What it Was

What it Was

There’s unsociable football and then there’s unsociable football, and on Saturday night two Hawks players crossed that line. They are now taking their medicine. Lewis copped two weeks on the bench, Hodge copped three. It has been reported that both players apologised to their team at the first quarter break, unreservedly. Hodge has spoken with and apologised to Swallow, both following the match and a couple of days later. Swallow and Goldstein, the players on the receiving end, were none the worse for wear after the incidents. So, that’s settled then, nothing to see here, move along. If only.

Man how quickly we footy folk don the Judge Judy robes. We just can’t wait to pull our pants up well above our belly line and get on with pronouncing. Before the dust had even settled they were labelled thugs. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The action may have been undisciplined, unprovoked, and unedifying, that I’ll begrudgingly concede. But does the action define the individual, the team, the game?

On Saturday night the Hawks smashed the Roos. They ran rings around the team that finished fourth on the ladder last season. It wasn’t Lewis’ and Hodge’s momentary brutish behaviour that won the game. It was the Hawks skill. And speed. And smarts. And tied up in a bundle that’s what we call teamwork. For 119 minutes that was what the Hawks displayed. For less than a minute you saw the underbelly of the beast. What we once called mongrel.

I don’t mind a bit of mongrel. Sure, it’s always one beat away from an elbow shove such as Hodge made. It’s also one beat away from a bloodied fighter’s no surrender approach to winning, such as Hodge against St Kilda in the 2008 Preliminary Final. Mongrel, single-minded, tough as, hard-nut, relentless, courageous. The descriptions are not unrelated. They describe Hodge. And Lewis. Yes, another strand of mongrel leads to thug. Yes, Lewis was at one point in his footy career veering down that path. It isn’t how I would describe his game of the last few years. He has been in career best form in the last two years.

A salutary story, albeit, totally unrelated, can be found in George Pelecanos’ novel, What it Was, set in Washington 1972. Red Fury “doesn’t care who he has to cross, or kill, to get what he wants. As the stakes get higher the violence escalates …”. This is one rollicking ride of a read, as Red, his woman Coco, and his accomplice mire themselves further and further into a deep dark hell and then some. When they are almost certainly at the end of the line they shrug their shoulders and while laying on some skin, Red says, “what it was brother, what it was”. Come to think of it, this is a terrible analogy.

It happened. Hodge and Lewis can’t make it unhappen. They take the bad with the good. Acknowledge the mistake and move on. Actually, a better analogy, again tenuous as, is in 50’s US entertainer, Andy Griffiths’ most famous stand-up routine, called, ‘What it was, was football’.

The routine centres on a preacher, ignorant of Gridiron, stumbling upon an American football game. He is the innocent, watching something that is meaningless to him. He thinks the umpires are convicts because of their uniform. The best he can make of this violent and meaningless activity is that one group of men chase another group who carry a “pumpkin”, intent on hurting the hell out of them, before the team with said pumpkin plant it at one end of the cow paddock. The routine has Andy Griffith retelling this weird story to his brethren. He concludes: what it was, was football.

There is a truth in the routine we cannot escape from no matter how much icing we put on the narrative. Footy is many things. It is about extending the body’s capabilities in the search for great accomplishment; natural talent pushed to the limit. It is also violence personified. The ‘great accomplishments’ narrative is disrupted (the truth exposed) when the ‘courageous’ Hodgey strikes without reason or when two random incidents of violence occur within ten minutes. This disruption forces us to confront the ‘red-headed step-child’ we have denied belongs to the family (so to speak). Footy is a contact sport played at a relentless pace with the stakes increasing at the same pace.

Consider this: one of the most admiral actions in this sport is called a shirt front. And this: war imagery is readily borrowed to describe the action. And what about this: deep down, we don’t mind the players going the biffo.

Rather than reflect on our own desires and a truth that’s entwined with the heart of the game we attempt to contain the narrative to skills and speed and smarts. But the game is violent and the player is driven. Every now and then those elements, ever present, actually present. They disrupt the carefully manicured narrative and then we react almost as if we are part of the script. We stomp and holler, we are outraged, call it thuggery and demand justice and retribution. And we get what we think we want. Loudly and assuredly, we pronounce, if that’s football, it’s not what it is today but what it was. Me, I’m not quite so sure.

About Rick Kane

Up in the mornin', out on the job Work like the devil for my pay But that lucky old sun has nothin' to do But roll around Heaven all day


  1. Dave Brown says

    Yep, must admit that instinctively I like the biff, Rick – a baser instinct.

    I started off in the judgey school assuming that it was part of a deliberate strategy to unsettle North Melbourne, as Hawthorn have employed against them in the past. In hindsight, clearly neither player was instructed to do that. In a split second they made the incorrect decision and are now paying for it.

  2. neilbelford says

    Very confused Rick – kind of thing I expect a priest hears in confessional. I’m sure you meant something here, just not sure what it is :-)

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    We’re the acts dumb and undisciplined yes are they thugs or hit me no far from it
    move on thanks,Rick

  4. RK – it wasn’t dirty dog Lewis and Hodge who baffled me this past week, it was the 3 weeks given to May at Gold Coast. Now I’m completely confused.

    Dirty Dogs Lewis and Hodge behave like this annually, don’t they?

  5. Andrew Starkie says

    Rick, Trucker Slim? Is he your man crush? Do you have a thing for truckers?

    Anyway, Hawks too good last week mate. Tough, relentless, polished, drilled. North had a crack, but just weren’t good enough.

    Not that angry towards your boys going the knuckle. Maybe they wanted the week off to go the races at the ‘bool.

  6. Hodge and Lewis reminded me of how Hawthorn played in the seventies and eighties when men like Leigh Matthews and Dermot Brereton and Bertie Dipierdomenico routinely belted people (insert other names here).
    It might’ve been part of the game back then but I hated it, because it showed absolutely no respect or sportsmanship.
    There is nothing tough in what Lewis and Hodge did. I’ve never respected actions like that.
    For all their attributes, they belted opposition players like their predecessors.
    I’ve argued this week that those actions do have a psychological impact on sides. Mentally tough sides respond. North didn’t.
    I would hate for something like that to happen in a grand final, which is what Leigh Matthews did the North players, particularly Keith Greig and Malcolm Blight in the seventies.
    It’s football, what it was…

  7. The Wrap says

    You’re perfectly right Rick. The Game’s always been hard. From what I’ve read and from what I’ve heard from my Folks & Uncles & Aunts, it was ritualized violence. In the good old days. That’s why the Brownlow was called The Fairest & Best; to honour the fairest player who played the ball, not the man. I’d hate to see it go back to those days, as romantic as it may seem from 2015. What makes the actions of Hodge & Lewis more distasteful is their leadership position, both within the club and as the public face of the club. Life imitates Football, eh?

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