Jarryd Hayne’s movement from the Parramatta Eels to the San Francisco 49ers and his subsequent bid for inclusion in the Fiji Rugby Sevens Olympic team is one of the most fascinating stories in recent Australian sports. On the one hand, it’s been hyped to death – in many ways, the hype has been part of Hayne’s burden – and yet that hype has itself been incredible to watch as it accelerates to ever more extreme predictions and pronouncements, While he was still with the Eels, I used to follow Hayne on Twitter, and it was clear even then that he had his sights set on either the NFL or the Olympics. I never expected, though, that he would leave a sporting franchise in which he was such an icon and an asset, and while rumours have abounded concerning his lack of interest and initiative with the Eels, there’s nevertheless something improbable about the fact they he played in America, even after all the media coverage has acclimatised us to it. Yet while the media presence has been somewhat relentless – and at times intrusive – there hasn’t been a really good in-depth documentary about his meteoric rise in either Australia or America. In large part, that’s because we’re still too close to it all – and because his sporting story isn’t over yet – but I still can’t help wishing that there had been some more detailed and focused counterpoint to all the clickbait that has arisen around the most scrutinised and dissected Australian sports story that I can recall in my lifetime.
To some extent, Channel 9 has aimed to fill that void with a pair of features devoted to Hayne – the first, a 60 Minutes special (Living the Dream), and the second, a longer Wide World of Sports special, entitled Jarryd Hayne: Aussie Hero, American Dream. While I’ll mainly be taking on Living the Dream here, the two features are in some sense cut from the same cloth, with Living the Dream airing as a promotional vehicle for Aussie Hero, American Dream, which screened after Friday Night Football the same week. Like many 60 Minutes profiles, Living the Dream is anchored in a single celebrity-styled interview and feels designed to endear Hayne to people who aren’t necessarily interested in football or sports. As might be expected, it’s a pretty vanilla interview, all about making him seem as accessible, relatable and down-to-earth as possible, and for the most part plays as a highly scripted PR exercise, which isn’t to say that some of Hayne’s natural, residual charisma doesn’t come through inadvertently, but that this definitely isn’t the Hayne that you see on the field, nor the Hayne that had the conviction to cut ties with the NRL to try and make it in a foreign country and a foreign code. Instead, this is Hayne more or less collapsed into his role as inspirational icon, as host Karl Stefanovic takes us through a series of motivational montage sequences, opening with the Hayne Plane’s return to Pirtek Stadium following the 2015-2016 NFL season, where he is greeted by a host of rapturous Parramatta fans.
There’s no doubt, then, that this is a well-crafted narrative – much the same narrative presented by Fox Sports and The Daily Telegraph – and like all good stories it knows what to leave out as much as what to put in, with Hayne’s Hillsong commitments judiciously left to one side, along with his reputation for slackness during his final months at the Eels. As with the Hayne saga as a whole, some of the most touching moments coms from seeing him at home amongst his family, friends and community in Minto, especially in comparison to the bright lights of San Francisco. As always, it’s clear that Hayne has an especially close relationship with his mother Jodie Hayne and there’s a straightforwardness to their affection and interaction with each other that goes above and beyond even the cheesiest aspirations of this particular feature. While the whole “inspirational” angle of Hayne’s ascent has become a bit exhausted by this point there’s still something genuinely inspiring about the way in which he used Rugby League to get out of a fairly constrained situation, and to help his family to do the same. As he puts it, “Rugby League became my oxygen…I didn’t have anything else,” and while it may have turned into a sound bite he’s delivered a million of times since announcing his departure for the NRL, it still feels true against the backdrop of his day-to-day family life and their relationship with the wider Minto community.
Still, it’s the footage shot overseas that proves the most fascinating. On the one hand, the scale and scope of it all is quite spectacular – even after all this time, Levi’s Stadium feels utterly surreal after Pirtek, while seeing Hayne ensconced in all the hype and ceremony of the NFL is titillating even now that he’s left the United States. In this story, what could have been is still fascinating as what actually occurred, and it’s amazing to see Hayne surrounded by a bevy of American accents – both teammates and commentators – as he cuts his teeth with the 49ers. Yet in many ways it’s the small details that are the revelation here: while the big-picture stuff has driven the tabloid news cycle, what setsLiving the Dream apart is the way in which it hints at all the minutiae of Hayne’s gradual process of acclimatising to a new country and a new football code. In one great scene, we follow Hayne as he arrives in Los Angeles – his first port of call – and starts to make himself feel at home with Jay Glazer at the Unbreakable Performing Centre to get his body NFL ready. In another fantastic scene, Hayne takes us through the process of getting used to NFL gear – especially the helmet – as well as how he managed to negotiate it on the field. Finally, in a scene that splits the difference between the epic and small-scale dimensions of the Hayne Plane story, the aspiring running back takes us through the buildup to his first game at Levi’s Stadium by way of all the preparation and training rituals that distinguish it from your average footy game at Parra.
