The Last Hour of Football?

This Jack Viney case is absolutely fascinating.

It has become all the talk. This is, in part, because it has had saturation media coverage. You can’t escape it down here, south of the Barassi Line. It is as much a part of life as hook turns and battered flake.

But there are other reasons; more important reasons. This debate shows that footy matters.

We see meaning in football, and for good reason. Football taps into understandings which have been acknowledged since the most brilliant of the ancients found their muse in red wine and got to thinking. Why do we do the things we do?

Taking their lead: why do we (in modern, or at least contemporary, Australia) follow football, a game where men, in the prime of their lives, chase a pig leather full of air around in the mud. And why do we follow it so passionately?

I reckon there are many reasons, multi-layered, why we feel so connected to the game. Some are conscious and obvious reasons: the love of your club; others are more subconscious reasons, like a deep-seated love of the game and those meanings we find in it.

Each year my club embodies my sense of hope. Each year we – my club and I – seek victory together. Each year we chase the Cup, and place value on the striving.

But you can do that in any code, and in any sport, in any pursuit.

What is it about footy?

Another element is in the notion of the collective. Footy takes players (and clubs) away from the spiritual tyranny of self. It asks players to give their very best, to show their skill, in the interest of the group. This is characteristic of many of the great philosophies: that to pursue personal excellence in the context of community and in the interests elevates you to a higher spiritual plane.

Can I discard self, remove ego?

And then there is the individual test; the test that has haunts us. Why are we drawn to challenge? Why do we seek to be tested?

In footy, that test is expressed very simply: can I perform a skill in the face of genuine physical threat? Football is about legitimised violence. Football is about courage.

Footballers must find this courage routinely. They know that the game is about courage. Supporters know it. So players live with fear. It is not a fear in the sense of cowardice. Far from it. It is fear in the sense of respect for the game, respect for the contest, respect for the opponent who is facing his own fear. This is the test and footballers know what athletes (and soldiers) have known forever.

In Antiquity the Greeks called it the agon. “What would we be without the agon,” said Odysseus. “How would any of us alive know quality if competition and personal combat did not let all the world know who embodies excellence and who merely manages mediocrity.”

From agon we get the word agony.

We are also alerted to the element of fortune. For all of our courage, many things are beyond our control.

That football is also play, stylised battle, is also significant, although the possibilities remain the same, and the fear is real.

And when that is encased in the layer that a footballer is asked to do it on behalf of others it becomes all the more significant.

Whatever happens in this appeal won’t be the death of footy.

But it will tell us something about whether those who look after the game really understand what the game means, and why it has such depth of appeal.

We admire the players for their (very public) courage: the mental courage to take the game on, the physical courage to remain skilful under threat, to continue to act despite living in a permanent Gethsemane.


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About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Beautifully written Harmsey–it takes us all to the core of what this game means to us. Would love to show it to some of those who are presiding over the Appeals Tribunal. If the Appeal fails, it won’t be the death of footy but it will be like drinking that red wine, there will be a few million footy cells killed in the process.

  2. Very thought provoking JTH. Sadly I’m not sure that those in the corridors of AFL power have a real understanding of the agon. Or football.

    If the footy authorities, in reaching a decision about guilt or innocence, need to dissect the movement of a player who is running at full belt into a heated contest, and if they need to study in minute detail the angle of the player’s shoulder just before or just after contact, and if they need to ask players to attack the ball with wild intent, but without negligence (whatever that means on a football field), and if a millimetre here or there can take a skilled and gifted player out of the game, then they are admitting that they have no understanding at all of the matters you have raised here.

    It is a product now, like a computer game.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    What is it that the footy authorities think that “we” don’t understand?

