When we talk about footy, what is courage? What is bravery?

Jonathon Brown is courageous. He is brave. These conclusions are magnified as we flinch slightly when watching replays of the clash which caused his latest facial injury. But what I have found fascinating in the wake of this incident is the commentary suggesting that Brown is, by his actions, being unnecessarily reckless. As Andrew Stafford reported in “The Age”: “In 2002 such crazy/brave madness won him the mark-of-the-year award. This time he ended up in hospital, having brain scans”. At long last, we may well have reached a watershed moment in the way courage is evaluated when talking about and observing footy.

Luke Power was one of the first to weigh into the debate, suggesting that Brown “will sit down with (coach Michael) Voss; I am sure Browny will think about the way he plays the game.” Matthew Lloyd was next to chime in, saying that Brown was jeopardising his career. Even a year ago, comments such as these would have been unthinkable. Now, following the two car-crash type incidents involving Brown this season, they have barely raised an eyebrow.

Commentator Alistair Lynch and North coach Brad Scott, coincidentally both former premiership team-mates of Brown, both intimated that the Lions skipper must change the way he plays. Scott had this to say: “The days where you keep your eyes fixed on the ball for 10 seconds, I think 10 seconds is too long…For the sake of the team and himself, there’s no problem with having a look.” Having a look! Up until recently, words such as these would have been met with derision by a chorus of past players who would simultaneously exclaim that the game had gone soft. But coming from a hard-nut such as B Scott, these words hold weight.

I for one am glad that we may be in the process of re-evaluating the standards by which we measure courage in football. Lost amid the reporting of the Brisbane-Geelong match was the suggestion by a reporter that Travis Varcoe had pulled out of a contest. So what if he did? He gets to fight at the next contest, not limp off the field. It is time to shelve this crazy notion of “when it’s your turn to go, you go no matter what” even if it ends up with you being carted off on a stretcher and missing weeks. That is not helping your team. If Brad Scott is now advocating players should “have a look”, that is good enough me.

Every single player who takes to the field at the elite level is brave. It takes courage merely to climb to that level. If you doubt it, just sit in the front row at any AFL game…you can certainly hear – and almost feel – the constant crash of body on body. And you would not again question their courage.



About Darren Dawson

Always North.


  1. It would be very hard for Brown to change his style now.

    The way he attacks the ball is instinctive rather than taught.

    At this stage of his career I believe he will always be inclined to do the instinctive thing rather than stop and think and take another option.

    We may be seeing the end of a magnificent player’s career. Two hard strikes to the head in a few months, a third may be the finish.

  2. I saw a 16-year-old Brown play seniors for South Warrnambool against some brutes from Colac… that his courage/bravery is instinctive was very much on display way back then.

  3. John Butler says


    I agree with you about players’ bravery. It takes nerve just to run out on the footy field at that level.

    I hate the tendency of commentators to highlight players when they don’t go as hard as they might. Sometimes they should have gone, other times it was common sense not to. It’s a split second call.

    Not everyone is built like Jonno Brown. Sometimes your side is better off if you live to fight another day.

    Yet the culture of footy has been to lionise the ‘warrior’. The language of war figures far too often in footy-speak. Usually by people who’ve never experienced a real war.

    We’ll see if it changes.

  4. Clearisghted says

    Perhaps it’s a kind of envy that drives commentators to make judgements on players’ courage, abilities etc. With regard to particular commentators, it seems that the older they get, the better they were in their playing days.

  5. These hits are mostly a consequence of a few things:

    Improved player fitness – they run harder and faster
    The continual tinkering with the rules to speed the game up.
    the ever increasing size of players (must be something in the chicken).

    You can’t have it both ways – that is, a fast and furious game without big physical clashes. What sort of game do we want? The players are enormously brave and will need to get used to big clashes. The other alternative is to change the rules to reduce physical contact. I hope that never happens.

    PS – Varcoe shirked the contest. I didn’t like it.

  6. Dips,
    I was at NM v WB so I did not see the Varcoe incident, only read about it in the paper.
    But, as players get bigger stronger faster and fitter, I am having more and more
    sympathy for blokes who “have a look”. And yes, it does not look all that flash, but
    I can’t blame them !

  7. How far away are we from this – Or one of the AFL journos reading the same and using it to restoke the debate?

  8. Adam Muyt says

    What next, umpires stopping a game because someone’s keeping their eye on the ball for too long? Why stop there -we could award a free against the offending player, for safety’s sake! I find the contemporary game increasingly ludicrous; bereft of contact except in the most proscribed ways, what will we be left with? Come to think of it, why having any form of jumping and leaping in the game – it’s far to dangerous!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

  9. John Butler says


    That’s not what’s being discussed here.

    We’re talking about the idea some propagate that players are obliged to overlook judgement and commit regardless of circumstance.

    I know there’s a fine line to be trod, but surely our thinking has advanced since (to use another shop-worn war metaphor) generals were sending blokes over the top of the trench to be machine-gunned down.

  10. smokie88 says

    Well said, JB.

