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Sporting violence in Oz: the acceptable vice

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 7 August 2009


Ya should have just dropped one on Hodges’ chin Benny! Now, that would have been good to see! Hodges knocked out bigtime. Posted comment, Illawarra Mercury, July 17, 2009.

Australia was once known as recipient of the doomed and the hard done, the “fatal shore” considered worse than getting your neck twisted at the end of a rope. Violence has featured eminently on the harsh continent, and the pioneering types that forged a colony in the antipodes did not neglect sport in their rough habitat. In time, Australians, acknowledging their imperial, British roots, took over some of the most brutal sports in the world.

As in war, sporting codes of conduct were developed with the strength of watered down beer, and the popularity of international treaties. No one really wanted it, treating the codes as means of avoiding good conduct. (More laws do make their breach irresistible.) Cricket seemed an aberration, its gentlemanly ethos ill-fitting to brash, thunder-bolt throwing bowlers and bludgeoning batsmen. Australian interpretations sort to correct that in time.

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Sport is one domain of human endeavour which has made the Australian citizen shine with violent, if corrosive force. Along with other specific cultures which tolerate the macho dispensation, the pursuit of brutality has proven rampant, often encouraged at stages in Australian history. Titanic struggles end up with mashed faces, unconscious players and broken bones, all considered to the good. The games of Australian Rules and the Rugby codes are muscular delights to behold, not processes of erratic behaviour to be punished. At least, this is the lament issuing from the fan, some commentators and the odd “shock jock”. Everyone else must simply be a namby-pamby, effete. Let the boys sort it out on the park, regulated only by a phantom code of “mateship”.

Crowd complicity is also a factor that some have chosen to ignore when casting an eye on violence in Australian sport. Historically, the Australian spectator was happy to muck-in with a bit of unruliness. Idol and spectator bonded through their players, a vicarious identification which led to considerable instances of crowd control. Some research on the subject of Australian sport prior to 1850, notably on such enclaves as Sydney, suggest the presence of much savagery, while unruly crowd behaviour at such venues as the Sydney Cricket Crowd have proven enduring. What is curious is the suggestion by researchers on the subject that violence was more “acceptable” then than now. “Sport reflected the values of a violent colonial society,” argues Richard Cashman in a study on crowd violence from 1992 published by the Australian Society for Sports History.

While violence may be frowned upon by the rule maker, it thrills, providing an excited release. In so doing, it becomes an attribute that is normalised, even celebrated. Rugby commentators can barely contain themselves after a State of Origin stoush that leaves players unconscious. This was particular the case last month in the last match of that series. While the site of an unconscious Maroons player Steve Price “sickened” Rebecca Wilson of The Daily Telegraph, it wasn’t “like Price didn’t have a serious crack himself” (July 18, 2009). Others “who should know better” were just engaging in a “big fat whinge”. Answers to one of Yahoo’s posted questions, “Who else loved the Biff in State of Origin 3” struck a note of glee. “I loved the biff too. Always do”. Others wished it had started earlier.

Individuals like Australian League Footballer Barry Hall do not so much receive punishments as honourable discharges. Parades are given in their honour much like services for the fallen. In terms of criminal accusations, evidence is often insufficient to land convictions. This is particularly so in sexual offences. It is not unusual to see offences against women diminished before a “mate’s code” of honour. A most peculiar case of this was that of the one-time favourite of the AFL, Wayne Carey, who was disgraced less by the sexual assault of a woman standing outside a nightclub than by his sexual adventures with a friend’s wife in 2002. The honour code between “mates” is cast in biblical stone.

Many of Australia’s sports personalities remain cogs in a wheel which has been greased by the message of violence for decades. This has rarely shifted. Through the 1970s and 1980s, violence in rugby league was unsanctioned. Hovering above the sport was a generally accepted attitude that the violent burst, the incident of explosive behaviour on, and in some cases off the field, was somehow permissible.

Some put it down to a distasteful adulation for the sports personality. “Unfortunately,” claimed sports psychologist Jeff Bond in early 2007 when asked to comment on the Canterbury Bulldogs romp in 2007, “we idolise athletes and the athletes don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.” That’s putting it mildly. The try, the goal, the victory cleanses, acting as something of a purification rite. Players like the drug-addicted Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins see themselves as victims of heroic failure - great footballers will also dally in great fits of drug taking and violent releases. The hero will fall, succumbing to his tragic imperfections. He shall continue to be adored.

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The problem has never quite disappeared. In 2007, players from the Canterbury Bulldogs amused themselves with a 20-year-old. The year before that, a 42-year-old woman had also pressed charges that she had been the victim of a group sexual assault in that same hotel. Such activities are often seen as a tribal excess, the results of over-eager “bonding”. The girl is merely an incidental sacrifice. In this, Australia’s rugby representatives share the booze-filled bed with their sporting colleagues in other codes, whether they be in American basketball or Britain’s premier-league footballers. The latter, incidentally, use the term “roasting” for group conquests of the female sex.

No violent manner can continue unsanctioned for long. Even in Australia, the popularity of sports will, and has suffered. Australian sports researchers have shown, notably in such contact sports as rugby, that limitless violence will disillusion and dismay. Parents will encourage children to switch codes. The ranks of one sport will be thinned in favour of less brutal endeavours. In the end, the sporting fraternity may just have to accept that, when it comes to numbers, the cleansing effect of a good biff on the sporting field may not be well liked. Even acceptable vices have their limited uses.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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