The fall from grace of Australian Test cricket captain Tim Paine, following the revelation of his involvement four years ago in a sexting scandal, might be seen as an irrelevant distraction, something of interest only to a few cricket fans. Paine is only a cricketer, and cricket is only a game. Australia has bigger problems to deal with than arguing the toss over the rights and wrongs of Paine's "crime" and "punishment". Australia is approaching a federal election, and issues such as freedom of religion, vaccination mandates, territory rights, a federal ICAC and climate change are on our agenda.
However, it would be a mistake to treat Paine's fall as an irrelevance.
While the full detail of "who knew what when" is still emerging, the case contains all the familiar ingredients of other breaches of ethical standards in public life. There is the offence itself, disputes over its seriousness, codes of conduct versus community standards, private life versus public life, the role of those in authority, and many others.
There is also the role of sport in general, especially cricket, in Australian life.
Sportspeople, cricketers above all, are put on a pedestal and held in the highest esteem. Cricket used to be the national gentleman's game, embodying the highest ethical standards. Don Bradman has been elevated to the status of perhaps the greatest Australian ever, embodying the highest and best national characteristics. Such elevation has not just been in popular culture, but encouraged by official proclamations and built into citizenship tests.
Test cricket captains were once routinely acclaimed as Australian of the Year. Alan Border in 1989 was followed by Mark Taylor, a special favourite of prime minister John Howard, in 1999, and Steve Waugh in 2004. They were praised as exemplary role models for the whole community, especially younger Australians. They were role models for high standards and fair play on and off the field.
Love of sport, attachment to sporting teams, and pride in Australian teams are assumed to be part of the best of the Australian character.
Political leaders trumpet each of these attributes as evidence of their identification with ordinary Australians. Not to be caught up in the sporting world is often derided as being out of touch.
Myth and reality are hard to separate.
Test cricketers, including "greats" such as Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, were caught up in various scandals, including involvement with bookmakers, over the past few decades. The cracks in the mythology were growing. Eventually the world of Australian cricket came totally tumbling down in 2018, when some members of the Test team were implicated in a cheating scandal in South Africa. Captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner, and batsman Cameron Bancroft were found guilty, stood down and subjected to various punishments, including exclusion from selection for periods of time.
It was then that Paine was elevated to the captaincy to restore standards and project a clean image. He has been regarded as an exemplary and reasonably successful captain. The shock following the revelations has been enormous.
Opinion is divided at all levels. Many supporters feel let down, while some believe he has been treated too harshly by the media for a mere misdemeanour. His coach, Justin Langer, urged him to stay on as Test captain, but Payne chose to resign, while carrying on as a player.
What has all this to do with public life in Australia?
Community confusion over ethical standards and distrust in once-trusted institutions doesn't exist in silos.
Many Australian institutions have gone through an extended period of decline in community estimation. These institutions have certainly included governments, parliaments, corporations, trade unions, churches and elements of the media. Institutions which were once regarded as role models for ethical standards have been found wanting.
Parliamentary life, after numerous alleged crimes, scandals and cases of bullying, is now commonly described as toxic. Many individuals at the federal and state level in politics have failed to live up to community standards as role models.
One important element in which they have been found wanting has been in respect for women.
Consent is a much-debated topic, and in this instance the sexting was reportedly consensual rather than unwanted - but a complaint was made by the woman who received the "dick pic" and associated lewd remarks from Paine.
At the time he was a married man in his mid-30s, not an immature, single youngster like some sporting offenders.
Among the most respected of the cricket fraternity is author and journalist Gideon Haigh. Speaking to Leigh Sales on 7.30, Haigh condemned Payne's actions as extremely lewd, vulgar and objectionable, but suggested the affair would have little impact on the field.
He then drew the connection to public life in general, commenting that "there's some interesting standards being set in public life about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the highest offices in the land over the last three or four years, and the question some people are asking is that are we expecting more of our cricketers than we are of our elected officials?"
Whatever our views about Paine's culpability or otherwise, as a community we shouldn't walk past this case - while not concentrating unduly on the individual.
He is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the decline in institutional standards across our society.
We need trusted institutions and reliable role models. Those in leadership positions have a special responsibility for ensuring them.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.