There’s a theory French philosopher Michel Foucault had about how people in power use knowledge to legitimise, reproduce and reinforce their position. In your humble scribes interpretation, the basic idea is pretty simple – powerful groups use language and knowledge to reinforce their position of power. Think of legal language. Or how medicine uses Latin. The message is simple. We have the knowledge and the words, and unless you’re one of us, you don’t.
In our little space of the world, we often notice this same approach to knowledge when it comes to our rugby league discussion.* Our experts, be they commentators, journalists or administrators, tend to protect their patches by suggesting that those outside the game cannot understand what they do.
They don’t necessarily use fancy language. Often the very opposite. But often they use their position to argue that only they can have access. Only their voices are relevant.
Sometimes they are explicit about it. You may be familiar with the story of the NRLPhysio twitter account. He’s a pretty affable bloke with proper qualifications and all that, who does the favour of explaining potential injuries, the mechanisms at play and what the injury may be. He’s pretty clear this isn’t a ‘diagnosis’, more help for the rest of us to understand what’s going on.
Some teams don’t like this, and a few weeks ago a helpful Melbourne media person contacted him on twitter and told him to stop because well, he’s not their doctor.
Forget that he’s not trying to be there doctor. The charge here is simple. You’re not one of us.
Another example was Phil Gould railing against ‘social media’ running Rugby League on the weekend. A fascinating concept – the most powerful man in Rugby League railing against what is essentially the administration listening to people expressing their raw (often too raw) feelings.
Trial by opinion is a pretty funny thing for a guy paid to give his opinion to rail against. But the message is clear. You do not understand like me. I am expert hear me roar.
Sometimes this exclusionary approach to knowledge and power is so ingrained in our sporting culture that we do it ourselves. A good example is recently when there was a hullabaloo over Dave Taylor being shown in unfavourable light on the Footy Show. Host Erin Molan made an effort to apologise for the behaviour. The major upshot of all this was more people than should have suggested the real crime was that Molan has a role in the Footy Show at all. You know, cos she never played first grade. And she’s a women *gasp!*
Even an insider can be excluded from having a voice.
Let me preface this by saying I respect the important roles experts play in our game and our society. I did not play professional rugby league. There are insights that come from ex-pros that we cannot get elsewhere. But what is common in all these examples is that an alternative view is being dismissed not on its merits, but on its relative power.
This is a small thing but it’s a real problem for Rugby League. It’s not big enough to exclude voices from the discourse around the game. For every commentator pontificating there needs to be a loser with a shitty blog (*waves excitedly*). For every journalist or ex-player telling us ‘how it is’ there needs to be an enthusiastic person with a twitter account live-tweeting games. It builds the game. Rugby League simply cannot afford to be exclusionary.
Not to mention that similar voices have been critical additions to other sports around the world. Think Stephania Bell in NFL. Think the role of Bill James in revolutionising baseball. Or the growth of analytics in the NBA.
By casting a wide net for voices has helped these sports not just broaden their appeal, but broaden their skill base. It’s not hard to see how Stephania Bell and NRLPhysio provide the same role. It’s hard to think that the Erin Molan, or Yvonne Sampson are very similar to Michelle Beadle or Sage Steele. I cannot wait for Rugby League’s Doris Burke.
Foucault would say that this process of power and knowledge is self-perpetuating. Knowledge is power and power allows you to decide what knowledge matters. This is how it and always will be.
It was always a bit deterministic for mine. I prefer to think we can all play a role in ensuring that there is diversity in the views that contribute to the culture. We – together with the powerful – can grow the discussion around the game.
To be fair In Rugby League we’ve already begun this process. FoxSports and Channel 9 should be acclaimed for elevating many impressive female journalists like Molan, Sampson, Hollis and Freedman just to name a few.
But there is more work to do. We need to value a more diverse range of voices. NRLPhysio is one voice. But there are plenty of voices out there, from sabremetric (PythaoNRL, the Obstruction Rule, Clear the Obstruction) to the technical and opinion (Oherrol, FifthNLast). These voices shouldn’t sit outside the mainstream discourse of Rugby League. The game will be better for it.
Let’s hope those with the most power think the same.
* I’d note that it’s not limited to rugby league, and is in fact a part of the discussion across Australian sport