The sometimes bitter side of allowing sport players to glorify alcohol

Abstract: When the Proteas take to the pitch they become unfortunate Lords of a war where only innocent people get killed…

Watching the Proteas in action in Australia I am struck with a feeling of utter disappointment; not because of how they are playing, but because they have been dragged into peddling misery, injury and even death.

There’s a remarkable opening sequence in the recent Nicholas Cage film Lord of War. As the credits are fired onto the screen, the viewer follows a single 7.62mm round from its birth to a death. We see it manufactured in a grimy Russian factory then sorted, boxed, delivered via ship to a war-torn African country, selected by a drugged-up soldier, pressed into the magazine of his AK47, loaded into the rifle’s chamber and then fired at a target. It misses, and instead you see it smashing into the face of a small child. It is a sobering scene that hammers home the savage brutality of war and its tragic, often unintended, consequences. In the film the title character is an arms dealer who views himself purely as a businessman supplying a healthy demand; and, besides, guns don’t kill people. People with guns kill people.

It is the business side of cricket that has similarly drawn the Proteas into an area of moral conflict. Every day that they take to the field, tens of thousands of spectators and millions of TV viewers see them play with the name ‘Castle’ etched onto their chests. This is despite the fact that the latest research has shown that the substance most abused by South Africans is not dagga or cocaine; neither is it nicotine. It is alcohol. More people are killed, raped, abused, maimed and injured in South Africa by people under the influence of alcohol than any other substance.

Yet it is the one substance we are encouraged to consume, and it is tobacco that is vilified. How strange. How many people are killed by drivers who have had three or four cigarettes before getting behind the wheel of a car? Do you hear of women being raped by men whose uncontrollable rage has been fuelled by nicotine? Do cigarettes help spread HIV/AIDS by relaxing the resolve that discourages casual sex? How often is ‘under the influence of nicotine’ been used as a mitigating factor in a murder investigation? It is unequivocal: cigarettes may harm and kill you, but alcohol will help you harm and kill others.

Let’s, for the moment, follow a single bottle of beer from its being bottling to its consumption: We see it traveling along the production line, being sorted, boxed, delivered by truck to a tavern, selected by a man who’s a little groggy on his feat; who then drinks from it and, in a fit of rage, throws the empty bottle against the wall and buries his fist into the face of a small child.

Am I being a little dramatic? If you read the newspapers over the festive season you would have seen the phrase ‘under the influence of alcohol’ in reports of drownings off the KZN coast, the unacceptably high road death toll, the rapes on the beachfront and the vicious assaults on young children and women.

And what does Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang think about this? It seems it is not her problem. Our Minister of Health is on a crusade to rid the world of cigarettes and smokers. She is a veritable angel of health, a pro-active champion in the fight against the evils of tobacco. But while many may merrily hum along to the tune of her fiddle, a more dangerous evil is raging around her. Unbelievably, she is oblivious to the ravages of alcohol abuse and instead is now seeking further restrictions on the sale of tobacco products and the opportunities for consumers to enjoy them; as well as harsher warnings on packaging including the addition of grisly pictures of cancerous growths.

Here’s a gentle word in Dr Tshabalala-Msimang’s ear: Smokers have got the message. They got it a long time ago. They know the dangers of smoking; so if they still want to light up and shorten their own life, let them. They pose no threat to the common man. In fact they have been segregated to the very edge of society. Do we have to wait until they are all rounded up, shot and buried in unmarked graves before the Minister thinks beyond her blinkers?

Perhaps she should start looking elsewhere for the real root of misery, injury, death and all other manners of unhealthy pursuits. There are few restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol; and no signs warning that its consumption may result in blurred vision, concentration and impaired decision-making. Even the manufacturers of children’s cough mixture, by law, have to carry warnings of similar side effects when using their products. Moreover alcoholic beverage companies are allowed to glorify their products. They show images that mix alcohol with excitement, enjoyment, high-class living and good times. We are not shown the other side of its abuse.

Banning tobacco advertising but encouraging alcohol advertising doesn’t make sense. Where’s the balance? Look carefully next time you watch sport on TV. There are no ads for tobacco products, not even snuff; but you will see plenty of ads for alcohol products as well as a Castle Lager ad starring our national cricket, soccer and rugby teams.

Having SAB sponsor a national cricket team goes even one step further: it’s just plain wrong. SAB may claim they are simply supplying much-needed funds to develop the sport, and boast their drive to encourage people to drink responsibly (after all alcohol doesn’t kill people, it’s people who drink alcohol who are killed and who kill other people). In return they demand their pound of flesh and the cricketing authorities seem only too willing to play along even if it means sacrificing the moral standpoint of their players. SAB’s sponsorship has made the Proteas pawns in their own game. But because the abuse of alcohol has tragic and fatal consequences, it has also made them unfortunate Lords of War.

Originally published in the Sunday Times, 8 January 2006