Phil Gifford: Luatua didn't deserve condemnation

BIG YEAR AHEAD: Steven Luatua wants to go to another level in 2014.
BIG YEAR AHEAD: Steven Luatua wants to go to another level in 2014.

"Everybody's so different," Joe Walsh of the Eagles once sang of life as a rock star, "I'm still the same".

Fame's a strange beast. There can be sweet moments. During the Rugby World Cup in 2011 I held the camera so a little lady could have her photograph taken with Todd Blackadder. The look on her face was, as they say in the credit card ads, priceless.

Or there can be some side effects of fame that are just bloody ridiculous. The hysterical television coverage of sculling drinking games being shown online was ludicrous in itself.

For a start, ask yourself the perfectly reasonable question. The theory is that publicity for Neknominate on Facebook is reprehensible because it encourages young people to play the game. On that basis doesn't showing the same videos on TV in prime time make as much sense as trying to stop violence by punching someone?

If the story itself was weird, dragging All Black Steven Luatua into the mix was flat-out mean.

Allowing himself to be filmed probably wasn't the smartest thing he'll ever do in his life, but he was tipping a small bottle of beer down a strapping, grown mate's throat, for God's sake.

If that's worth time in the lead story on network news, heaven help him if footage ever emerges of him getting a parking ticket.

I'm certainly not advocating that sports stardom should be some sort of invisible shield against consequences in normal life.

No reasonable person could suggest Russell Packer stomping on a man's head after he's knocked him to the ground is just a bit of boyish exuberance.

But Packer behaving like a thug is one thing. Luatua behaving like the vast majority of young Kiwi men have while they're growing up is quite another.

To give the actions almost equal time in news reports is just wrong.

Treading the razor sharp line between acknowledging drinking too much, too quickly, is genuinely dangerous for your health and safety while keeping a degree of common sense in the reaction to Luatua on film is very difficult.

Envy means there's rarely much sympathy for a young athlete who struggles, but the glitz and glamour has its own pitfalls.

A former professional baseball player, Doug Glanville, now a brilliant writer, said in the New York Times in 2010 how seductive life was for a kid who became a professional athlete.

Girls who would never have looked at him before wanted to be with him. Guys wanted to drink with him.

"It was like a kid finding Batman's belt in the lost and found," he wrote. "No point in giving it back until you've tried all your new powers. But we forget to ask, will I be able to stop once I've tasted these powers?"

Being world famous in New Zealand has its advantages, but by and large the miracle to me is not that some rugby players in their very early 20s, who suddenly have wealth and attention, go a little haywire - it's that most do not.

In Auckland the debate about whether a politician like Len Brown deserves a private life shows no signs of ending soon.

A lot of us may equivocate over that issue, but what bugs me about Luatua's naming and shaming is that I firmly believe sportspeople own us the courtesy of being fit and ready to perform when we pay to see them compete, and that's it.

Should a healthy pay packet and a degree of adoration make their personal life a media target? For my money, unless the behaviour is truly abhorrent, the answer is no.

Sunday Star Times