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When life and death break into the game


Cover of The Short Long Book by Martin Flanagan

The proper response to the death of Adelaide AFL coach Phil Walsh at the hands of his son, is one of silent compassion. A father has lost his life. A mother has lost her husband, a sister her father, and have gained the knowledge that their son and brother killed him.

We can feel for them, include them in such prayer and hope we are given, but words adequate to describe the loss do not come easily.

Greek tragedies on similarly horrific themes evoked terror and compassion.  They took their audiences into silence, beyond easy response. But before silence the tragedians had to struggle to find appropriate words.

Sometimes people who work in football and other professional sports also need to find words to speak of tragedies.  That is inherently difficult because popular sport is an image of life and mimics life in its words. Games become a matter of life and death; players are variously warriors, artists and workers; clubs are nations and tribes, with their initiation ceremonies, their elders, their flags and their economy.  They flourish, they fall ill, they recover their health.  Some, such as South Sydney, even die and return to life.

Because football and other large sports are an image of life, they are safe spaces in which loss is never final and youth is never lost. Words come without cost, with no need for exactitude. But occasionally, as in the death of Philip Hughes and Phil Walsh, real life breaks into the image. Death and horror have to be grappled with. When only easy words lie at hand, they find expression in language that is a little archaic and sacral. People are slain or sacrificed; they are victims. Their lives are described as a battle or a struggle.  

Others will find words to emphasise that, although an image of life, sports are not divorced from life. They have the resources to deal with whatever life brings. Like the military, they form the character required to face tragedy. Sport is so important in the community that clubs are prepared to shoulder the burden that tragedy lays on it.  

All these words reach towards connection, towards understanding. If they often seem hollow or over-reaching, it is because the abrupt intersection of life and its sporting image is so disorientating.

The difficulty of finding words that do justice to life when it breaks into sport is also central to a recent book by Martin Flanagan. He is consistently one of the best sports writers because he is interested in the way in which sport intersects with life, and focuses on its personal, relational and broadly political aspects, not merely on the celebrity or corporate aspects.

In The Short Long Book his subject is Michael Long, the Essendon footballer who once  took John Howard to task for minimising both the enormity of the Stolen Generation (of whom Long’s father was one) and the importance of symbols of reconciliation. He also demanded that the AFL respond seriously to racial abuse after he was abused in a game, and in 2004 to Canberra to persuade the Prime Minister to listen to Indigenous Australians. He brought the world of Indigenous Australians into sport, and from football – particularly from his coach, Kevin Sheedy – learned skills of leadership needed to change the world.  

Words do not come easily to Flanagan in this book. It is short because Long is a man of very few and very carefully measured words. Football was the way in which he expressed himself and connected with the world. He did not answer phone calls, answered questions with silence or turned them back to the questioner, but did not disengage.  

The book starts with Flanagan pursuing Long to describe what it has means for life and football to intersect. He has the words, the idiom of the Outer rather than of the press gallery.  But in their encounter the adamantine Long constantly frustrates the use of words. He leads Flanagan to places where he might see and to people through whose eyes he might understand. The centre point of the book is a shared journey from southern Australia to Darwin and the Tiwi Islands, visiting places and people to which Long is ancestrally connected and known through football.  

Most writers work by amplification, filling out their ideas and rounding the structure.  This book is a work of stripping. It stammers, goes down cul de sacs and takes detours. In it the hunter becomes the hunted and cared for. The climactic event in which the two men meet on common ground is comic and totally unscripted. Flanagan is invited by Long to shoot hunt geese.  Despite his best efforts to miss, he shoots one down. So it is with words.

When life breaks into an image world it is wild and disturbing. It cannot be caught by easy words, only through persistence in silence.  Before the AFL games that followed the killing of Phil Walsh the spectators and players stood in silent respect. That said all that could be said.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, sport, death, ritual, biography, Phil Walsh, Philip Hughes



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Existing comments

What does it profit a man to gain praise and adulation from all the sporting clubs in the land if he loses his life in an act of patricide.

Paul | 08 July 2015  

Martin Flanagan, I think, even more than his brother Richard, is the Australian writer who cuts deepest after Australia's character and possibility; his work is always fascinated by people and their grace under duress. His book THE GAME IN TIME OF WAR is the best book I have ever read about sport and culture.

Brian Doyle | 09 July 2015  

Silence in a world of empty noise is a powerful sacramental moment.

Graham Warren | 09 July 2015  

Andrew, this is one of the finest pieces of writing I have seen from you. Thank you.

David B | 09 July 2015  

Hi praise indeed by Brian Doyle. On your statement Brian I will read it.

Patricia Taylor | 09 July 2015  

A comment from one of the Adelaide club officials suggested the flipside/irony of this tragedy - that a football club is the best place to be when confronted with such a tragedy... similarly, even my thoughts concurs with silence as a way of understanding this.

AURELIUS | 09 July 2015  

This is one of the great reviews.

Peter Goers | 09 July 2015  

Andrew, thank you for this thoughtful reflection. You are a most valuable gift in a society that struggles to express what lies beneath the surface.

Kevin Bates | 09 July 2015  

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