- Sport and the Sacred VictimRené Girard and the Death of Phillip Hughes
Sport, Cricket, Hughes (Phillip), mimetic theory, Girard, Australia, scapegoat
The fatal on-field head injury and subsequent death in Sydney of 25-year-old professional cricketer Phillip Hughes has led to an exceptional outpouring of shock and grief throughout Australia, the cricketing world, and beyond. It was not just one more death. Not even the particular poignancy of a promising young life cut brutally short can account for the reaction.
There were heartfelt tributes from players, prime ministers, and presidents. Parliament observed a minute’s silence. The Queen sent a private message to Hughes’s parents. Schoolboy cricketers formed guards of honor and wore black armbands. One batsman paused as his run tally reached 63 to kiss his own black armband (63 was as far as Hughes got before his tragic mistiming of the impressive but dangerous pull shot left his head and neck fatally exposed to a fast-rising delivery). Bats topped by cricket caps have multiplied on sports fields and outside public buildings. The funeral in Hughes’s hometown of Macksville, New South Wales, attracted thousands of mourners from far and wide and went out live on the national broadcaster. Hughes was universally lauded as an icon of sportsmanship, promise, and courage. [End Page 133]
An important factor in understanding this reaction is the role of cricket in Hughes’s death, leading us to reflect on the social significance of cricket as a ritual. Such deaths in other sporting codes, while distressing and properly lamented, are unlikely to cause shock and awe on this scale—though I would have expected a similar reaction had such a death occurred in American baseball, as I will explain. Boxers, racing car drivers, jockeys, and even footballers suffer fatalities, but a reaction sufficient to subdue and even unite the nation will not issue from those sports.
In terms of deep-seated impact, the closest parallels for Australians in recent decades are the deaths of President Kennedy and Princess Diana, along with the 2002 Bali terrorist bombing that took 88 mostly young Australian lives. Something fundamental was touched on those occasions, as with the fatal on-field injury of Phillip Hughes. I suggest that the most basic reason for such reactions must be sought in the little-understood role that public rituals play in the reinforcement of a stable social order, with a particular place for sport in general and for cricket in particular. Those other deaths that struck our nation with such sobering force share in the same social mechanism.
The answer to why Phillip Hughes’s death unleashed so much shock and awe is because the foundations of our social order were uncovered to reveal a slain victim. We are not normally meant to see this mechanism laid bare, because it works best when we know about the slain victim intuitively rather than explicitly. When we see an actual death in this context, however, it is uniquely astounding, sobering, and unifying. We can but imagine the immeasurably multiplied shock and awe had Hughes been struck dead on the spot, rather than succumbing out of public view in hospital two days later.
I ground my speculations on these matters in the mimetic theory of René Girard, who David Dawson in his excellent lexicography of the term “scapegoat” describes as having “a taste for the sanguinary and a rather cheerless view of human origins.”1 According to Girard, who is a sworn enemy of romantic delusions and self-serving sentimentality, we are chronically unoriginal creatures of borrowed desires gravitating naturally to envy and rivalry, hence to violence, and who would not have survived as a species without having stumbled upon a way past the inevitability of such self-destructiveness.
Nowadays we modern westerners have our police, courts, and armies to maintain order and keep vendettas from getting out of hand. In addition we have our consumer markets to direct, deflect, and satisfy desire, so that [End Page 134] rivalry is kept in check. We also have our official collective enmities to maintain group cohesion. Think of the role played by a noxious anti-Semitism in countering...