  4. Peter_B says

    One of the main reasons I love the Almanac, is because sport is often the common prism through which we all see our society.
    We can all ignore politics, economics, commerce, consumerism, crime (I know I try to) but when these things impact my footy (as they inevitably do) – I and millions of others are instantly engaged and outraged.
    I love that footy helps us all to see our contradictions.
    Spin doctors, shock jocks, PR flacks, talkback callers and the rest of the perpetually outraged dominate our public discourse. All sound and fury signifying nothing. They then listen to their own echoes, and tell the Great Helmsmen (of varying hues) that the public demand action.
    Like John, my personal experience is that suffering (so long as it is not callous) imparts wisdom and nobility. Without it we are all pale imitations of a rich life – risked, gained, suffered, endured and ennobled.
    We think our passing wealth and ‘cleverness’ will insulate us from pain. The consequences are obesity, mental illness, addiction, alienation and ‘reality’ TV. Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ by stealth.
    When we stop taking risks and challenging ourselves (on the footy field as in all walks of life) we start to die and are spiritually (and eventually economically impoverished.
    There endeth the lesson.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    The irony of junior football re modified rules bumping only and no tackling and afl are turning it in too the opposite huh !

  6. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    JTH, are you keeping mum about your last minute call up to the Appeals Board?

  7. sean gorman says

    Now that Viney is off the Nat Fyfe debacle needs to be re-visited and over-turned IMMEDIAATELY!!!!

    MRP = Knobbers

  8. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Finally some common sense but they have to explain how they made the decision in the 1st place , NEVER have the baboon who said he should have pirouetted out of the way in a decision making process again and totally agree with , Sean above !

  9. E.regnans says

    Ahh now, JTH, “Why do we do the things we do?”

    Hold on. This sort of question requires a Guinness…

  10. E.regnans says


    What a beauty. Thoughtful thread there, too.
    We’re all looking for something, aren’t we?
    Creating meaning from the scraps that come our way.

    And so it is with footy and with all sport.
    We invest in it our memories and our understandings and our projections.
    It becomes a part of us.
    But a verdict like the (original) J Viney suspension throws out our understandings.
    I reckon it greatly dilutes our investment with the game.
    (I don’t know who you ARE anymore).
    (Well, if THAT’s the way you’re going to be…)

    But why do we do the things we do?
    Why am I even posting here?
    I reckon we’re looking for meaning.
    Even in asking the question, we’re looking for meaning, aren’t we?

  11. You cut to the heart of the matter, jth. Sometimes we take for granted what these young men do. Take away the need for courage and silken-haired ballerinas will pirouette their way to the Brownlow every year.

  12. Rick Kane says

    In reading an essay examining the Australian Navy in the April edition of The Monthly I came across a term evolutionary biologists call ‘costly signalling’ – “expensive and showy displays of prowess”. I’ll leave the many connotations the term might conjure regarding sport and physical contests to concentrate on the issue of Viney and the bump rule.

    While the AFL tribunal may have got this one wrong, spare a thought for the difficult situation they are in. The bump rule and how the AFL manage any appearance of ‘violence’ in football must be handled with tactics including costly signalling.

    The signal (this game is a reasonably safe pursuit) is ultimately more important than the individual rulings on specific incidents. That signal is for all interested participants in this great game, not just the worried parents considering what game their young children might take up. It includes those past players who carry with them through their lives the results of decades of lax rulings on concussion. It includes the health burden we are all responsible for.

    The reason the AFL must use costly signalling is because the game continued to be administered for far too long signalling toughness (as opposed to courage) as the most important per-requisite to play the game. I would rather the game as it’s played today, with the scrutiny on the bump, than as it was played in the 80s.

    Footy does matter, that’s for sure.

    Drives deep wired into the human psyche have been examined by the Greeks and other cultures through science and art and sport all those centuries ago and this continues.

    Australia and its indigenous sport have a particular difference. Was Wills at the centre of a perfect storm when he turned an idea of cricket training into the phenomenon we know today as the AFL? That is the well I think we need to keep going back to for questions and answers. The 1850s in Melbourne (even the 1850s to 1890s) was a once in millennium moment. That footy was born in that time speaks as much to us today as anything else.

    Richard Twopenny,s book, ‘Town Life in Australia’ (1883) talks of the Victorian game as being superior to other footy codes, of a parliamentarian who only has his seat because of his footy prowess, of “the upper and middle classes who still have a holy horror of football as a dangerous game” (pg 206) and ultimately about the Victorian game’s popularity being ten times in excess of any other code.

