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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 17 December, 2018

Does it matter if our favourite sports stars are considered 'nice' people?

The careers of Jamie Heaslip and Andy Lee were eulogised last week, writes Tommy Martin.

Jamie Heaslip called time on his career with a hugely-impressive medal haul.
Jamie Heaslip called time on his career with a hugely-impressive medal haul.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE IDEA THAT a sportsperson’s retirement is a type of death is reinforced by the fact that it usually comes with an obituary.

Most obituaries operate under the principle that one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead (“Adolf proved to be an excellent public speaker….”) and the sports version similarly tends to accentuate the positive (“He would soon become the greatest third choice goalkeeper Port Vale ever had…).

This poses few problems when it’s someone like, say, boxer Andy Lee. His retirement last week brought an outpouring of tributes from anyone who had so much as bumped into Lee buying sliced pan in Centra.

The headline on Gavan Casey’s fine piece on this site summed up the general feeling – “Andy Lee: The Nice Guy Who Finished First” – while Boxing News Online website landed it right on the kisser: “A bloody good fighter, and an even better man.”

People felt, understandably, that to sum up Lee’s career without mentioning his fundamental decency wouldn’t do him justice, particularly in a sport with its fair share of scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells.

More nuance is required when dealing with someone like Jamie Heaslip, who toddled off rugby’s mortal coil earlier this week. Tributes focused on his sackful of medals, his professionalism and his famous physical resilience.

But there wasn’t quite the same tone of affection that Lee enjoyed. Mainly, you’d imagine, because many of those writing the pieces had either been blocked on Twitter or sneered at in a press conference by Heaslip, who famously never courted the media’s affections.

While charting his monumental career in loving detail, the Irish Independent wondered whether his general demeanour affected the broader perception of Heaslip. “His achievements merit similar respect to O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, but the sense is that he is not as warmly regarded in the public sphere. Perhaps some of that is a product of his desire to separate himself from his chosen career, to be seen as a man apart from the game. Perhaps it stems from a sometimes difficult relationship with the media.”

The Irish Times offered balance on the matter. “He didn’t curry popularity with the media, with whom he could be moody, but, sharply intelligent as he was, he could also give convivial, revealing and interesting one-on-one interviews.”

This tallies with my recollection from the odd Heaslip press engagement I attended. He was capable of scoffing with unconcealed disdain at the inanities of his inquisitors, but once he deigned to give his thoughts on whatever subject the grovelling pack had raised, he revealed a whipsmart mind with a fascinating insight into his sport.

Viewing the media with suspicion hardly marks him out as unusual in Irish sport lately; plenty of his former teammates have had warm things to say about him, and one presumes his friends and family love him to bits. And anyway, his swag bag of career achievements will ensure there will be few sleepless nights Chez Heaslip about what people think of him.

Andy Lee Andy Lee: nice guy who finished first. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

All of which begs the question: does it matter whether your favourite sports star is a nice guy or gal? When people ask what such and such a sportsperson is ‘really like’, should the answer be: why do you care? Did it make a difference to their legacies that Lee and Heaslip had opposing reactions to microphones under their noses?

The Guardian ran a piece this week headlined “How US golf fans finally fell in love with Tiger Woods”, in which golf correspondent Ewan Murray observed that the defiant spirit of his latest comeback had finally won Woods the public affection 14  majors had not. Murray noted at last weekend’s Honda Classic “the extent to which crowds, who had once been fascinated by Woods without any obvious willingness to warm to him, now pull so strongly in his direction.”

This requirement to complete some sort of moral narrative arc before people hand over their love is a strange one. Woods had a gift from the gods; what did it matter what he was like as a man? Watch the chip from the 16th at Augusta in 2005 again – who cares if the guy liked cocktail waitresses? He won the 2000 US Open by 15 shots – so what if he was hostile to the hacks?

It seems that we ordinary folk feel the need to tether our stars to the earth, as if requiring the reassurance that the superhuman are actually merely human after all. It’s this fear that makes Irish people fuss more about Saoirse Ronan’s accent than her talent, that sought to flagellate Woods for his indiscretions, that can’t forgive Heaslip for occasionally being a bit of an arse while performing heroic feats for Leinster and Ireland.

The Honda Classic - Final Round Source: Mike Ehrmann

It’s to Andy Lee’s credit that so many wanted to testify to his character outside the ring, but it’s the fortitude behind those thundering right hand punches that took him to a world title which will be recalled most eagerly by posterity.

Heaslip wasn’t the hail-fellow-well-met of your typical Irish rugby legend but it would be a shame if that obscured his contribution to the game’s success here. In fact, it has become clear that his bullish personality filtered, through such extraordinary physical attributes, made him a tone-setter for the success enjoyed by province and country, and that the absence of traditional cap-doffing Irish humility may well have been the very thing Leinster and Ireland needed at the time.

So yes, he was a bit arrogant, wore gigantic headphones and referred to the act of stopping tries as ‘D’, but that sidestep against France in 2009, the one that would have wrong-footed an entire continent, serves as a sports obit enough for any man.

- Originally published at 10.24

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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