Glenferrie was aghast at a player signing himself as Warwick Capper. Photo: Digitally altered image
In what feels a lifetime ago, on an average training day at Glenferrie Oval, the football operations man called the Hawthorn players into a private meeting, looking terribly worked up about something. We were all eager to learn what it was, so we filed into the rows like schoolboys, and did our best to look sorry and attentive.
"I just received a telephone call from a woman," he said, gripping a piece of paper in his right hand, "And she sounded very upset. One of you has apparently signed Warwick Capper's name on her Hawthorn jumper."
The room was divided by this scandalous news into those who were angry, and those who swallowed laughter. The manager went on with his management-speak, generally about how the nonsense ought to stop. Most of us thought nothing of it, and waited for him to finish his routine. But, as if marking in time the death of the scallywag, his voice rose into a demonic strain and he squeezed out, "Whoever did this is piss weak, own up to it. You're an embarrassment to the club."
If it wasn't for that last furious assertion, the forger of Capper's hand would no doubt have stood up then, and said what is now obligatory in any public organisation when a person acts outside of expectation: "It was me. I am deeply embarrassed, and I repent. " But the tone had already shifted, and no one stood up.
Naturally, an intrigue settled over the squad and made everyone nervous about what should happen next. People guessed who the culprit was and said nothing.
This was in the wake of the halcyon days, when a joker was still free to joke, and even expected some reward for it. It was not so long ago, a decade maybe, but even that recently you had to take the train into the city to see a working touch screen. And the footballers were only just conceding the dawn of the professional era, where sterility in the public discourse would really start to matter for them.
A few of the youngest boys in that group would get rich and win premierships, but they also saw their sporting lives become products, beholden to the corporate gun that smoked all renegades, and dictated to others the jargon lines of "process-driven outcomes", "acceptable behaviours", and "compliance". Perhaps for the first time a player's non-compliance to sanctioned behaviour was something marked on a spreadsheet by his peers and, in sufficient numbers, meant exile for him.
Still no one had confessed to the crime by the time the group was changed and assembled outside the race. One or two older players were starting to put pressure on the culprit to come forward, and with each unanswered call for admission the tension swelled. It seemed, for the first time, that these senior figures were relishing their role as police in the new order, which was essentially made up of business concepts, only amended by testosterone and those virtuous four-letter words.
The guilty player, known to us as the Reverend, explained to me recently, "The scenario escalated so quickly after the meeting that I felt a confession was out of the question. By the time of the warm up, I'd already left it too long to say something. I was committed to the lie."
This was perhaps the first time we saw football perform explicitly as a microcosm for moral debate. In a modern American courthouse, for instance, an early guilty plea will get you off some crimes, but a late one will see the case heard by a jury of peers, resulting always in a punishment more severe.
We learnt that teams doing their own investigations are infinitely more effective than, say, ASADA could be. Players who did not police a teammate became themselves guilty of a crime. The Reverend in this case was approached by another teammate who claimed to have seen him sign Capper's name, and implored him to admit it before the group. On hearing this the Reverend decided that he must come forward.
And in that moment, as we all trudged around the oval before the session, someone of that new leadership group stopped the team in the goal square and gathered us around.
"Boys", he said, "We've just signed up to a set of behaviours, and honesty is one of them." As he went on, pleading with us from the centre of our huddle, the Reverend's hand began rising from the bunch behind him, but the speaker could not see it and kept on.
"If we can't be honest about this, then we're f----d anyway," he yelled.
This was too much, and the Reverend, finally cracking up, spoke up with his hand still raised like a child's.
"It was me," he said. "It was me."
Years later I thought of this, watching Mystic River, the scene in which Sean Penn's character thinks he has found his daughter's killer. It's an old friend, whom he kneels by the river for the final act. But he cannot kill him until the friend confesses. "Admit what you did," he screams, over and over, until finally, mercifully, the friend says, "Yes. I did it," and instantly is murdered.
Versions of this fable are emerging everywhere in entertainment, and among sports people especially, from whom we demand confessions so that we can forgive them, and ultimately render them as better people in our hearts.
Mike Tyson has made a stage show of it, touring his confessions, and bathing in the light of redemption each night, wearing a white suit. Boxing writer Donald McRae described Tyson as "a sensitive soul snared in an ogre's body". Who could not empathise with that? But Tyson, after all, is a convicted rapist. Mat Haber of Esquire wrote last year, "You can almost feel the good guy in him being knocked out time again by the bad guy."
It has happened too to Tiger Woods, who is now one major championship away from completing the narrative arc from hero to villain and finally redemption. A reporter for Macleans in Canada asked a social therapist last year about Woods' behaviour when he reemerged at the top of golf.
"I can sense his humility and his genuineness," she said. "I actually like him better since the scandal. If you look around here nobody can judge anybody."
Woods' sponsorship is back and last year he was deemed cleansed enough for a round of golf with President Obama. "I think what's going on is they're hitting all the right stereotypes," said Arthur Caplan of the New York University program Sports and Society. "The advertisers and the media have a stake in his redemption."
It must happen in the right order for the postscript to work. Otherwise the hero dies on live TV like Armstrong did. You don't confess and find redemption on Oprah; you get judged.
The Hawthorn group immediately forgave the Reverend after his confession. We all felt redeemed in some way. Cleansed. He went on to become a lawyer, but resigned after one year. He is now studying psychology.