Author’s note: This essay was first published at The Marshalltown in July 2013.
Recent events in the often disparate worlds of Australian politics and sport reveal that audiences will move quickly to the site of spilt blood, whether it’s internecine ALP political coups or fighting in the NRL. Audiences also love a comeback, and Kevin Rudd’s is proving to be a spectacular one, indeed. The most recent Newspoll has the Coalition and the ALP at 50% each, but Kevin Rudd is soaring in terms of preferred prime minister and satisfaction with job performance. This week has also seen restrictions on the ready availability of the caucus coup – the one that made Rudd both victim and victor.
In interestingly related news, the NRL commission is sticking to its ban on fighting in Origin for Game III, parrying off the protests from, well, almost everyone – the players, coaches, teams, and most vocally, the fans.
On June 26th, Rudd’s revenge on Gillard and the sinbinning of four players in Game II clashed slightly with one another in terms of scheduling, yet there was an aspect of thuggery in these events and their consequences, which deserves closer attention.
Politics has been at its bloodiest during the Rudd/Gillard era, and on the question of an upcoming political coup, commentators spoke of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Few would doubt that Rudd had spent much of three years destabilising and campaigning for the top job. Another campaign was simultaneously underway against our first female prime minister, this time directed by thugs in the media, and driven by equal parts stupidity and misogyny. And yet, these kinds of behaviour, Rudd’s and other’s, can produce startlingly positive results for the antagonists: the termination of Gillard’s political career and the resurrection of Rudd’s. Labor’s winning election chances have now entered (or perhaps loomed) into the realm of possibility. Waleed Aly artfully encapsulates how Rudd’s thuggish behaviour has been rewarded: “he held the party to ransom, and ultimately got paid.”
Football is played on similarly blood spattered turf, but here I mean it literally. The skirmish between Nate Myles and Paul Gallen in Game I led to a warning: players who engage in such behaviour in future games would be sinbinned. The warning was serious, the players were not, as four were sent off after a fight broke out in the 54th minute. Game III threatens to overspill with tension, as I’m sure players will continue to resort to their arms before reasoned disputation. For this reason, the ban remains controversial, and the reaction has been consistent and resolute. Players, fans, the NSW and QLD teams have overwhelmingly come out in support of . . the thugs! Apparently, those who try to place limits on injury and brutish behaviour are committing an egregious sin, and carry a heavy burden of explanation. I’m still receiving Facebook invitations to ‘like’ the community fan page entitled, “Stop screwing our game.” The supporters here denounce the recent changes to the code as a violation of the game’s integrity and exhort those in positions of footballing authority to allow the resumption of the thuggery that made the game great in the past. Well, all of this is expressed with a little less eloquence. The page really consists of the slogan ‘BRING BACK THE BIFF!!’ and pictures of Origin players thumping one another in the head.
Despite the formal rule changes in politics and football, where does popular legitimacy reside? I would point to the fans, hungry for violence, and Kevin Rudd, sating his revenge and ambition. To put it mildly, this bothers me, as it reflects the legitimisation of thuggery in two central aspects of Australian culture.
Australians take a certain pride in our self imposed characterisations: our good humoured, lackadaisical nature which is warmly received by foreigners. These images might sit quite comfortably with the events of the last few weeks: we now exhibit a relaxation of outrage towards political and sporting thugs, and for the latter, there is only a rise to criticism when such behaviour is subject to limitations.
ALP politics and the NRL don’t exhaust my criticisms, either. The pervasive social and political rejection of asylum seekers and refugees is reduced to a simplistic and cruel mantra of ‘turning back the boats.’ This is a political platform based on abandonment of the most desperate and vulnerable people, and it is met with approval.
Thuggish policy making is matched in social behaviour, too. I have written elsewhere on the culture of binge drinking in this country, and how it often finds bloody expression in outbreaks of violence in our cities. And yet, the castigation of choosing not to go out and drink excessively finds greater legitimacy than staying in.
Criticism of these issues, especially sport and drinking, leads me into prickly territory, where the term ‘un-Australian’ is thrown around with great vehemence, but little accuracy. I can fend this off. Perhaps the burden of explanation, however, can be shared. Perhaps any football fans, if they are still reading, can bring some clarity to the issue and explain why football’s integrity is dependent on frequent outbreaks of thuggery.
Of course, many football fans simply enjoy watching a game and are indifferent to the game’s rising violence. Fine. But the partisans and defenders who speak are drowning you out, and drowning the game, too.
Change is a cultural necessity, but let’s move in the right direction. It is to their shame that Australian public figures can act like thugs and be praised or rewarded. It is a greater shame that the position which denounces them is the contrarian one.