    Footy has meaning built largely on how the Australian character was developed, at least for that blistering period in the second half of the nineteenth century. I’ll let Dave Warner, an artist that spent his musical career trying to understand the Australian psyche, have the last word. From his song, Convict Streak: Maybe it’s because of our convict streak, we want to fight everyone we meet.


  13. On more important matters, how come Anna Harms has tipped 50 winners this season. The Handicapper has picked 46, while JTH has correctly selected 42. And you get the gig with Tatts Bet? Paid to tip mugs into losers no doubt.
    Can you give us any info on Anna’s methods? How the ducks line up in the bath tub? I am on 38 and need help (stop picking the Eagles would be a start, but I’ve fallen into them again).

  14. Excellent piece JTH.
    Malcolm the baboon from the AFL who said “pirouetted” was actually the baboon from the Herald Sun, Mark Robinson, who mis-quoted when the word “pivot” was used. “Pirouette” pushed everyone’s buttons because it’s a ballet term, a discipline where the participants are fitter than AFL footballers ironically, but don’t dispay the courage of AFL footballers.
    JTH, as a journalist yourself, you’re using highly emotional terminology like “courage”. I’m a bit over the use of the word “courage” in AFL. I heard Tim Watson talking about “fear” in football, which he said he never had, only when he watched replays would he wince at how close he came to danger. It’s courageous to us to see the physical danger footballers put themselves in, but football is instinctive (See ball, get ball) and courage implies knowledge of the danger beforehand. The best footballers don’t think before they put their head over the ball.
    Can’t tell you how many people have said that I am brave to do standup comedy, when the only fear I have is getting a normal job.
    Could be an Almanac debate on the cards?

  15. David Zampatti says

    The problem seems to be that no-one, not the MRP, not the tribunal, perhaps not even the appeals board (we await the explanation of their decision), certainly not the football commentariat ,or even the players, seem to understand what’s going on here.

    It’s all because of the word “accidental”, which has become a sort of blanket reference for anything short of a bloke coming up behind an opponent and king-hitting him.

    There’s the Fyfe Accident, which really should be called the Fyfe Unintended Consequence. Although that head clash was “accidental”, in that Fyfe had no intention of delivering it, he evertheless caused it by a deliberate action (his bump). So he’s guilty as charged, even though Y times out of X the head clash wouldn’t have occurred and his bump would have been fair, and, indeed admired (as, of course, Fyfe is).

    The Viney Accident, though, is quite different. The whole event was an accident, arising from the reasonable, indeed required, actions of the players involved. It wasn’t that Viney failed to consider the unintended consequence of his actions (as did Fyfe) – he was, in a sense, as innocent and helpless as the iceberg. It was the tides of football that put him in Lynch’s path, just like the North Atlantic Current put the iceberg in the Titanic’s. The only decisions Viney made were to follow the ball, try to stop when, suddenly, a collision with Lynch (who, himself, changed direction as he was being tackled) became inevitable, and then brace himself as that collision was about to occur.

    So, at the risk of labouring the point, the Fyfe head clash was an accidental result of a deliberate collision, while the Viney head clash was a result of an accidental collision.

    Accidental collisions are inevitable in football, because the bounce of the ball and the direction of players are not predictable. Unless we are now asking players to predict the unpredictable – in effect to do the impossible – they need to found to have no case to answer when those accidents occur.

  16. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Matty Q but I still think , Gleeson displayed no understanding or football common sense what so ever and we’ll put , Dave Z while I understand in this era of mummy decides what little johnny plays and also more and more litigation concerns it has overall become far too much a result of consequence not intention

  17. Peter Flynn says

    Deledio WTF?

  18. Dave Brown says

    Thought provoking, the best sort of footy writing! I actually have a fair amount of sympathy for our friends at the AFL, trying to demonstrate their intent to protect players’ heads in the lead in to a possible deluge of legal action by former players. At the same time they are competing with nostalgia – so many of us compare football in the present with an idealised memory of footy past. The AFL will never be able to measure up to that. What the AFL needs to do better is draw upon this spirit in supporters and, as you suggest, show they are in some meaningful way, beyond the business they are running, guardians of that legacy.

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