Time to break link between alcohol and sport

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BRIAN O’CONNOR in The Irish Times

TIPPING POINT : Should something as generally positive and healthy as sport be seen in bed with alcohol and all its attendant health risks?

WHEN DID  “PC ” become such a term of abuse? Lips curl when those couple of letters pass through them, usually sneeringly  –  “Peee-Ceee ”  – as if the accused automatically has to be a soft-headed lentil muncher with crusty hair. Honestly, you ’re better off saying  “SS ” these days, even  “HR. ”

Of course  “Politically Correct ” isn ’t a lonely traveller down the road of linguistic opprobrium. It ’s usually accompanied by  “Nanny State ” or  “Gone Mad ” or  “Too Far ” or  “What Next  – Rights For Fish? ”  And it is true language has taken a terrible pounding from the right-on brigade. The evidence of how it can be used to obfuscate and disguise is all around us, and will continue to be so, going forward, until language is terminally inconvenienced, ie dead.

But excesses in one sector are hardly justification for rubbishing an overall process, especially one which fundamentally comes down to the entirely honourable aim of somebody not being allowed feel better about themselves by peeing from a great height on someone else. Happiness is generally tough to argue with  – unless it involves the unhappiness of someone else. Yet that intellectual bunny-hop appears to be a yawning chasm for those opposed to the proposed ban on alcohol sponsorship in sport.

It ’s fair to say James Reilly has rather more pressing concerns on his mind and something that can effectively be put on a long finger until 2016 is unlikely to dominate any political agenda for some time. But it remains a fundamental issue for sport and its finances.

So, let ’s be clear, so nobody is factually unencumbered: having booze and sport so blatantly linked together in the public consciousness is minimally-cranially- developed, ie dumb. And it ’s dumb for a very simple reason: because young people are mostly dumb; very dumb. They ’re also gorgeous, and bright, and wonderful, and self-obsessed, and a bit scary sometimes, but youth by definition is mostly as clueless as a cow ’s arse.

That ’s what being young is all about; being dumb, and finding out; not anything academic, but about girls, and boys, and getting wasted, and . . . well that ’s about it really, isn ’t it? Getting laid and getting hammered. Or at least thinking about it, all the time. Only the precocious few manage to follow through on all their impulses but that hasn ’t stopped every red-blooded teenager that has drawn breath spending every waking minute not spent staring at their own navel consumed by thoughts of getting out there and getting out of it. And because they ’re dumb, and cocky, and know it all while at the same time knowing very little, they are vulnerable. So it ’s not entirely shameful to ponder what might be done to ease things for them a little bit.

Even while bashing this out, I can hear the Harrumphs. And not just clichéd in-my-day merchants who love a bit of banter about birds, blacks and Brits  – until of course they ’re at the receiving end of it. It ’s not just blow-hards that think it ’s the individual ’s right to choose. This corner for one vehemently believes so. But this booze debate is different.

It ’s certainly less straight-forward than the cigarettes were. For one thing, fags will probably kill you whereas most of us are capable of enjoying a drinky or two without feeling the need to chug an entire bottle in one go. However if you remember the arguments about cigarette sponsorship, they sound remarkably similar to what ’s being uttered now about alcohol, complete with all the  “PC ” digs.

And it is true sticking the name of a beer or a whiskey in front of a sports event is hardly going to make the fan in the stands drink substantially more of the product. Just as sticking a tobacco product in front of a showjumper hardly made everyone rush out lepping poles. There is also the point that beer sales hardly rocket on the back of a corporation ’s name being associated with a big match. But that ’s to misunderstand the point of sponsorship. The reason drinks companies pour millions into sponsorship is not to deflect mature drinkers into switching product. We are after all pretty set on our ways in terms of what we neck.

And the older we get, the less appealing the idea of getting hammered actually gets. There is nothing quite like a malodorous toddler climbing out of the cot at 5am, waving a fresh nappy and demanding to be changed, to make a hangover feel even less fun. It just ain ’t worth it for us fossils. However the  “yoof ”, that ’s different. All that disposable income and desperate urge to fit in: and of course all those years of potential spend if they can just be turned on to the demon hooch in general, and to a certain brand in particular.

How many ads have you seen lately of middle-aged couples silently sitting in pubs, doing the thousand-yard stare ahead of them, trying to find something or someone to look at besides their other half? Of course you haven ’t. What you see is any number of young tight-bodies frolicking merrily, all of them with perfect skin, teeth, and all of them supping on a bottle of shiny something while eyeing up a similar gorgeous creature with a view to GYPO  – look it up Pops. Sport is a perfect fit for such a pitch. It ’s young, fit and exciting. And the optics are good, just as the behind-the-counter versions are, if you know how to handle them. But it ’s the age group being targeted by  “morkoting ” execs which is precisely the one most prone to drinking stupidly.

No doubt drink companies will cry  “dirty pool ” if the litany of problems associated with their product is trotted out. And just because they make alcohol available hardly pushes young people towards binge drinking, and drunk driving, and depression and suicide, and the rest of the less spectacular but still significant consequences of irresponsible boozing. But if advertising is harmless and has little or no impact, then why is it a vast, global industry? If its impact is mostly ephemeral, then why bother with it at all, never mind pouring millions into sponsorship? Because it is a global business, the argument has been made that banning alcohol sponsorship of sports events in Ireland is futile since so much of our sporting diet comes from Britain. The French are presumably able to access British media too and that doesn ’t stop them having the H Cup rather than the Heineken Cup.

In the Irish sense it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the cross-channel argument is simply a handy excuse for doing nothing by various administrations that have a significant interest in not rocking the sponsorship boat.

It is silly to predict financial Armageddon for Irish sport if alcohol sponsorship is banned here. If a product provides corporate pay-off it will still have its pick of potential sponsors. This is a world where a dog-food company once sponsored steeplechases and no one batted an ironic eyelid.

But there ’s a more fundamental issue. Should something as generally positive and healthy as sport be seen in bed with alcohol and all its attendant health risks? It ’s not very edifying, is it? Of course the impact of such a ban would probably be minimal considering the booze culture embedded here. Still, time to do the right thing. You know it ’s true. Now if you ’ll excuse me, I have granola to cud and charms to rattle.