Dumb Courage

Is it time to re-evaluate the price our footballing gladiators are paying for glory?

The 1989 VFL Grand Final was pure carnage.  Recently departed coaching guru Allan Jeans (known by some as ‘Yoda’ for various inherent characteristics), exhorted his Hawthorn troops to ‘pay the price’ in a typically inspirational fable.  Meanwhile Geelong’s Mark Yeates planned to wipe out Dermott Brereton at the opening bounce, which he duly did.  ‘Dermie’ ignored the searing pain of broken ribs and a bruised kidney to be an integral part of a glorious triumph against adversity.  Meanwhile, teammate ‘Dipper’ ploughed on, despite a punctured lung, in a team struggling with 15 fit men by the game’s dramatic conclusion.

This match will forever be an AFL benchmark for bravery.  Despite what League supporters may say about Australian Rules, the game has an ingrained culture where the ache of a broken jaw is nothing compared to the indignity of  ‘dogging’ a contest.  Enduring pain is not negotiable, as Jeans’ contemporary John Kennedy contended ‘injuries above the neck don’t count’.

Legendary soccer manager Bill Shankly’s famous old quote that football isn’t a matter of life and death – that it is ‘much, much more important than that’ articulates a mentality that endures, despite the fact today’s enlightened pros enjoy incomes and lifestyles where you’d think self preservation would be rated a little more highly.

However, fans are historically uncompromising, even more so now in light of these unprecedented incomes and lifestyles.   Not only will they never forget, the media and most club insiders are quick to cross a player’s card with a big black mark of shame.  Lose the game and undoubtedly the incident will be the defining moment when things went to pot, and possibly other repercussions for the ‘shirker’.

Brisbane Lions captain Jonathon Brown’s stands among Glenn Archer and Gavin Brown in terms of the most courageous players of the modern era.  In this season’s first round, Brown suffered horrendous facial injuries that required six titanium plates, screws and wire to repair his face, and a six week layoff.  Leading AFL medico Dr Peter Larkins said the damage was consistent with a car crash victim.

Then, some weeks after his return, Brown, as always, unflinchingly went where angels fear to tread and again copped another busted face.  The collision could be described as an interpretive dance version of nuclear fusion.  As a pack of players simultaneously jumped to contest a mark, Brown ran with the flight of the ball and caused almighty fallout.  Four players lay sprawled on the turf.  Brown was out before he hit the deck, a blow so horrifying almost the entire medical team went to the triple premiership player’s aid.  Poor Mitch Clarke, in enormous pain, was left alone to gradually drag himself to his feet, Rocky style.

The two Geelong players were momentarily dazed and confused.  Brown’s opponent, Tom Lonergan, actually risked his life, for he’s operated on one kidney since 2006, losing so much blood in a collision he nearly became the AFL’s second ever game related fatality (Collingwood’s Charles Ahearn after an infected broken arm suffered in the 1929 Grand Final).

When the incident occurred deep in the third term, the game was in the balance.  The Lions responded with a couple quick goals but were swamped in the last quarter.   Not only did Brown take out his side’s best player (himself), he also rendered a key teammate all but useless.

Back in 2002 Brown was awarded ‘Mark of the Year’ for taking a grab in similar circumstances.  Interestingly, in what might be a watershed moment, the accepted notion of what constitutes courage on the football field was questioned.

Former Essendon star full forward Matthew Lloyd has become a respected straight shooter in the media.  He dared to address the elephant in the room – that Brown’s action was bordering on “stupidity”.  Others also questioned whether his approach needed modifying, although by and large the ex-footballer media contingent tended towards there being no halfway house.  Besides, without the element of danger and unquestioned commitment the game is predicated upon, what becomes of the entertainment spectacle?

Of course there are all types of courage required to succeed in the various contact codes of footy.  Courage to overcome disabilities, injuries, professional setbacks, personal or family struggles and tragedy – the list goes on.

But in terms of bravery and courage on the actual football field – that is accepting yet still ignoring the prospect of personal grievous bodily harm – is Lloyd correct in effectively drawing a new line as to say ‘it’s just not worth it’ for the sake of (possibly) winning one contest within one game?  Sure, in Brown’s case, his action came naturally. Nevertheless, there were safer options available.

More and more American gridiron players are suffering horrendous post-career effects due to repeated head trauma, leading to outcomes such as drug dependency, alcoholism, mood swings, depression and even suicide, as in the recent case of former champion Dave Duerson.  They’ve even created a ‘brain bank’ dedicated to studying some 50 casualties of football who’ve either ended their life or died in violent circumstances. Most have essentially acquired the punch drunk syndrome ‘‘dementia pugilistica’’ once thought only the domain of boxers.

Aussie Rules is an unusual game.  Whilst the rugby codes and American football’s courage is to see the freight train coming and to go anyway, AFL players occasionally find themselves crossing the tracks blind folded.

Thankfully the type of king hit which nearly claimed the life of Collingwood star John Greening in 1972 have all but been eradicated.  However the field of battle is shared by players as small as Kangaroos’ pocket rocket Brent Harvey (172cm/76Kg) and as large as Fremantle behemoth Aaron Sandilands (211cm/122kg).  Players are fitter and faster and going at it harder.  Record attendances and viewing audiences clearly demonstrate the game is Australia’s favourite spectator sport, and former champions of the unhinged ‘70’s contend that players are more courageous than ever.

But clubs are now facing negligence suits for failing their duty of care.  And the AFL is well aware of the rising price of ‘courage’ and have acted accordingly to balance the competing desires of safety and spectacle.  Despite the sanitisation of the rules and hefty penalties for anything approximating biffo or dangerous, reckless front-on contact, the game still occasionally produces sickening collisions over and above the standard buffeting.  And players don’t help when they exploit rules designed to prevent them winding up in a wheelchair in order to win cheap free kicks.

Of course no one forces footballers to cross the white line, and the elite are well remunerated.  But the split second decision to stay or go, to turn their body or not, has become a fraught nightmare for players.  The expectation of the AFL’s judiciary, coaches, the media and fans to stay within the realm of unmitigated courage, but not beyond the bounds of recklessness, will continue to cause headaches.

Jonathon Brown is an old school warrior, and like kindred spirit Glenn Archer, will probably just brush off his 2011 annus horribilis as an “an unlucky streak”.  After all, his reputation is self fulfilling and difficult for his ilk to shed.  Hopefully Brown (and for that matter Tom Lonergan) don’t become cautionary tales.  And maybe players who in future baulk at ‘the price’ won’t be castigated for realising they’re not much use to their team sitting in the grandstand.  Or much use to their families or themselves beyond the final siren.

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