As a sense of destiny begins to collect around the Parramatta Eels as the “it” team of the NRL, next season if not this, I watched highlights of their 1981-to-1983 premierships. Partly this was a nostalgic exercise in confirming that Brett Kenny was the most fluid, naturally gifted player to have graced the game, and that Eric Grothe was its greatest winger. (Answer to both: emphatically yes.)
The eye-opening discovery was incidental but more topical. What an unrelentingly violent game rugby league used to be. Most of it went unremarked; therefore, what a violent world it was we lived in.
What stands out in that old footage is that nearly every tackle contained a punch, thrown mostly but not always by the tackler. Eye-gouges, head-high shots, squirrel grips and plain straight rights: the game resembled a poetry festival – an organised street brawl punctuated by moments of artistic genius. All at a time when they said league had gone soft compared with previous days.
How we perceive and talk about violence has undergone a profound shift, perhaps the most significant change between those times and these. This week, violent play and its perception has been a headline issue in three codes. In league, Canberra’s Sia Soliola was suspended for five weeks for a late tackle that connected accidentally with Billy Slater’s head. In union, All Black Sonny Bill Williams will remain suspended until the Bledisloe Cup for an accidental contact with a British Lions player more than a month ago. And in the AFL, Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield has lost his chance to win the Brownlow Medal because of a rough tackle that accidentally caused Carlton’s Matthew Kreuzer’s head to hit the ground. Each punishment was excessive, demonstrating how confused the codes have become on the issue of violent play. In their justified campaigns against concussion, it’s as if the codes have collectively suffered a bad head knock. They’re not thinking straight.
In football, there is violence and there is violence. Rugby league’s era of ultra-violence was brought to an end by an escalation of sickening incidents. In 1982, Wests’ Bob Cooper ran 40 metres to join a punch-up and clocked three Illawarra Steelers. Society was changing: it was less inclined to forgive male violence. On suspending Cooper for 15 months, judiciary chairman Jim Comans said, “Acts such as these must be obliterated from the game, and I’ll begin by obliterating you.” Comans set about changing the game. In 1983, the Blues’ Les Boyd launched his elbow at Queensland’s Darryl Brohman’s jaw in an Origin match, and received a 12-month ban. In 1987, St George’s Steve Linnane was rubbed out for 20 weeks for blatantly eye-gouging Greg “Brandy” Alexander. (Future league television personalities received their critical reviews well in advance.) And in the early 2000s, Manly’s John Hopoate’s excesses, including his infamous “date rape” encounters with three Cowboys, signalled the death throes of the age of violence and the beginnings of one man’s career in private security.
The nature of on-field violence has since changed profoundly, as has the thinking on it. The codes seek to identify and punish it more and more, but understand it less and less.
Violent intent has diminished in football, to be replaced by the violence of physics: the bodies are bigger and move faster, the collisions are harder, but the skull has not evolved to grow harder or the brain more resistant. So the danger in playing these games has increased even while intentional violence has almost disappeared. Our knowledge of the long-term effects of concussion has advanced markedly, and the codes now market themselves to parents considering whether to let their children play. All of these factors are new. But the language of addressing ‘violent’ or ‘rough’ play remains stuck in the pre-1980s terms of deterrence and punishment.
Here’s the question. Which is worse, a fist on the end of the arm of an 80-kilogram player, thrown intentionally at the head? Or the shoulder of a 110-kilogram player, launched at the chest but accidentally hitting the head? If we are considering intention, obviously the former is worse. But they might have the same effect: a concussion. So the codes react to a legal act, which had unintended consequences, as if it is violent thuggery. Accidents are punished and publicised as if they are as horrendous as a Cooper/Linnane/Boyd/Hopoate assault.
When they should be thinking about deterrence, image-conscious codes have become obsessed with effect. Soliola should have been sent off for an act where he carelessly targeted an opposition playmaker. As Slater missed the rest of that match, so should Soliola. That would be a useful protection for playmakers. But a five-week suspension? Soliola only aimed to tackle Slater in the way that effective tackles are taught: upwards into the ball-carrying area of the body, using the shoulder and arm. The plastic edge of Slater’s boot slipped on the turf, causing him to fall, and Soliola’s tackle concussed him. Similar happened with Williams, when the opponent’s slip turned a legitimate tackle into a shoulder charge. With Dangerfield, a solid tackle with a good technique became an offence when Kreuzer’s head hit the turf. In none of these incidents was the intent violent, in the 1980s sense of the word. Yet the punishments have been disproportionate, and have no deterrent effect.
After Dangerfield’s suspension, will AFL tackles be taught and executed differently? Not a bit. His only crime was Kreuzer’s misfortune. So there is no deterrence. Likewise with the Soliola and Williams suspensions. Neither will cause any change in the way footballers are taught to tackle, because 99 per cent of such tackles are legal, effective and rewarded. The one per cent where the tackled player has slipped will not change that.
If they are not deterring footballers (and how can you deter an accident?), the highly-publicised suspensions are doing something else. They are more in the marketing business. They are trying to con parents into thinking these games are safe and will cause no damage to their children’s brains. The message is not we will deter violence or make the game safer. The message is that if an accident happens, we will find someone to blame.
Consider this. If you try to run someone over in your car and miss, you still go to jail for attempted murder. But in football, if you try to knock someone’s head off with a coathanger tackle and miss, nothing happens to you. Not even a penalty. Whereas if you try to do the right thing – drive under 40 km/h as it were – and happen to hurt someone because they slipped while crossing the road, then you go to jail, because for every victim, the authorities need a villain.
Something is not right there. The huge football suspensions of the 1980s deterred players from violence and changed the game’s culture. The suspensions of today’s accidental violators will not decrease the violence inherent in these games; all they will do is prompt players to take up religion or just hope they’re not unlucky.
The heaviest suspensions should be reserved for acts of violent intent. Dangerfield, or any other Brownlow Medal aspirant, should not be ruled out of contention for good play that had an accidental side-effect. Months-long suspensions for accidents serve no purpose other than to advertise an incoherent and hypocritical message. These sports encourage, reward and pride themselves on raising ever larger, ever faster human projectiles who throw themselves into harder and harder collisions. And yet when the inevitable accident occurs in those collisions and something looks bad, a scapegoat must be found.
Heavy suspensions for accidents make no sense. You cannot accidentally sprint across the field to deck three people. You cannot accidentally break a person’s jaw after running at them with your elbow. You cannot gouge your fingers repeatedly into an opponent’s eye or anus by accident. Serious suspensions should be reserved for real violence. Anything else is just advertising.