The Violence in our Hearts

There’s one in every finals series and this year it was “Boomer” Harvey. A contentious report. A star player off to the tribunal. The hopes and dreams of players, clubs and fans rest on the deliberations of the panel. The decision is greeted with massive angst or inordinate relief.

But in our obsessions with the judicial process and the effect the outcome has on our team’s fortunes, do we ever stop to consider that we’re talking about acts of violence and aggression. On the street, we wouldn’t be worrying about “high contact” and “low impact”. It would be an automatic arrest and conviction.

Violence in sport is a tricky subject.

Like it or not, we spectators are consumers of violent sport. At this special time of the sporting calendar, we’re expecting our heroes to put their bodies on the line, – literally. We owe it to ourselves to reflect on what this means.

It may reveal some disturbing and illogical attitudes. But that’s the point. Violence is inherently removed from logic and rational thought. It causes excitement and disgust, but almost never indifference.

Answer these questions – honestly:
• If you, like me, are planning to go to next year’s State of Origin Rugby League match in Melbourne, isn’t part of your anticipation of the match the prospect of a bit of Origin’s much-renowned “biffo”?
• Wasn’t your admiration of Mitchell Johnston last summer at least in part because he represented as much a threat to the batsmen’s heads and ribs as their wickets?
• Don’t we watch the endless processions of Formula One races secretly hoping for a massive stack that might transform the contest? Indeed, doesn’t the whole romantic attachment to F1 stem from the days where it was little short of carnage on wheels?

Like it or not, violence has been integral to sport for centuries. As a civilized society, we may no longer tolerate gladiatorial contests or bear baiting. But the promise of violence remains part of the allure of many sports. We can easily decry blatant acts of thuggery, but we are hypocritical to pretend that violence, or at least the prospect of it, isn’t part of why we keep clicking the turnstiles.

I freely admit, my answers to the above questions are, resoundingly, yes, yes and yes.

But here’s where, for me, it gets complex, contradictory and emotive.

Writers on this site regularly wax lyrical each May about their fun, frothies and betting exploits of the Warrnambool Grand Annual Carnival. But how often do you pause to reflect on the regular fatalities suffered by the horses forced over jumps at high speed for their casual entertainment? Personally, I find violence inflicted on animals in the name of “sport” repugnant. That animals are forced to endure the high risk of injury and death for the pleasure and potential enrichment of idle onlookers is, in my view, sickening.

I also draw the line at sports, such as boxing, where violence is its very objective. That boxing involves willing participants and is framed within a clear set of rules doesn’t alter the fact that its objective is to maim your opponent. I don’t care how much technical proficiency boxers demonstrate, nor how much “courage” (stupidity?) they show in entering the ring time after time. I gain no excitement from seeing two people attempting to beat one another to a pulp. I find it pointless and barbaric.

So it was that I found it more than a little weird when boxer, Danny Green, recently commented on radio about Richmond’s Reece Conca’s hit from behind on Devon Smith, lamenting the prominence the incident received and the poor message that the measly two match ban sent.

Fair enough sentiments, and I understand Green’s well-meaning public role in warning of the dangers of one-punch violence.

But, without in any way wishing to defend Conca’s actions, isn’t such moral outrage a tad hypocritical coming from a man who has made a living from a sport that legitimizes punching one’s opponent to the point of incapacitation, and which has a well-documented record of causing brain damage and death?

Green may think that because of his profession (if you call whacking blokes a “profession”), his criticism of one-punch street violence will be more powerful. I can’t agree. The point about one-punch violence is just that. One punch is all it takes to accidentally kill or disable, permanently. That applies in the ring and on the street. If Green wishes to make a persuasive anti-violence statement, perhaps he could renounce his chosen sport and donate his winnings to a charity supporting its victims.

So, having confessed that I find certain forms of violence in sport repellent, how can I still maintain that it is, in many cases, exciting and compelling?

To attempt to explain, I will focus on Australian Rules, as it is a sport in which, more than most, violence lurks constantly and tantalizingly in every collision, every tackle, every contest.

