A scholar who finds the limits to his criticism. A former player and fan who realizes the brutality of his game. A father who sees the virtue of sport in his son. Brett Hutchins reflects on the death of Phillip Hughes.
Australian Test and first-class cricketer Phillip Hughes died on 27 November, at the age of 25, after sustaining a traumatic head injury. He had been hit in the head two days earlier by a bouncer delivered by fast bowler Sean Abbott while batting for South Australia against New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground. After collapsing at the wicket Hughes was taken to hospital by air ambulance. He never regained consciousness. His funeral took place a week after his death in his hometown of Macksville, NSW (population 2,658), and was broadcast nationally.
The public response to Hughes’ death has been unprecedented, at least in my experience. Open and raw displays of grief from members of the national and international cricket community appeared on television screens on a daily basis. The passing of a teammate and friend visibly devastated Australian Test cricket captain, Michael Clarke. Journalists and commentators penned heartfelt commentaries and pained dedications for newspapers and online sites. A spontaneous and popular #putyourbatsout campaign saw fans and followers digitally commemorate Hughes on Twitter. Tellingly, a Test match between Australia and India in Brisbane was postponed because of the distress felt by many members of the national cricket team who felt unable to play. In a rare victory for emotion over commercial avarice, this decision was met with no complaint from broadcasters, advertisers, and sponsors.
I have forged a scholarly career enthusiastically skewering nationalist myth-making and advancing critical perspectives on sport and media in popular culture. Repressing sentimentality, it is an approach built upon the unflinching identification of the inequities and hypocrisies of professional sporting cultures where the interests of powerful hyper-masculine and mostly white men ride roughshod over all others. This sociologically trained perspective is most obvious in my book about Australia’s most famous cricketer, Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth (2002). Powerful political and media interests leverage the popular tastes of citizens to construct narratives that serve their own narrow interests, under the cover of appealing to “ordinary people,” a pattern that has since been intensified by the demotic free-for-all that unfolds daily on the Internet and mobile media.
Yet, when confronted by the death of Phillip Hughes, I struggle to critique the events surrounding his commemoration and the stories told in his name. Some friends and colleagues justifiably declared “bullshit” to elements of the staged public grief and clichéd media coverage, while the opportunism of the nation’s politicians continues to annihilate credulity. I have read well-argued commentaries highlighting the physical damage wrought by gladiatorial professional sport for the sake of entertainment, as well as an often-ignored history of significant injuries suffered by batsmen after being hit. Even with this knowledge, deep sadness remains my predominant response to Hughes’ death; sadness for his family and friends and sadness that a young man is dead in awful circumstances. The acuteness of this response is also unexpected – I did not know Hughes and felt no particular affinity with him while watching him play. But, on this occasion, my practised critical distance on the social world is reduced to zero.
The vicissitudes of personal experience and the analytical rigour demanded by critical scholarly analysis sit uneasily alongside one another. For many years I regarded this as a productive tension, adding welcome nuance to a mind that has a habit of reading events politically and then yelling back polemically. There is, I have discovered, a threshold where personal feelings overrun critical-analytical faculties, although identifying why this occurs is tricky. The glib response is to say I am getting soft as I age, losing the sharpness and certainty that once characterised my thinking. The more honest answer is a mixture of shame and love, terms that appear rarely in the books I read.
I played cricket for many years before back and knee injuries overtook a slight frame and a lazy attitude towards training. Blessed with athletic genes and a generous wingspan, bowling at speed came naturally. I played in adult grades as a young teenager and multiple representative teams in my mid to late-teen years. As a fast bowler, I was not good enough to play at the very top levels where a refined technique and relentless hard work were needed in addition to sheer pace, as demonstrated by one or two representative teammates who later played at state and national levels. But I was swift enough to cause havoc in many competitions, particularly when pitch conditions were favourable. Broken ankles and toes, the odd busted head and nose, and bruised ribs and thighs were inflicted on batsmen, frequently accompanied by a condescending smile and harsh words. Even as a teenager I knew this behaviour was wrong. But I did it anyway, enjoying the fear I was capable of generating in others.
