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What the George North Northampton Saints controversy tells us about professional rugby

By Dan Johansson
George North

Following Northampton Saints’ loss to Sale Sharks this weekend, technical consultant Alan Gaffney seemed to imply that departing Welsh winger George North didn’t want to play for the club in the Premiership clash.

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Radio silence has since followed, with neither party commenting further on the matter.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly what the trouble on the Northern Line is without the benefit of first-hand experience or inside knowledge. Therefore it’s important not to speculate too strongly on the specific circumstances which led to Gaffney’s comments. That being said, even in the short time since the comments were made there has been a great deal of debate and discussion online which shines an interesting light on how we view professional athletes and their attitudes.

Saints fans are understandably aggrieved at North’s alleged reluctance or refusal to play, with several calling for the twentyfive-year-old’s upcoming departure to be hastened.

Others have suggested that North may even be in breach of contract, and that, given his presumably lofty salary, an early termination could be beneficial for the struggling club as they attempt to recruit for next season. The gist of such an argument is that if any of the rest of us flat out refused to work, we’d be out of a job immediately. Again, until more details emerge it is necessary to stress that this scenario is the product of speculation on the part of fans rather than concrete fact, though certainly there is some unrest behind the scenes at Franklin’s Gardens.

The comparison between the working requirements of athletes and the general public is an interesting one. Certainly from a legal standpoint, rugby players represent employees of a business who are contractually obliged to perform certain duties in line with their job description. Those duties are of course hugely different from those of many non-athletes, but just because their job description includes training for and playing in rugby matches doesn’t make it any less legally binding than mine which forces me to include at least one terrible pun in every article I write.

There is however a key difference between the requirements of athletes and non-athletes in terms of their attitude towards their work.

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Whilst few employers would be happy with their employees openly expressing dissatisfaction with their work, it is rarely a binding requirement that we actually enjoy our jobs. Professional athletes, on the other hand, are expected to show passion for the badge, to care deeply about the success or failure of the team to which they belong and to feel the same drive to see the team succeed as we do as supporters. In the professional era, this is a difficult and often unachievable expectation.

Sport is a uniquely emotional business. Without the passion and genuine emotion that characterises fandom, there would be little interest in watching people chuck a bit of leather about a field. Take the rocky start which the Welsh regions faced after their transition from club sides – fans were expected to invest emotionally in these new teams despite the fact that many had deep-rooted attachments to their local sides built up over many years, and in some cases it has taken quite some time for that connection to grow.

TV deals and ticket prices can only keep rising because fans feel they must watch their beloved teams. Because emotional investment is necessary for supporters, we demand it, at least outwardly, from players too.

To a certain extent it’s a matter of suspension of disbelief. In the modern game, the trope of the local lad turning out for his boyhood team and sticking with them through thick and thin is becoming less and less common. It’s no longer an amateur game, and we know that many players are journeymen following the paycheques in order to make a living and support their families.

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They arrive from half way across the world in many cases, but yet we expect them to care about local rivalries the same way we do as supporters – or at least to pretend to.

For the most part, players sincerely do care about winning and losing. You can see the emotion on the faces following a glorious victory or a crushing defeat. Players do become invested in the club and their team mates, and for most players injury lay-offs or other reasons for time away from the pitch are genuinely frustrating. That’s why it’s so jarring to read of players who don’t show the requisite passion for the game and for their club. Marland Yarde’s reputation was done no favours by the circumstances of his Quins departure, and when teams are struggling one of the first things pointed at by disgruntled fans is the attitude the players display.

A large part of the backlash comes from the feeling that players are ungrateful. Many of them are on significantly larger salaries than the supporters who come to watch them every week, and for every dissatisfied professional lays a hundred hungry youngsters who never made it.

We demand 110 percent from our players, partly because we want to see our team succeed and partly because we feel they owe it to us. Conversely, whilst many of us are faced with high expectations at work, for the vast majority feeling a little less-than-enthusiastic occasionally or just “having one of those days” is an inevitable and generally permissible fact of working life.

Whether this disparate demand is justified by the salary and lifestyle that goes with the job is open for debate.

Regarding George North Saints fans have been divided for quite some time. Arriving as arguably one of the brightest young stars in world rugby, North has helped the side to a Premiership title and notched up an impressive try scoring record.

On the other hand, he’s spent a great deal of time on the treatment table and his best performances in recent years have all seemed to come in a Welsh jersey. Part of that can of course be contributed to Northampton’s playing style, but evidently North’s passion lies in playing for his national team rather than an English club side. Regardless of the reality of the situation, Gaffney’s comments are unlikely to lead to the warmest of send-offs for North at the end of this season.

We as supporters are deeply invested in the success of our teams, and when this passion is not reciprocated by players it can feel like something of a betrayal. But whether or not this is fair, the performance of passion is part of the job description of the professional athlete in the 21st Century.

By failing to live up to their emotional responsibilities, players serve to remind us of the mercenary nature of professionalism, and in turn, remove that suspension of disbelief necessary to turn people chucking a bit of leather about a field into a genuinely emotional spectacle.

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