Channel 7 needs to get with AFL's non-violence program

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A mere six weeks into the regular AFL season, and already we have seen several displays of excessive on-field violence.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston contrasts commentators' view of friendly biff with reality of on-field violenceWhat's just as concerning as the incidents themselves is that despite the AFL's desire to stamp out the more dangerous incidents, many televised football commentators are hindering the cause by making excuses for players, playing down the severity of their actions, and failing to condemn them.

Arguably, as a society, Australia's tolerance for violence is waning, and both the AFL and the NRL have been proactive in diminishing the prevalence of deliberate and reckless violence that might endanger players' safety.

Since 2005 the AFL has utilised a points system to grade the severity of actions and punish those who, intentionally or not, have impacted the head of another player. Since 2011, players can be deregistered from the competition if they accumulate 16 weeks' worth of suspensions.

The NRL also categorise contact according to severity, with dangerous throws, high tackles, and head high contact the most serious. They too have 'carry over' points for repeat offenders and, following Paul Gallen's series of punches to the head of Nat Myles during a State of Origin match in 2013, introduced a one-strike policy, sending any player who lands a punch off the field immediately.

Though neither system is perfect, they send a clear message to players: if you make impact with a player's head, expect to be suspended. Continue to get suspended through the course of your career and risk being booted from the competition.

Yet troubling incidents continue to occur.

In round four of this year's AFL season, Stephen May of the Gold Coast Suns was suspended for five weeks after a sickening hip and shoulder to the head that left Brisbane Lions player Stefan Martin unconscious. The following week, Richmond Tigers defender Alex Rance was suspended for two weeks for a deliberate elbow to the head of Melbourne Demons forward Jack Watts.

 

"Last season, a head high bump by Western Bulldogs player Brett Goodes was described by Leigh Matthews as 'good, fair play', yet the AFL tribunal saw it quite differently."

 

Both May and Rance showed remorse. They accepted their suspensions, did little to defend their actions, and spoke remorsefully to the media, seemingly aware of the dire consequences that could easily have resulted form their actions. Asked if it was the lowest point of his career, Rance said it was, 'from a perspective of knowing better and knowing the person I want to be and the person I want to portray'.

What was disheartening though was the lack of condemnation from Channel 7 and Fox Footy commentators. 'Most uncharacteristic,' said one Channel 7 commentator of Rance's actions. 'That's just a man that's frustrated,' added former North Melbourne player Wayne Carey. 'He's tried his heart out all night, and it's just boiled over.' Carey speculated that Rance would only get a week's suspension. Rance ended up accepting a two-match ban, seemingly more aware of the severity of his actions than Carey.

And though the violent hit on Stefan Martin by Stephen May wasn't defended, neither was it strongly condemned by the Fox Footy commentators. 'A bad execution of the bump,' was commentator Jason Dunstall's assessment.

Last season too, a head high bump by Western Bulldogs player Brett Goodes was described by Channel 7 commentator and ex-footballer Leigh Matthews as 'good, fair play', yet the AFL tribunal saw it quite differently, deeming the action as 'rough' and 'high' contact and suspending Goodes for a week.

All this points to a growing divide between the AFL's view of physicality and that of those who call the game. Many commentators openly vocalise their disappointment with play they consider 'selfish' or 'lazy', yet say very little when it comes to violence.

Not that the AFL is entirely innocent. In round five a melee erupted between Geelong and Port Adelaide players — a brawl commentated with alarming fervour by Channel 7's Brain Taylor. Despite fining the players involved, the AFL still has a video of the melee on their website for fans' viewing pleasure.

The NRL too faces its own problems of on-field violence, possibly more so than the AFL, given the heightened physicality of the sport and the frequency of group tackles, which increase the potential for head and spinal injuries.

They're not helped by ex-footballers cum sports media personalities like Matthew Johns (stood down by Channel 9 in 2009 following his role in a sexual assault case) who lamented the decline of 'biff' through his skit character Reg Reagan throughout the 2000s. Once upon a time one could even own a 'Bring Back the Biff' T-shirt or hat as worn by Johns' 'comic' character.

Clearly fans of NRL and AFL don't want to see the 'tough' nature of either sport go, and there's little to suggest the kinds of impact that leaves players battered, bruised and winded will cease. It's just the AFL and NRL are keen to stamp out unnecessary and excessive violence, particularly if it has the potential to leave players concussed or even paralysed, as was the case with NRL player Alex McKinnon in 2014.

It's high time that the AFL in particular open up a dialogue with their broadcasters, and consider whether the values of their product are being supported by the vessels; the broadcasters.

Both leagues could consider raising the issue with Australian Communications and Media Authority who produce the Media Broadcasting Code of Practice, a code that despite having rules about the reporting of violent assaults has no such guideline for sports commentators and how they treat on-field violence.

As Rance said following his suspension, his hit was 'a ridiculous act, especially with the way society is going with one-punch hits'. It's about time commentators got with the program too.

 


Garry_WestmoreGarry Westmore is a Melbourne based writer. Follow him on Twitter @garrywestmore

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

 

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Topic tags: Garry Westmore, AFL, NRL, violence

 

 

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Existing comments

The community at large must not forget that one's violence during contact sport may also manifest itself when off the playing field!
Pongo | 01 May 2016


Excellent article. I too was appalled last weekend with the commentators' excuses for Rance after the deliberate elbow to the head after play had stopped. Football match or not, does that mean when we are all "frustrated", it's ok to revert to violence. Why is a football match any different to the stress and frustrations we all feel in every day life? In the same match and another in that round, they talked up the brawls that exploded during some of the breaks, saying how "we all love to see" these events and they make the game "more exciting". Really? I agree with the author that the commentators need to "get with it" not just with the AFL's non violence program but also the various other programs of non violence which society is trying to focus on especially violence against women, family violence and coward punching.
JL | 02 May 2016


If one watches AFL and NRL matches on TV one gets a clearer view of what is happening between players than spectators at the game, and, dare I say?, than the field umpires/referees. I agree wholeheartedly with what Garry has written, especially with regard to the commentators. Some of them were very rough players themselves in their playing days. One of them in the mid-80s broke the jaw of an opponent in an incident behind the play. These tough guys of previous years criticise umpires when they give 'letter of the law' free kicks. Let the game flow, they cry. He's play acting for a free, they declare, when a half-back is pole-axed after he has kicked the ball down field and the referee has missed what happened. I enjoy both AFL and NRL. They are games of skill and strength and speed. They make great television, which is why I watch with mute button on. I enjoy the game more without gratuitous comments from so-called legends of the game.
Uncle pat | 06 May 2016


some of the senior players, particularly Victorians, are skilled and slick at getting away with dangerous play.
Mary | 07 May 2016


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