There are plenty of grey areas in assessing footy violence, but broadly, I see two forms – accidental and deliberate.

In fast-paced sports involving contact and collisions, the possibility of accidental violence is always there. Random, accidental violence is frequent, dramatic. It sways results and ends careers.

How we shuddered when at the peak of his form, Nathan Brown suffered that sickening leg-break. The cause was entirely innocent. An opponent diving across his leg in a smothering attempt. A standard play that happens dozens of times a game. Yet in that moment, a star player’s career and a team’s season were shattered as surely as the bones in his leg. Incredibly, Brown played again, but never recaptured the sublime form he displayed immediately before that injury.

Incidents as serious as Brown’s are, thankfully, rare. However, lesser instances of accidental violence occur every week. Take for example, Matthew Pavlich’s concussion sustained in the recent match against Carlton. It wasn’t particularly serious (Pav played the next week), nor was there anything untoward about the accidental elbow he copped. In fact, he was the aggressor, injured in the act of tackling his opponent. However, a split-second action like this ended his night and put an already struggling Freo forward line in grave danger of a critical loss. As a neutral observer, the incident added to the uncertainty and intrigue of an otherwise mundane contest.

So how do we rationalize acceptance of this violence when it is never pleasant to watch and is sometimes truly horrible?

I think we admire the contestants for willingly exposing themselves to such risks. We think less of them if those risks are reduced or removed. We show sympathy for the unlucky victims like Brown, but rationalize it as “part of the game”, without which it would be an inferior test of character. We squirm seeing the incident replayed again and again, in grisly slow motion, but watch anyway. The preceding words of warning for the squeamish serve only as greater enticement.
In short, we hate what happens but love that sport provides a stage in which we can legitimately watch it happen.

These days, professional bodies such as the AFL acknowledge their duty of care to protect players within reason from the inherent risks of playing the game. The players themselves are generally skilled and professional enough to apply physical pressure whilst minimising the risk of serious injury caused by body contact. Rule changes have helped this too, although sometimes at the risk of interfering with the traditional spirit of the game. For example, I howl in frustration when ball players are penalised for instinctively sliding in and bravely winning the footy, because of the rule designed to prevent accidental leg injuries.

However, offsetting all these safety measures are the ever-increasing pace of the game and the size of the bodies involved. I cannot help but think that at some point the League will have to deal with an injury that is permanently incapacitating (e.g. a paralysis) or life threatening (e.g. a brain injury) caused through nothing more sinister than an entirely legitimate collision of two large bodies.

As spectators, we need to admit that while we don’t want this to occur, its inherent possibility is partly what makes this sport so exciting. That’s a tough one to untangle.

Deliberate violence seems simpler to reconcile but it is also deceptively complex.

All sports to some degree test the self-discipline of contestants to strive within the rules when under duress. The temptation to resort to illegal tactics – sometimes violent ones – is always there, never more so than when one is provoked, fatigued or, through lack of skill, finding it difficult to gain supremacy within the rules.

I am deeply impressed by those who maintain their composure in such moments, as I know full well that I couldn’t. In one of my last attempts at playing football, I was sent off for trailing a leg and tripping my opponent who had dummied past me and was otherwise free to race up the ground. There was no malice intended. Fatigue and frustration caused me to do it, pure and simple.

Because I acknowledge how hard it is, I like to think that I am not too judgmental of contestants when they succumb to the temptation of going outside the rules. To me it affirms the essential human frailty that sport is designed to test. We may pillory a stupid or reckless act of violence but I like the confirmation that sport isn’t entirely dominated by robots.

In today’s AFL, the considerable improvement in these standards of behaviour is obvious. Teams getting well-beaten know they can’t try to distract their opponents by starting a fight or take out a star player. Thuggery and behind-the-play incidents perpetrated by the “colourful characters” of past eras are virtually non-existent.

