Beyond the Limits: On Mourning Phillip Hughes, and Sport

Paul Mitchell reflects on the sudden, accidental death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes due to a match-related injury, and the wound it inflicts on our idea of sport.

As many Australians mourn the death of Phillip Hughes, it seems obvious to say that no one should die playing sport. But while we are mourning because he was a fit young man with most of his life ahead of him, we are mourning also for sport itself.

Sport is the major way we push ourselves to our limits without reaching them – and come back to tell the tale. We do not go beyond our limits and perish. We do not go beyond our limits and perish. That kind of violent risk is reserved for war.

War and sport are supposed to be forever separate. We play sport as a way of engaging our primal (many would say masculine) drives for competition, combat and endurance. These are the qualities we need for war, when we must kill or be killed. Sport engages those qualities that we have an ongoing urge to test, but it saves us from the kill or be killed mantra. At least it is supposed to.

The grieving national cricketers, cricketers from around Australia and the world, and the many sportspeople who have sent condolences to Phillip Hughes’s family, mourn with him. But they mourn also that sport has been wounded deeply. When someone dies at war, the troops march on, the fighting continues. Death is the way of war; it is its cousin, its brother. But when someone dies playing sport, a major imbalance has occurred. Even if it is a tragic accident, the uncontrolled violence of war has crossed over into sport where, despite all the battle imagery that sport employs, it does not belong.

It has been heartening to hear consideration given to cancelling the First Test. These are the thoughts not only of grieving people, but of people who understand sport’s position in life. It is a position that is in Australia, unfortunately, too often forgotten. We place too high a value on it, as Chris Judd said when accepting the 2010 Brownlow Medal. It is a fantasyland, he added.

But it is an important fantasyland. We would be lesser as a species without it. We all understand that sport is not war, and we even sense that in a perfect world its regulated aggression would substitute for war. But while we recognise that sport isn’t war, we often fail to recognise that neither is it life. It is just a wonderful part of life.

Pundits have written that cricket will never be the same. It will. And so will every other sport eventually. Because it is only when someone dies playing sport that we have the opportunity to give consideration to whether we are making it into more than it should be, i.e. life itself.

Phil Hughes’s legacy should not just be improved head protection, although that would obviously be helpful. His legacy should be that every cricketer, even every sportsperson, takes to the field thankful that theirs is not, 99.9 per cent of the time, a life or death battle. They must behave accordingly, playing their sport with grace and joy.

Vale Philip Hughes.

Portrait of Paul Mitchell

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