Violence in sport

Created By: Joe Gorman Joe Gorman

Joe Gorman looks at the role of violence in sport, and how it distracts us from the great things sport has to offer.

holding aussie rules ball in sky
While violent sportsmen often receive the most attention, it's the one’s that rise above this that become the true heroes.

Fair play?

The great English writer, George Orwell, once said that sport “has nothing to do with fair play.” According to Orwell, sport “is bound up with all hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war without the shooting.”

Orwell was a wonderful writer and a visionary. It was him who coined the term ‘Big Brother’ in his famous novel 1984, which he wrote in the 1940s. His view of sport, however, takes a dim view of the games we love. As much as sport can be a refuge for those with violent urges, it is usually a way for people to work together, to socialise and to engage in friendly competition. Violence in sport takes away from this.

Not a new thing

In Australia, “blood sports” have always been popular. Boxing, rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules have a special place in our nation’s history. Perhaps it has something to do with the view that men should be tough, rugged and masculine. 

During times of war, sportsmen who have enlisted in the armed forces have been elevated to the status of heroes. For example, Ron Barassi Snr won the Grand Final with Melbourne FC in 1940, and was then killed in action in World War II a year later, becoming the first Australian Rules footballer to die in battle.

It’s no surprise that the ‘boxing kangaroo’ image became synonymous with the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II. In those days, the kangaroo with the boxing gloves also wore a slouch hat. Many Australians saw war and sport as one and the same, and violence in sport was therefore expected and often celebrated. 

While sportsmen rarely enlist in the armed services any more, the appetite for rough and tumble sport remains the same. David Dunworth, an Australian rugby union player who played during the 1970s, once said that rugby players could be “sent off, carried off, but never backed off.” 

These days, the AFL conducts ‘ANZAC Day rounds’, where they award the best player with an ANZAC medal, which is modelled on the Victoria Cross Medal for bravery in battle. In the NRL, the Sydney Roosters have worn camouflage shirts on ANZAC Day as a tribute to the soldiers.

Fight for fair play

So have we become desensitised to violence in sport? Professional sportsmen, particularly in rugby league, are encouraged to be tough and never stand down from a fight. In grassroots sport, there have been terrible incidents of biting, punching and all-in brawling from both players and spectators.

While there is nothing wrong with participating in rough sports, there is a responsibility of all players to participate fairly. There are greater benefits from good sportsmanship than from violence and cynical behaviour.

While violent footballers and sportsmen often receive the most attention, it is the one’s that can rise above this that become the true heroes, and are remembered forever. Next weekend the NRL Grand Final will be played in Sydney. No matter who wins, watch the trophy presentation. The Provan-Summon Trophy, which depicts two footballers in bronze, is a fitting tribute to sportsmanship, not violence.

In 1963, after a bruising Grand Final between rival clubs Western Suburbs and St George, Arthur Simmons and Norm Provan came together in a friendly embrace after a well-fought contest that Provan’s club, St George, ended up winning. But few people remember the scoreline, or who won the match. 

What they remember is the iconic image of two members of opposing sides coming together at the end of the match, highlighting that above all, sport is about respect, camaraderie and friendship.

Last reviewed: 11 May, 2015
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