactly what the NZ Defence Force wanted them to, in the wash-up of the controversy.

A quick look at Facebook threads or online comments sections revealed they were awash with tributes to the glorious deeds of the NZ SAS, despite that, by code of secrecy, none of us will ever know whether exactly what those deeds were - let alone whether they merited glory.

George Orwell said sport was war minus the shooting, and WWI was (from one way of point of view anyway) the ultimate capitalist endeavour, exchanging expendable lives for financial gain. So maybe they fit together perfectly.

* Jamie Wall grew up in Wellington and enjoyed a stunningly mediocre rugby career in which the single highlight was a seat on the bench for his club's premier side. He's enjoyed far more success spouting his viewpoints on the game, and other topics, to anyone who'll care to listen.

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