Drink Tank

Calling last drinks on booze in Australian sport

It’s as Australian as a beer snake at the cricket or the NSW VB Blues, but is the marriage of convenience between booze and sport on the rocks?

Carl Heslop from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation takes a look at a drinking culture permeating Australian sport to the highest levels, and the battle by grassroots clubs to call last drinks on sponsorship and the traditional post-game slab.

I’ve played sport since I was a boy. Broadly speaking, sport kept me out of trouble. Sport delivered me some strong role models, gave me fitness and enjoyment, but also exposed me to dangerous drinking behaviours.

Nowadays I spend some of my time working with clubs in tackling alcohol as part of the Good Sports Program. Clubs around the country want to change, but sometimes change has to come from both top-down and grassroots for the best effect.

There has been an increasing discussion around saturation levels of alcohol marketing and sponsorship within some of Australia’s most popular sports. This discussion was particularly robust on day two of the AHPA National Conference in Perth, when the plenary sessions turned to corporate social responsibility.

Despite fantastic presentations on gambling and fast food marketing, I shall direct my attention to the area closest to my work (and my heart): booze and sport.

The NRL State of Origin (or Slab of Origin) fell on the final day of the conference, with even our venue advertising beer specials linked to the event’s main sponsors. This really grabbed my attention and got me thinking about the profound impact sport’s relationship with alcohol has on efforts to challenge drinking culture in grassroots sporting clubs around the country.

The alcohol industry has put in solid efforts at every level of sport to ensure that advertising messaging reaches us any time we engage with it – from ground advertising to partnerships and adverts during broadcasts. At the top end of town, it is relentless. From the fantastically covert (and woeful) Friday Front Bar program, which at best is a dire infomercial; to the blatantly overt, such as the Slab of Origin or the AFL’s WA Beer Sponsors Derby.

It is shameless and seems to show little regard to the message it sends to amateur clubs. The standards that elite clubs and organising bodies set in accepting alcohol industry funding and engagement are the standards that amateur level club look to emulate.

At grassroots level, clubs and leagues engage alcohol sponsors in a range of ways. Sometimes it is the family owned winery or a small town’s local hotel; but don’t think that the big players ignore opportunities to secure supply deals, jumper sponsorships or advertising through deals and partnerships.

This can lead to conflicting situations for clubs, where a junior player playing in a senior grade may have an alcohol sponsor on their jumper. It can lead to club’s blurring the lines on responsible service of alcohol to increase sales. It can make it hard for club leaders, community leaders and health promotion organisations to prize open the door of a booze sponsored club and start a conversation on the separation of booze and sport.

Why would local clubs change when their professional counterparts refuse to set the example?

Bangers and mash

Booze and sport. Bangers and mash. Institutions. There are times that you can’t seem to have one without the other.

Simple sponsorship and a few logos can’t mean that much in the scheme of things? Surely if a club wants to challenge their culture they can? Why is the close marriage between booze and sports such a problem?

For all of the great things that grassroots participation in sport has to offer, the solid relationship between participating in some sports and high-risk drinking can bring with it plenty of harm – from ill effects at a personal level, through to community impacts, reduced productivity and cultural problems.

Some aspects of booze and sport are “old school” cultural hangovers, some are more recent trickles down from the elite level.

Take Mad Monday. This was once an elite sport ritual to mark the end of a season – especially a winning season. Now, Mad Monday is at home in amateur sports, alongside isotonic sports drinks, kinaesthetic strapping tape and fancy football boots. Mad Monday has become ingrained in Australian sport at the elite level, with reporters following players around praying for a great boozy quote, glimpse of a stripper or other reckless behaviour. Unfortunately, clubs seem more than willing to provide the press with fodder. The Geelong Football Club are lauded for their Mad Monday tradition and receive over-the-top coverage of their famed dress ups.

So no surprise, amateur clubs emulating their heroes descend on pubs around the country to cut loose. Missed the finals? Season over? Be like the pros and write yourself off after your final game at the local pub on the beers in a mermaid costume. It is what the best do.

Mad Monday is a problem – and it sits alongside some long-term booze and community sports norms that bring mixed messages and opportunity for alcohol-related harm.

Come and get fit, interact with your peers, be involved in a community at your local club. Give young people something to do, a place to go, some mentors to work with. Come down and play and have a beer afterwards with your mates to support the club. Make sure to make it down to training to get fit and have a beer with your mates. Get back to the club for the award presentations to socialise and have a beer with your mates.

Stick around and drink. Under the pretence of mateship. Don’t want a beer – why not? We are all mates here. Aren’t we?

Secret men’s business

Many people who exist outside of sporting club culture are baffled when I explain what some clubs feel isn’t just acceptable – but a required part of their practice. A carton of full-strength beer delivered to the “boys” at the end of the game is ingrained in culture as an acceptable rehydration practice. After indulging in nearly two hours of sport, the first thing many amateur players in our “manliest” of codes consume is at least 1.5 standard drinks – in their jocks, covered in mud, with their mates.

It’s glorious. The stuff dreams are made of. It’s Aussie as. It’s about your mates. Or at least some of your mates. The ones that drink, anyway. And only male mates – for this is secret men’s business, locked away in the change rooms.