    We all love it when players go in hard and commit for the ball, risking life and limb
    in the contest.
    But surely we have now reached a point where we can understand if they don’t.

    A local lad (whose name I will not publish here, but now playing at Williamstown)
    pulled out of a contest while playing for Collingwood. Mick Malthouse allegedly
    said words to the effect that “He will never play for Collingwood again”.
    And he didn’t.

  11. Paul Daffey says


    I agree entirely with your view. The recent madness about “putting your head over the ball” has gone to ridiculous lengths because of increased television coverage. No player wants to be caught putting in a short one because it will be broadcast again and again for all to see.

    I’d never actually heard the term “put your head over the ball” before Michael Voss used it when he was Brisbane captain. It’s the Lions who paved the way for the tough-guy carry-on.

    What Brown did verged on stupid. And I don’t think it was particularly instinctive. He has a reputation as a player who’ll run back with the flight of the ball to go for a mark and he felt obliged to live up to it.

  12. @Dips – agreed on Varcoe. He was soft in “that” contest, and degree of danger was nowhere near that of Brown’s. He’s been toe-poking for weeks rather than getting over the ball.

    &smokie88 – “Having a look! Up until recently, words such as these…” You’re very correct, and recently might be a recent as 10 weeks ago when Toovey pole-axed himself. The talkthen from Lloyd et al was focused more on how brave he was than on how reckless or stupid he was.

    Maybe its time to consider suspending players for recklessly endangering themselves!! Its a difficult situation though. If a player pulls off something like that and kicks or saves a winning or losing goal then they are held in the highest of regard by all and sundry.

  13. Andrew Fithall says

    Good discussion prompter Smokie. This is something I wrote about Toovey in the Floreat Pica review of the Collingwood Geelong game this year:

    I will dwell briefly on Toovey and his injury. Bravery is one thing, but players should have a sense of self-preservation. I blame the commentators who are so quick to criticise players for not going in hard enough. Toovey’s act was only ever going to end in tears, and the potential of a positive outcome minimal. As he ran back towards the pack, someone should have conducted a full risk assessment, obtained the results, communicated them to the coach, and the runner should have been sent out to tell him not to do it. Maybe in the heat of the game, there is not enough time.

    I didn’t know at the time that Heath Shaw had called him in. J Brown’s act was similarly reckless. And there was one other on the weekend (player name and team elude me) which was again hightlighted on the TV as being a significantly brave act.

  14. The American NFL data on long term impact of repeated concussions is truly scary. As per the article about NFL player Dave Duerson from the Guardian reprinted in the Age. I love watching JBrown and I am not concerned about it shortening his career by a season. I am concerned about it shortening his life by 20 years, and destroying his personality and well-earned wealth in the 10 years before that as he is unable to cope with the loss of judgement and unexplained personal aggression.
    These are things we tend to discount as individuals because the effects are long term. Having seen up close the waste and hurt to families and individuals from Parkinson/dementia type symptoms – I cannot bear the thought that the game we all love is substantially increasing the chance of the early onset (say age 50) of these sort of horrible symptoms and life consequences.
    There are many good observations in the thread, but I have no idea how the rules/coaching/attitudes should be changed to lessen the risk. “Protecting the head” has to be sacrosanct, but there are unintended consequences of crazy brave players (like all the no-neck Selwoods) who intentionally put their head in the way to draw frees when they know they are about to be tackled. So it can’t just be rule changes.
    Dunno the answer but it needs serious thought, and without having seen the Varcoe incident, I won’t be criticising anyone who ‘has a look’ given the speed and weight of modern AFL bodies and collisions.

  15. Pamela Sherpa says

    There’s a difference between being brave and being reckless. The obsession with the eyes on the ball rule annoys me. Players need to have a look in order to be able to protect themselves . Being poleaxed and carted off the ground isn’t being much help to your team.

    The other issue is the number in contests-the more bodies the more likelihood of clashes – only one bloke can come up with the football . Sometimes there are just too many players charging in from all directions.

  16. I always thought I was ahead of my time as a player. This proves it. My first instinct was to have a look.

  17. John Butler says

    Les, I was too slow to get myself to enough contests.

    I suppose that’s a preservation instinct of a sort. Natural selection?

  18. John Butler says


    I think this would be very difficult to coach, which would encourage many to advocate the hard line.

    I think players instincts will get them in enough trouble anyway, especially given the speed of the game, which makes decisions split-second.

    What I think this is really about is that moment when the player has a chance to assess the situation, however briefly. Some might think that constitutes second guessing. But in these days of high tactical rotations, there’s a serious price to be paid by being a player down unnecessarily.

  19. In the Brisbane V Geelong game, I saw several instances of players second guessing themselves on tackles and half pulling out.

    I also saw one contest where a Brisbane player had their head down and was charging Matthew Stokes who initially went to make a tackle but then pulled out of it and took a small side-step to let the player through and then tried to tackle from behind.

