Beyond the Parklands

It’s difficult to comprehend why our land of plenty is so bedevilled by cowardly acts of violence.

As much as we’d like to expunge the perpetrators from our thoughts, there’s a curious fascination to behold.  Commonly, childhoods shaped by abuse, trauma, drug/alcohol dependence, indoctrinated prejudice or mental afflictions serve to confuse us with a burden of sympathy, however scant.  If only effectively dealing with them was as black and white as the damning CCTV footage captured at the local train station, pub or convenience store.

Nor can one easily fathom what compels healthy young people, fortunate enough to be engaged in competitive recreational pursuits, to commit deliberate acts of brutality.  If the presence of police, security and extensive surveillance networks cannot stop stupidity on the streets, then it’s naïve to believe sport can totally rid itself of the same.  After all, the type of person prone to instinctively lashing out isn’t necessarily averse to passing or kicking around the pigskin, wielding a hockey stick or strapping on the gloves.  Conversely, whilst sport can offer a vehicle to occupy and transform the anti-social, there lies opportunities for otherwise ‘great blokes’ to vent life’s frustrations with gratuitous force.

Athletes operate and abide within, but also in a make believe realm that runs parallel with everyday life.  A faux war, too long invoking a primitive belief that winning justifies collateral damage along the way.  Whether the protagonists are playing for sheep stations or sheep droppings, the white line does curious things to people.  As already alluded to, the privilege granted athletes is sometimes a stark contrast to that of their upbringing.   A mental disorder germinating in childhood or imbedded in the DNA can serve as a loaded gun.  So too can drugs, personal financial or relationship pressures or performance anxieties, especially as age diminishes capacity and frustration leads to anger.

But rather than ignore the root causes, administer punitive action or push unhinged players out of a club structure and onto the streets, if there was a better response to valid mental concerns, it would seem to be a positive development for both the afflicted and potential victims.

The genetically and biologically derived Intermittent Explosive Disorder is characterized by extreme expressions of anger disproportionate to the situation at hand, often to the point of uncontrollable rage.

Not uncommon and occasionally mistaken for bipolar, IED is frequently accompanied by a sense of relief, and in some cases, pleasure, but closed with remorse. Treatment is achieved through both behavioural therapy and medication.

Harming others barely registers for rage afflicted athletes, rarely concerned about others’ feelings.  Sportspeople with these conditions are dangerous on and off the field.  Apart from snacking on Evander Holyfield’s ear and coming back for seconds under the auspices of ‘boxing’, Mike Tyson is a poster boy for IED, with a history of physically imposing himself either side of the ropes.

Sceptics suggest IED is simply a made-up disorder to benefit the pharmaceutical industry, but according to Melbourne sport psychologist and university lecturer Dr Jacqui Louder, IED is a likely explanation for the red mist that regularly envelopes someone like Barry Hall.  Combine a pugilist’s pedigree and physique and the potential for life threatening damage is real.

“At the higher levels, players get some assistance but not necessarily from the right people, and mostly it’s reactive.  Clubs think a few weeks off will fix things.  It’s OK to seem nice and calm but how will they react when they’re under pressure again?” contends Dr Louder.

Despite the former Swans’ spearhead pulling the pin because his meltdowns became a liability to the team, ‘Big Bad’ Barry is suiting up again wearing different colours.  Unless Hall undergoes mental health evaluation and counselling, can he change his spots?  For other would-be Brent Stakers, let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, Narcissistic Personality Disorder entails an excessive preoccupation with issues of personal adequacy, power, and prestige.  Demonstrated by turning inward for gratification rather than depending on others,narcissists are often pseudo-perfectionists and thrive on being the centre of attention.   Some simply refer to it as ‘the God complex’ though ‘elite athlete complex’ seems just as pertinent.  Add a disrespect of authority and an ego unable to determine right from wrong and you have your Jon Drummond defiantly lying on the track, or Serena Williams unable to comprehend that semantics aside, her threatening behaviour towards a line judge at the US Open was unacceptable.

Commonly, narcissists live a socially deviant lifestyle characterized by antisocial, hotheaded, habitually unreliable and impulsive behaviour. In addition, psychopathic individuals also appear to lack anxiety and be largely free of depression.

In its aggressive form, narcissism is characterized by glibness, superficial charm, callousness, fearlessness, social dominance and lack of empathy.  At its worst, narcissistic rage (a reaction to feeling degraded or perceivably being prevented from accomplishing their extravagant fantasies) is an explosive anger that can translate to verbal abuse, or damaging property or people.

American psychologist Jay Granat believes the special treatment and attention during athletes’ formative years can give rise to a feeling of grandiosity which can lead some to feel as if they are “above the law” and not susceptible to punishment (OJ and Tonya Harding anyone?).  Therefore they have difficulty thinking about the consequences of their actions, or empathy for others.  Go beyond the sporting sphere and such symptoms give rise to sickening allegations of degrading treatment to women (including gang rape) committed by footballers here and abroad.

*           *           *

Believing there is no place for aggression and violence in sport is a little like John Lennon imagining a world with no war or religion.  Sanctioned aggression and violence panders to primitive instincts, a source of many players’ excitement, pleasure and satisfaction, and therefore a motivation to participate.  Where administrators and coaches struggle to agree on acceptable boundaries, what hope do emotionally immature athletes have, or players already harbouring physical and psychological foundations that render them a danger to others?  When ‘unsociable football’ wins the silverware (Hawthorn 2008), there’s a fine line between pleasure and real pain.

