Issue 5, Sem 2
In the wake of the gruesome jaw injury suffered by Fremantle’s Andy Brayshaw, I’m reminded of footy’s culture of violence. When I say that, I’m referring specifically to the useless shoving, pushing, bumping, and punching that carries on throughout every game, oftentimes during dead-ball scenarios or away from the play. Don’t get me wrong, the elite level of every contact sport becomes a battleground. There are going to be some violent plays and penalties, and there are going to be some players who enforce their will on others. It’s pretty much par for the course. That being said, the level of violence in footy that falls outside actual gameplay is stunning.
While I respect and enjoy footy at its finest, I think it’s completely reprehensible that the sport allows a barrage of cheap shots for 80 minutes, game-in and game-out. Why? Because it creates an atmosphere ripe for further conflict. It creates situations where we’re all but assured a player will cross the line and hurt someone.
I’ve heard the story that West Coast's Andrew Gaff intended to punch Brayshaw in the chest, not the face. Whether you believe that or not, it’s a pretty comedic excuse in isolation. Your excuse for breaking someone’s jaw is that you were trying to break their sternum? Not sure I’m on board with that defence.
In any case, it seems likely that if you allow players to punch each other in the chest, some percentage of those punches are going to veer off course. If you allow players to throw elbows into each other, it seems likely someone will eventually break a rib. If you allow a culture of violence to grow beyond the normal jostling of sport, it seems likely someone will take it too far. When your adrenaline starts pumping it’s not so easy to toe the line.
Whenever I watch footy I’m reminded of Canada’s favourite pastime: ice hockey. Footy and hockey have a lot in common. They have similarly obsessive fan bases, are team sports, fast paced, and undoubtedly violent. Instead of tackling, hockey has body-checking. Instead of what I think of as footy’s cheap shots. hockey has actual fighting. Now at first glance hockey looks to be the more violent sport. It allows (to a certain extent) actual fist fights. Personally I think it’s an embarrassment to the sport, but I also think it’s more honourable than what footy allows.
If you watch hockey you come to understand that fights are more or less scheduled events. There are definitely exceptions, but the majority of fights contain two adults consciously deciding to throw down. They drop the gloves, throw a few haymakers, the referees break it up, and everyone gets two minutes in the sin bin. It’s more like entertainment and machismo than an attempt to hurt someone. It also often crops up as a result of some perceived slight suffered during gameplay. Compare that to footy, where elbows are being thrown even before the game has begun.
To reiterate, I enjoy footy; I think it’s a great sport. I also know there is a legitimate place for physicality in sport, especially at the elite level. However, I find it entirely hypocritical that the AFL allows, and on some level promotes, violence in the sport, only to turn its back on players when they cross the fine line of ‘acceptable’ violence. If we want to prevent events like the Brayshaw injury from happening, the AFL has to crack down on the useless physicality that is seemingly embedded in footy. If we want to have a violent sport, let’s stop acting so outraged when that culture of violence reaches its logical conclusion.