In an era where sport and controversy are synonymous, it is not without sadness that Australian Rules Football witnessed the retirement of one of its greatest ever players yesterday. Robert Harvey, who debuted for St Kilda in 1988, is a person whose career is notable for all the right reasons.

Harvey’s popularity does not stem from his raw ability, considerable as it is. On pure statistical terms, he would rank beneath triple-Brownlow medalists Dick Reynolds, Haydn Bunton and Bobby Skilton. Rather it stems from his sense of fairness and humility, not to mention his miraculous ability to run and run and then run some more. Put simply, his legend transcends statistics.

Harvey’s announcement led to a unprecedented torrent of praise from all sides of football. Even the usually cynical football forums were swamped with literally hundreds of posts of praise for the dual-Brownlow medalist, from supporters of all clubs.

With Harvey’s retirement in mind, it’s worth considering the global sporting environment in which he hangs up his well-worn number 35 guernsey.

This week three Collingwood players, Heath Shaw, his older brother Rhys, and serial offender Alan Didak, were suspended by their club following a drink-driving incident and a bout of lies.

Yesterday, former AFL great Wayne Carey continued his fall from grace with an appearance before the Melbourne Magistrates Court on charges relating to an alleged assault of police officers. The matter was adjourned until next February. Between now and then, Carey will face similar assault charges in the US after allegedly smashing a glass in the face of his partner and assaulting police. Carey of course is famous for being a dual premiership player who left North Melbourne after having an affair with his best friend’s (and vice-captain’s) wife.

But AFL players are hardly alone in their misdemeanors.

NRL star Sonny Bill Williams walked out of a lucrative contract with the Canterbury Bulldogs, leaving his teammates, his club and the League in the lurch. There may yet be legal ramifications for him.

Former Atlanta Hawks quarterback and number one draft choice, Michael Vick, had to take a career break from NFL after being incarcerated for 23 months for his role in a dog-fighting ring. Vick faces other charges which could lead to ten years jail.

The Tour de France was recently blighted by doping, again, though on a less devastating scale to last year.

And the Beijing Olympics have barely started and already the Russian team appears to be falling into old habits, with seven team members suspended amid claims of systematic doping. Perhaps the Russians watched Rocky IV one too many times.

So while dishonourable behaviour characterises most sporting news right now, maybe it was the perfect moment for Robert Harvey to call it a day and draw the sporting spotlight back to someone whose career deserves celebration.

In 376 games, the rover has never been missed a game through suspension. His humility is such that even after winning football’s highest honour in 1997, the year Chris Grant earned more votes but was ineligible through suspension, Harvey strode onto the stage at Crown Casino and claimed it was a hollow victory. Yesterday at his press conference Harvey continued to play down his abilities, telling reporters that “I’m not an overly long kick, good mark or a goalkicker, but I’ve been able to push myself hard and to work as hard as I possibly can on the field.”

The 36 year-old first played senior VFL/AFL football in 1988. Bob Hawke still had four years of his Prime Ministership left and Christopher Skase not only lived in Australia but was a respected businessman. The All Ordinaries Index was around 1500. When Harvey debuted, several of his teammates were not yet born. In an era when a good career might last eight years, Harvey’s 21 years are testament to his physical gifts and his work ethic. He has collected a swag of personal honours, but never reached the ultimate goal, a team premiership.

World sport could do with a few more Robert Harveys right now.

Peter Fray

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