While these moments are great on their own terms, they’re so brief and sparse that they really seem to cry out for an entire reality series, just as Hayne ultimately feels more at home as a reality sports star than a pro footballer – from Parra to the 49ers to the Fiji Sevens it’s been the Hayne brand that’s got him through; after all, this is a guy who got a spot on Madden ’16 and had his jersey franchised before he had even played a season with the NFL. For all that the tabloid media has saturated us with Hayne’s journey, it’s tended to airbrush out these finer details when envisaging his arc and ascent. Yet that’s not to say that these minutiae exclude the emotional stuff either – one of the best and most iconic sequences follow Hayne and his family as they wait to find out if he made the 49ers squad on the shores of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge looming in the background. With Jodie Hayne wearing 49ers gear, it’s a classic reality television moment – although you sense that it’s somewhat scripted, there’s a residual realism to all the small details, expressions and moments that pass between the family, which momentarily makes it feel as if Minto isn’t all that far away. After all, part of the fascination of Hayne’s story was getting an insider’s look at the exotic weirdness of American sports and American culture more generally, and these small details really come across like a brilliant reality series in the making.
It’s no surprise, then, that Living the Dream is also anxious to paint Hayne himself as a work in progress, as someone who’s still figuring it all out. For Hayne to give us an inside perspective, he can’t be too exotic, alien or American himself, and so the film quite wisely refrains from presenting Hayne as a spokesman for the NFL, or as a fount of wisdom. As a result, Hayne is presented as curiously passive once he makes the big move, as much of an audience to his own meteoric rise as his fans and supporters. Indeed, the final note is of Hayne being somewhat laconically bemused by his own success, as well as by American football and the NFL itself as an institution. Granted, it seems that he had a huge amount to learn, especially when it came to memorising team plays and opposition plays – even in such a short running span, the film really capture the cognitive intensity of Gridiron – just as it seems pretty clear by this stage that he didn’t really bargain on just how difficult the transition would be either. Nevertheless, as much as Colin Kaepernick and other 49ers icons may insist that “naivete turns out to be a weapon for Jarryd,” this vision of Hayne the ingenue is often pushed a little too far to be believable – it doesn’t ring true, for example, that he only buys his first proper NFL football immediately after landing at LAX. Like so many 60 Minutesspecials, however, it doesn’t seem designed to be plausible – not completely – and instead this bemused laconic tone seems like a way of branding and claiming Hayne as quintessentially Australian, no matter what his sporting affiliation.
If Living the Dream is a PR exercise, then, it’s ultimately an exercise in affirming Hayne as Australian, as well as affirming that he is still most amenable to Australian interviewers, no matter how much he may have been bound up and hyped by the American media. For such a homegrown product, it can be a bit weird – even confronting – to hear him dissected by San Francisco sports journalists instead of the Channel 9 or Fox NRL teams, and Living the Dream is an effort to counter that: at the end of the day, the film suggests, Hayne is still closer to the NRL or the NFL. Even if he goes on to succeed with the 49ers, Stefanovic suggests, he’s always be an NRL player at heart, as well as an NRL ambassador to the world of American sports – no small feat, given the veneration with which Australian Rugby League players tend to regard the NFL and NBA in particular, at least on social media. From Nathan Peats to Jack de Belin, American sports fandom is a big part of the NRL community, so it’s not surprising that Hayne has garnered such a huge amount of support from within the NRL, nor that his departure for the United States has produced a certain amount of anxiety about the status of the NRL on the global stage – an anxiety that Living the Dreamseems designed to assuage.
It feels weirdly appropriate, then, that Hayne’s story was placed immediately before a 60 Minutes special on Trump’s America. While Channel 9’s perspective on Trump – and the Republicans more generally – tends to waver, the Donald and his supporters are here presented in their most ludicrous and hyperbolic light, as if to contrast with the down-to-earth, can-do pragmatism of Hayne, who is thereby both aligned with Australia and offered as a kind of ideal point of entry for Australians who want to understanding the growing American crisis but keep their sanity in the process. At the same time, Trump’s extremism also makes Hayne’s own religious and ideological convictions – convictions that seem integral to his attraction to the NFL, which often subsists on similar values – seem less concrete by comparison. One of the sacred tenets of Australian sports is that the football field isn’t used as a vehicle for political, religious or ideological platforms of any kind, and one of the most alienating facts about Hayne’s move to the NFL in that light has been how it has coincided with his increasingly vocal affiliation with Hillsong. Setting him alongside Trump’s extreme American attributes, however, Living the Dream makes Hayne seem much more provisional, improvisational and Australian. As he puts it “I don’t ever want to be comfortable…I don’t ever want to be doing something just because I’m doing it” – and while that may feel a little contrived, Hayne must also have known, at the time the special was filmed, that he might not be picked for the next season, creating an air of reflection and resignation that doesn’t feel entirely fabricated either. Yet for all that the interview establishes a slightly more relatable – if airbrushed – Hayne, it’s the “reality” segments that are finally the most fascinating here, as well the most promising in terms of his future media presence and persona, whether he ends up in Australia or abroad.