Hardliners will cry ‘cop-out’, that there’s no room for bleeding hearts making excuses for knuckleheads too weak to resist their primal urges.  Indeed, it would be wrong to assume anyone overstepping the mark is beset by mental illness.  Popular rogues over the years, of the Tommy Raudonikis and Dermott Brereton mould, merely played the game in the spirit of the pervading jungle law.  And what would the shrinks make of ‘Lethal’ Leigh Matthews, who so coldly and crudely dispensed with opponents?  An amiable television demeanour seems totally at odds with a man who clearly played by a set of values that was out of whack, even with the rough and tumble ‘70’s and ‘80’s.

Few attempts have been made to quantify violence in Australian sport, and the gut feel is the figures are reasonably static.  Since Leigh Matthews’ watershed criminal conviction for belting Neville Bruns in 1985, followed by a similar scenario featuring a country League player in 1989, the law has remained reluctant to interfere with matters reasonably dealt with by sporting judiciaries.

At grassroots level, where competitions struggle to impart the same level of authority and control, police intervention has become more apparent.  Civil actions are still rare, the most publicised being rugby league’s Darryl Brohman suing Les Boyd for breaking his jaw in 1983.  The 12 month suspension and out of court settlement proved no deterrent – in his second game back Boyd copped a further 15 months on the sidelines for eye gouging.  To some extent, administrators and changes in societal standards have reigned in the biff, no longer do ugly gentleman’s agreements pass muster.  Boyd’s once common, albeit flimsy defence that he was ‘instructed to cause mayhem’, would not be contemplated now.

These days, professional players know the eyes of the world are upon them.  Whereas once you could have a dozen disreputable incidents per weekend, of which a few were replayed a couple times, now the media has its work cut out finding comparable events to highlight and replay ad nauseum.

As a contact sport, Australian Rules couldn’t do much more. Episodes that cross the line tend to be impulsive rather than pre-meditated.  Interpretations are so strict on dangerous contact (whether deliberate or accidental) that players sometimes have no option but the once forbidden dance known as the short-step.

Rugby League is also much tougher on the biff, most of the time.  It’s difficult to imagine seeing the likes of Mark Geyer again (who, according to Wally Lewis, nearly caused a fatality in an infamous State ofOrigin clash in 1991).

So much hand wringing still centres around the highest level yet it’s the local paddocks where recreational thugs masquerading as footballers are condoned, even lauded.  Our favourite codes still carry baggage as heavy as that of their miscreants.  Apart from an endemic booze culture, where testing is financially prohibitive, performance enhancing drugs with violent side-effects have become a local scourge.  Also, the sense of belonging on which clubs thrive also has an inbred cousin known as mob mentality.  Witness the hostile treatment afforded the star player, the alcohol fuelled spectator baying for blood, the umpire abuse, ugly parent rage…  It hardly helps that so many games are officiated by inexperienced teenagers or mature aged refs past their used by date.  Every so often the unpleasant escalates to something more sinister.  An all in brawl, a spear tackle or king hit behind play, and as per recent suburban football games in Melbourne, knives and mallets after the siren.

Dr Louder believes not enough is done to instruct parents and coaches, whose roles go beyond teaching the game.  Her parent education program, developed with Tennis Australia, has been applied to local football clubs.  Dr Louder considers our 21st Century lifestyles are a major part of the problem.

“The stress levels of society, where we work longer hours and there’s no down-time, see people going to sport all wound up.”

As per most professional clubs, Collingwood conducts a range of psychometric testing as part of profiling potential recruits.

“It doesn’t mean we won’t take them based on the results, but at least we go into it with eyes wide open and we know what we’re dealing with”, says Simon Lloyd, former club psychologist and high performance coach.

Whether one buys into psychological explanations or regards them as psychobabble, it takes a strong minded tribe to tackle the serially aggressive, and a stronger one to change imbedded culture.  A harsher penalty alone, which for many fails as a deterrent or reform measure, is a simplistic response.

Dr Louder also contends that individual cases need to be treated on their merits, to account for the person’s background and the wide ranging circumstances to which their behaviour might be attributed.

Both Dr Louder and Lloyd concur that an incentive system, where less than X incidents per year (on and off-field) equates to say a registration fee rebate and equivalent donation to a relevant awareness program, could promote the cause and do more to encourage clubs, especially at grassroots level, to take a more holistic view.  AFL captains have recently been used as ambassadors against street violence, why not take it another level and at the same time clean up sports’ own hard-to-get-at places?

Perhaps a more effective punishment might include stints observing the physically and psychologically traumatised, and their families, in casualty and rehab.  Maybe then the hero of the cheap shot might twig that putting a player out of a game might have greater implications than fleeting sporting glory or personal gratification.

There’s not enough respect for the delicate nature of life at the best of times.  Too many ancestors have died to preserve valuable, pleasurable pursuits such as sport.  Our parklands should be competitive, spirited places demanding courage, without the sniper fire.

Jeff Dowsing, October 2009


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