    When and how to apply physical contact, and when and how to expose yourself to it, is becoming a major issue…

  20. Mark Doyle says

    A good discussion topic Smokie! I believe that all the sports journalists who write and comment on the game have no idea of what is courage on the footy field. They do not understand and appreciate the difficulty of playing AFL footy, especially the speed and high intensity of the game. Most of these people are ignorant buffoons. I also believe that former AFL players who retired more than a decade ago and blokes who play community footy have little idea of the speed and high intensity of the modern game. As a supporter you can only get some appreciation when watching at ground level and up to 12-15 rows from the fence. You cannot get any appreciation from the higher level stands and the TV.
    Most people plus most supporters have a macabre feeling of enjoyment when incidents such as Browns happens. Then follows a massive overreaction. Any footballer who is not aware of his surroundings is a goose. Brown should have allowed Mitch Clark to make the contest because Clark was running forward and had a better view of the ball. Comments about Travis Varcoe ‘squibbing it’ are silly, naive and ridiculous.

  21. Mark – I commented about Varcoe. I wasn’t being ridiculous. He stepped around the contact, no question. It looked bad because he was in no more danger than getting a bruise. But, that doesn’t mean that J Brown should attack the pack (not necessaily the ball) like he does. He should re-think somewhat. There has been no mention of Tom Lonergan’s bravery in the same contest, and he has a lot more to lose than his consciousness, he could lose his life.

  22. Not sure about that Daff.

    There is a bit of difference between running at the ball head down (akin to that scene in Gallipoli when the boys got out of the trench under orders from above with the only posibility being to get shot ) and running back into a pack ah la Brown, Carey or, to a lesser extent, Corey Enright. Cats won a premiership from Max Rooke doing it.

    I have noted some players pull out recently obviously fearing contact with an opposition player and subsequent three or four week suspension if they don’t play with a team statring with “C” .

    The game sure is changing.

    (Good to see big Gus back in the ruck for the Tigers. Looking to exploit the Cats inexperience in that department.)

  23. “For the Brave Ones”

    Sticks and stones may break my bones
    Words will never hurt;
    Crazy brave run into packs
    Opponents hit the dirt.

    Charging packs like Jonno Brown
    Will send you all doo-lally;
    Every game for whole career
    By 50 you can be Muhammad Ali

  24. Podsiadly joined the party
    cleaned out several blokes
    Bartel and Brown he knocked down
    No more Pods, I can’t cope

  25. Mark, you may be right. Its possible Varcoe was a Matador in a past life and at that very moment went the “ole” rather than the football.

  26. Skip of Skipton says

    Varcoe’s shoulder would be in the front of his mind when it came to physical contests. I dislocated my shoulder playing footy. After that, when it was my turn to ‘go’, I wouldn’t, and gave up playing soon there after. It still pops out with ease 20 years later. Can’t throw a cricket ball with any force. Can’t sleep on that side either. Feels like an electric shock when it goes.

  27. Contemporary shoulder sookie softies.

    Apparently the great Ronald Dale would pop his, stop put it back in, and play on.

  28. Alovesupreme says

    I expect many almanackers have seen this doco which was re-broadcast by Four Corners in May this year. It was an anlalysis of the concerns about the threat of brain damage to American footballer, alluded to by Peter B and Litza in this thread.

  29. Rick Kane says

    Did you see the discussion of this incident on tonight’s episode of ‘The Footy Show’? The most considered and reasoned voice rising above the usual shrill, simplistic analysis was John (Sam) Newman – who woulda thunk?


  30. Don’t watch the footy show. Full of ‘egits’.

  31. A few points. The injury to Browns face was caused by Clark being pushed in the back and therefore into JB’s path with his arm out to protect himself rather than flying for the mark. I’m not sure which of the Geelong defenders in the pack did the pushing, but one, (Enright?) did not have eyes for the ball, so at the very least in a technical sense, there were two free kicks to Brsbane, yet Geelong got the kick. For what exactly?

    The difference between crazy and brave is a fine line. That line has cost JB 7 games this year, when he has already missed many from a ‘freak’ incident. The cost to the team is way beyond the benefit of a mark, single shot at goal and inspirational video moment as the best possible outcome.

    How many promising/talented players have had a career curtailed by such courage. I remember Rory Hilton playing for Richmond against Melbourne diving full length in front of Shwartz or maybe Neitz to spoil, being run through, dislocating shoulder and playing one or two more games after that. (I know he had a decent enough career). It seemed that moment of courage had a fairly high cost and it hardly rated a mention as courageous…

  32. @gus – I think it was Harry Taylor who pushed Clark from behind.

    This happens quite often where players nudge opposition players into another’s path to try to cause a spillage. I wonder if we’ll ever see players reported for the consequential impact caused by such actions.

    I think it was Chapman who got a free kick for being held. It was probably a good contest to be held out of.

  33. smokie88 says

    Pete / Gus,

    from next year, the AFL is looking at reporting players who endanger the safety
    of others by pushing them into harm’s way. There has already been some dialogue
    about this issue.

  34. Thanks for clarification there. I have only seen the incident as an isolated ‘highlight’.

    Thought it was intresting that JB has only been carried off concussed once in his career. Not the stat I expected…

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