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September 3, 2007 | by  | in Opinion |
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From On Top of the Sporting Soapbox

I was at Westpac Stadium to bid a fond farewell to one of the finest, battle hardened rugby virtuosos, one Tana Umaga, and I – along with 20,000 other pairs of ears in attendance – found myself nodding quietly in agreement with the former All Black captain’s parting words.

“I can play a physical game of rugby and still go home as a loving father to my children. Our children are precious. Please look after them,” he said, in obvious reference to the recent scourge of child abuse cases that have captured headlines this year. It was intriguing – if not appropriately poignant – from a man many believe typified everything good and black in New Zealand rugby. Far and away from the bellyaching and bitching from those down parliament way, it was the concise, yet impassionate plea from a sportsman that many will have found resonating with them.

Some have argued that a sportsperson’s tongue only reaches as long as the field he or she plays on and that he or she should behave accordingly. And of course, there’s the old adage in sport that suggests “what goes on tour, stays on tour” – a somewhat benign concept given today’s tabloid/autobiography friendly market. So, the question must be broached: when is it appropriate for a sportsperson to say whatever it is they need to say without saying too much?

There is, of course, that unfortunate stereotype that is almost as old as sport itself: the one that suggests that all sportspeople are inarticulate troglodytes with barely enough brain cells to string together enough words to form a coherent sentence that doesn’t include the words “full credit” or “game of two halves”. It is almost as if we treat our sportspeople with a certain level of contempt – “As long they’re performing out on the field, I couldn’t care less about what they say!” Indeed. I mean, does anyone really care if Richie McCaw offers his two cents worth about the controversial global warming debate, or if Maria Sharapova wades in on Dafur?

A word so often used in conjunction with Tana Umaga – mana – seems to be a key component in rendering a sportsperson’s wisdom relevant. Umaga’s position as a former All Black captain, a starwort of New Zealand rugby since professionalism’s inception in ’96, and a man of seemingly staunch convictions, lends his words a validity that resonates well beyond the rugby field. New Zealand sport is, unfortunately, bereft of such characters, and even more starved of ones with the conviction to hone in on the hearts and minds of their fans and the community at large.

It’s really quite a shame; if they have the power to inflame our spirits on the field, they could easily do the same with the hearts and minds of those who have given up listening to everybody else.

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