It’s time to stop pretending in Australia in the twenty-first century that an assault on the football field is anything other than a criminal act. No, I’m not speaking about a bone-crunching tackle in the spirit of the game but a deliberate act of violence that has nothing to do with going for the ball or tackling an opponent.
In Australia where harmony, diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness is preached it’s time to conclude that young men who play football for pleasure and in some privileged cases for huge money have no right to punch someone within an inch of their life, without the same sanctions and penalties that any member of the general public is exposed to.
The past two weekends of Australian Rules football have graphically captured these most disturbing, disgraceful and incredibly violent acts.
These were not the acts of so called street hooligans, louts, or gangs, but the acts of highly paid professionals in the sports industry; two of who get paid to play and an administrator at the highest level. Sports people whose wages sit in the upper echelons of Australian incomes.
I love Australian Rules football. It’s been in my DNA since the day I was born.
As a footy tragic, as a supporter, as an okay player to my early twenties, throw in a couple of years umpiring and as a past director of Fitzroy footy club, I was involved in many aspects of the game.
But I have always abhorred the unmitigated violence on the field.
As a then 11-year-old St Kilda supporter I was at Moorabbin in July 1972 when Collingwood’s John Greening was callously felled behind play. I recall vividly the extraordinary long delay before play resumed and the pall that enveloped the ground when it was understood what had happened to Greening. I may have ‘hated’ Collingwood but who could hate Greening the player. He was a star. And on that day his wonderful career effectively was over. Only by some miracle did he actually survive.
Those were the so-called tough days but a man nearly died.
Let’s examine this a bit further.
If a bloke whacks a bloke in the head in a dispute about a car park spot or outside a pub when too much grog has been drunk and knocks him out he is arrested, goes to court and is likely found guilty, with a conviction, a suspended sentence or jail term imposed.
If the person dies and the assailant found guilty it is at least manslaughter and jail. A 10-year mandatory sentence applies in Victoria under one punch mandatory sentencing.
In the AFL two players with single punches, Houli and Bugg, were found guilty and sentenced in the case of Houli to eight hours away from his active workplace and Bugg 12 hours. In the case of AFL administrator Fahour his local league footy case awaits him and his professional career hangs in the balance.
Are these sentences fair or reasonable? Highly paid professionals receive an eight-hour sentence and a 12-hour sentence for doing what could attract a jail term if done off a football field?
And how do football commentators analyse this? That one player deserves a four-week suspension, the other six! Go figure. Yet had the same one punch happened to one of their children outside of the field one would imagine that the call for justice would be much, much harsher, with complaints of wanton violence and the lack of safety and security in our society.
And God forbid if any of these young assaulted footy players had died, what then? In the case of the professional employed AFL players, would that be manslaughter? One punch! Would the police get involved? Would it be industrial manslaughter as it happened in a workplace that was clearly unsafe? Would the directors and officers of the club be criminally liable?
John Greening’s wonderful life of football was destroyed yet St Kilda player Jimmy O’Dea received a 10-week suspension or 20 hours away from his workplace. Greening never properly recovered.
In 1985 Lethal Leigh Matthews broke the jaw of Geelong’s Neville Bruns and found himself deregistered by the league for four matches. Matthews was also charged by police. Quoted in 2013 he said it was a ‘great mystery’ why the police ‘plucked this one incident from the many potential assaults that have occurred on football fields over the decades’.
The first and only time in AFL-VFL history the police became involved. It’s a mystery that there has not been more involvement of the police, that the community has not demanded it, that governments around the country have not yet stepped in and said enough is enough.
The number of football players punched in the head on the weekend through random acts of adrenaline fuelled violence is probably far greater than that which happens outside or inside pubs and venues fuelled by alcohol or drugs on any Friday or Saturday night. Everyone will have a memory of some such act in the AFL.
As a young doctor working in casualty I often saw the deadly effects of such violence, however it happened.
But what’s the difference? The football world simply says ‘there-there naughty boy, have a rest for a few hours’ from your sport whether for work or for pleasure.
How can there be a standard today where football violence that applies penalties, which outside of the footy field would likely be treated far more harshly under the criminal justice system?
Houli and Fahour have been great role models for their community teaching and preaching tolerance, faith, inclusiveness, harmony and getting well paid. Bugg is one day cheekily tweeting, and having fun.
But the next day they all exposed people to potential life-threatening catastrophes.
The young men, one a father of small children, who were assaulted and knocked out did not deserve it. What ongoing effects will this have on them in the future?
One punch violence is a criminal act. One punch footy violence needs to be treated exactly the same.
Henry Pinskier is Chairman of the John Curtin Research Centre.
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