It would be ludicrous to argue against this trend. And yet, there are enough semi-serious laments about the passing of the “good old days” to suggest that deliberate on-field violence is still seen as a tacitly accepted part of the Australian Rules culture. We might not like to acknowledge it directly, but its existence is apparent in every “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” comment made by past greats about their on-field exploits. Is the growing interest in suburban footy in part due to the greater prospect of some old-school “biffo” breaking out, which has been almost eradicated from AFL footy?

Interestingly, at a time when the League is keen (desperate, even) to present a squeaky-clean game, I see an alarming inconsistency in the (perfectly reasonable) clamping down on genuinely malicious acts and the (entirely unreasonable) tolerance of provocative acts of scragging, tagging and otherwise impeding players (usually top-class ball players) from playing the game.

A growing number of players in the competition are well-known for their suffocating tagging and provocative trash-talk, which have frustrated many star players to the point where one can only admire their restraint in not more regularly resorting to violent retribution. These are the modern-day “enforcers”, pushing fair play to the absolute limit.

On the one hand, these battles provide fascinating sub-plots. How will the latest target conduct himself? Will he simply surrender to the blanketing tactics and have no influence on the game? Will he work through them and overcome his tormentor? Or will he take the law into his own hands and whack the bastard?

On the other hand, if we are intolerant of deliberate violence, why should we tolerate such provocative tactics? Some would argue that this is part and parcel of the test of self-discipline that competitive sport provides. But if an inferior player cannot beat his opponent through lawful execution of physical skills and stamina, why should he be allowed to beat him through taunting, grappling and any other actions that are in no way connected to the task of getting the football?

If the umpire is not prepared to step in and penalise these tactics, why should we be surprised or outraged when a player resorts to violence in an effort to curb this nonsense. More pointedly, what right do we observers have to decry such violence when the game’s own law enforcers are happy to turn a blind eye to what has provoked it?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that when players do react violently to tagging tactics, the perpetrator will consider this a “win” of sorts, which will only encourage him to do it more, particularly when he comes up against the same opponent in future. Is this something we want to encourage?

There are no easy answers to the conundrum of violence in sport but it’s clearly a big issue for many, as evidenced by the endless arguments about the role and the fairness of the Match Review Panel or whether the Brownlow Medal should still be awarded to the “Best and Fairest”.

Whatever one’s views, I think we too easily forget the tightrope the players walk every week. Total physical commitment is expected, nay demanded, by coaches and supporters alike. When you play to the limit as a matter of course, a physical or mental lapse that results in accidental or even deliberate violence is always on the cards. No-one wants to see a player rendered comatose by a dog act. But in casting judgement on violent acts, we need to keep this in mind.

Here’s hoping for an injury-free weekend of finals footy – but may the contest be brutally hard.

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Cat from the Country says

    The answers to.your question is No No NO.????

    I abhor violence of any kind and I was more concerned about the message sent when no one was reported for holding Joel Selwood backwards, over the fence, with hands very close to, if not on his neck.
    How is this good football?
    How was this missed?

  2. Sam,
    I don’t watch footy to see people hurt. I don’t watch formula 1 to see crashes. I’ve seen enough documentaries and read enough books about the drivers to hope no one ever dies in a racing car again.
    I don’t want horses to get hurt.
    But I love boxing. I’ve often tried to explain my love and it comes down to this – boxing is the purest sport. No bat, no ball, just man on man. With fists. I don’t want to see anyone maimed or killed or hurt, but permanent damage happens to 70% of boxers. Why do they do it? Because the primitive nature of the human psyche loves it.
    And I disagree that Danny Green is the wrong advocate for one punch can kill. He is perfect for it. Who better to listen to than a boxer, about one punch causing damage?
    I applauded Green’s involvement. He is a boxer, not a coward puncher. Few boxers die from one punch. Most people who die in the nightclub precincts after being hit don’t die as a result of the punch, its because they are drunk and have no balance and the back of their head slams into the concrete footpath.
    That secondary blow kills them.
    Green was trying to convince men not to throw that first punch.
    As a purveyor of violence, his disgust at Conca had clout.

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