Many a hardened clubman has explained to me that this sacrosanct ritual of drinking beer in your smalls is critical in the “boys” bonding together, becoming “mates” and winning a “flag”.

Speaking from considerable personal experience, it rarely works out like that. Surprisingly, consuming alcohol so regularly, at such high levels, so soon after vigorous exercise doesn’t aid recovery or improve performance. Nor does it improve community relations, workplace efficacy or personal relationships.

Add the issue that in many country leagues, some players will be underage. Maybe a couple of your “mates” don’t or won’t drink. A couple may have to go back to work on the farm or on the tools. This often leaves many beers with few people. This means we are already heading in to NHMRC alcohol guidelines high-risk drinking territory, without having to have had a shower, negotiated with trained bar-staff or reached for your wallet. Or even your pants.

What is so bad about supplying free beer to those who have supposedly earned it?

Ignoring the obvious comedy of the idea that participating in organised sport for a couple of hours earns you the right to free alcohol. Putting aside the fact your change room probably isn’t licenced and you may be actively supplying or encouraging minors to drink free alcohol against secondary supply of alcohol legislation. Forgetting that alcohol is terrible for recovery and rehydration and you’re demanding players turn up for “rehabilitation sessions” the next day.

These things aside, there is the simple fact that ignoring your family and supporters to stay in a changeroom drinking beer is a little anti-social. There is a culture in some clubs that it is more important to finish the carton than go talk to your family, your children or supporters and sponsors who have given up their time and money to watch you play. How can that be ok?

Last drinks

Many clubs are actively trying to change their culture and move away from this kind of tradition. However, the carton in the change rooms is tough to shake. It’s a battle for some clubs. It does depend on who is at the reins; the personalities driving the culture of the club and what the members view as acceptable behaviour.

Within small community clubs, often a strong individual or group can either support or scupper attempts to change culture – some cling to the “good old days”, while others may be pushing for change.

Sometimes you need more than individuals within clubs and need some more structure. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation’s Good Sports Program has been working in the realm of this cultural change with thousands of sporting clubs for over a decade and has had some good results published recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The study found that Good Sports reduces risk of risky drinking at sports clubs by 37% and the risk of alcohol-related harm to club members by 42%.

Now, that’s good going – but are the clubs looking to engage in a program addressing alcohol culture already engaged, while the “problem clubs” hang out on the sidelines drinking beers behind the stands? There are clubs that see the Good Sports Program as merely another box ticked or a club audit to make sure they are doing well.

Some clubs, however have come to the program needing help – with a strong desire to change but lacking the tools to go it alone.

The program is a long term approach for clubs, focusing on simple things such as liquor licencing adherence and responsible service of alcohol, as well as more complex issues around safe transport, bar management and cultural change. It’s not a simple fix and focuses on developing policy and slowly changing culture.

That’s the thing – you are tackling ingrained behaviours and culture that are supported from the elite level down. You can’t hit it with a brief session or a flyer, it takes years of commitment.

There will occasionally be people left behind, yearning for the past. These people that will be left behind tend not to go quietly. Clubs I have worked with have reported losing life-members, so attached to the past they don’t want to come along to the future. Some clubs make take steps forwards and steps back. It is a slow process.

It is fantastic to see local clubs take responsibility for their culture and the behaviour of their members. Many clubs have a genuine desire to address the relationship between alcohol and sport and tackle the carton in the change rooms, spectator behaviour, boozy bus trips and over-the-top end of year celebrations.

Clubs are also challenging themselves more and more about how much alcohol advertising is responsible – and often forgoing easy money in the process. There is a genuine desire to change things at grassroots level, for clubs to be more family friendly and focus less on booze and more on sport.

Tackling the top end

At elite level there have been sensational things done in replacement of booze advertising, such as the great work done with and by the WACA. The WACA has made significant changesbeyond purely replacing signage around the ground, and has been lauded for their efforts.

This is a great example for clubs at grass-roots level to follow, but sometimes an alcohol sponsor is too hard to pass up when the greens need replacing or the jumpers are torn. Those venerable clubs, wanting to change but short of finances, are easy pickings for a shrewd alcohol industry.

Their resolve in avoiding an alcohol sponsor or moving away from their embedded culture is also challenged along the way by the lack of support and leadership at elite end of the spectrum. What hope does your local club have changing their relationship with alcohol while the media celebrates Mad Monday, ex-players reinforce the frothies after the game, and alcohol sponsors remain plastered across elite-level teams and media?

We must support individual clubs in making changes to the things that they can control – but we also need to start questioning, advocating and acting for the things that they can’t. TheFoundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) has been promoting a petition against alcohol sponsorship in the NRL – even infiltrating the #AHPA2016 hashtag.

We need to question the elite end of sport while supporting the grassroots. Without the separation of booze and sport at the elite end of the spectrum, grass-roots clubs will struggle to make the meaningful changes that many desire.

Carl Heslop

Carl Heslop is a Professional Registered Nurse and public health practitioner. He is a PhD candidate with Curtin University, and Community Development Officer – Great Southern for the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF).

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