Watching the broadcast footage of Hughes’ collapse on YouTube is to witness the horrifying fragility of life. The fielders rush to help, signal urgently for off-field assistance, and cradle Hughes’ head, demonstrating that some of the most productive human instincts are protection and care, not deliberate violence and hurt. Without the knowledge of what happened after Hughes was hit, my honest thought would have been “good ball,” even though I know the physical pain inflicted when a hard ball travelling at 130 kilometres-an-hour hits soft skin.
Being aware of the events that followed, a skulking shame mixes with my sadness. The logic of games can humanise and de-humanise depending on the ethics of those who play. My thoughts and actions are guilty of embodying the latter. I have embraced the tooth-and-claw logic of an elite sports system, all the while mouthing fine words about participation, respect, and fairness to my students and peers over the years. To think as I have (and in all likelihood still do) about cricket and sport is to fail a basic test of decency that pays insufficient regard for a logical outcome of tactical sporting violence.
The manifest limits of my thinking were further emphasised by the example of my 11-year-old son. A keen junior cricketer who loves watching the national men’s and women’s teams, he responded to these events with a combination of sensitivity and curiosity. He asked his mother and me why the ball had killed Hughes, and observed the grief of those appearing in news reports. Learning about death as a child can be confounding, and this was a drastically different set of circumstances to a grandparent dying after a prolonged illness.
The Saturday game he played at a suburban oval two days after Hughes’ death was a sombre affair. The boys wore black armbands, and before the start of play the teams, coaches, and parents observed a 63-second silence (corresponding with Hughes’ score when he was struck). I wanted to believe that much of this ceremony was confected, a dewy-eyed response to myth-laden media coverage. But as I stood there on a cloudy morning, I saw and heard something different. The boys were not their usual boisterous and chatty selves. Conspicuously observant, there were no barely repressed giggles or fidgeting. Only they know what was passing through their minds during this time, but play commenced in a subdued atmosphere for much of the morning.
The parents I spoke to during the game were clearly affected by Hughes’ death. Some came prepared with deflective truisms and others were noticeably quiet. As we watched the boys don helmets and face up to the bowler, sentences occasionally trailed off into nothingness as the limits of language met the dreadful awareness of what had happened at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The manner of Hughes’ death struck at a profound truth that no parent wants to acknowledge, let alone reflect upon – our children are mortal. It is this unbearable fact that Phillip Hughes’ parents are now living through.
My partner took our son home at the conclusion of play while I picked up some groceries. When I returned home my son had placed his treasured bat and club cap outside the front of our house as a symbol honouring Hughes. Many of his teammates had likely done the same thing, posting a photograph to their social network of choice, Instagram, as part of the #putyourbatsout commemoration. Surprised, I stopped and looked at the bat and cap for a short period, contemplating an inability to make sense of why anyone should die playing a game of all things. Moreover, unless I was prepared to condemn my son to some sort of Althusserian nightmare, his mini-memorial could only be read as sincere and heartfelt. I asked him later in the day why he put these items outside for people passing by to see. In the succinct style typical of boys his age, he said it was “a good thing to do for Hughes.” It was also a response that captured the virtue of acting without regard for the pretensions his father carries about with him.
Phillip Hughes was an outstanding cricketer who died young while playing a sport he loved. His death has devastated those close to him and shaken many people who knew him only from a distance. Betraying the concepts and theories that I teach and apply for a living, I am unable think about these events in terms of culture, myth, para-social interaction or interpellation. Perhaps these and related ideas will regain their relevance with the passage of time, but at this moment I can see little between beyond the observance of sadness and grief and the offering of tribute and respect. Occasionally, the chaos and violence of the world pierces the membrane that each of us constructs to make the intermittent harshness of reality tolerable. I cannot fathom why Phillip Hughes is no longer with us, which leaves only an assurance in the respect, care, and love that people display at moments such as this one.
Brett Hutchins is author of, among other books, Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth. He is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University in Melbourne. Details about his current recent research can be found here, and you can follow his tweets at @.