Blurred Lines: One Hallmark Of An Uncivilised Society Is Celebrating Violence

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How far have we really come in condemning violence in sport, asks Matt Poynting.

You probably missed the staggering contradiction hidden on the last page of the sports section a recent edition of the Sunday Telegraph. There’s Barry Hall, shirtless, in boxing trunks, his fists taped, ready to don the gloves. Above his head, in broad, bold print, reads the headline: KNOCK HIM OUT.

Okay, no, that wasn’t it, but stay with me on this.

‘Here we go,’ I thought to myself as I sat in my local café, which offers only the Telegraph (and The Australian for the highbrow types). ‘Another puff piece for a celebrity slugfest, which on novelty alone will probably draw a speculative crowd of D-listers who want to be seen, boxing junkies, and people with more money than sense.’

Nevertheless, on I read. And credit where credit’s due, Jessica Halloran’s profile piece on Hall began as a candid, revealing, thoroughly engaging piece of journalism. It was bringing me around; I was hooked. Then, one simple choice of words undid all of that.

Arguably, Barry Hall never did anything in his career more memorable than landing a coward punch on Brent Staker in 2008. ‘Memorable’ is one of those funny words like ‘fantastic’ or ‘awesome’ which, with overuse, has adopted far more positive than negative connotations, even though it is emotionally neutral.

There was nothing positive about that night at Homebush, though. It was memorable, and still is today, but for all the wrong reasons. Staker was never the same player after collecting the full force of Hall’s unprovoked, unanticipated haymaker.

Once a promising defender out of Broken Hill, Staker left West Coast a year after the incident, and had a five-year stint in Brisbane which yielded just one season of more than 15 games. He retired into obscurity three years ago, and admits today that he will only ever be known as the receiving end of one of the most notorious incidents in modern Australian sporting history.

Barry Hall got a media gig and can probably expect a hefty payday for throwing a few at another retired footballer, Paul Gallen, in a month’s time.

I should issue a disclaimer here: this piece is not intended to shame Barry Hall for an incident that happened more than a decade ago. As much as it still leaves a sour taste, I don’t wish upon Hall that his career be defined by one moment of insanity, and I will afford him that it was a moment of insanity, even though the rage and physical violence he displayed were not isolated to that incident. His nickname, after all, was ‘Big, Bad Barry’.

Halloran’s piece, designed to promote an upcoming high-profile bout, shows that given the right context, the incident will likely dog the former St Kilda and Swans forward for the rest of his life. Unfair as that is, the question becomes whether there is a moral obligation to report it in a responsible way. Specifically, how should the Telegraph refer to that punch, given they have so nobly led the charge to deglorify one-punch assaults?

Let’s remember, the very term “coward punch”, as a substitute for “king hit”, was a campaign that the Daily Telegraph supported after the tragic death of Thomas Kelly at the hands of an angry young man unknown to him, but now known to us as Kieran Loveridge.

The tabloid unashamedly milked that story for all it was worth. They were there for his death, his funeral, Loveridge’s arrest and subsequent trial. They howled when the initial sentence was handed down.

Similarly, when Cronulla, NSW and Australian prop Andrew Fifita wrote “FKL” in Sharpie on his forearm strapping, thought to abbreviate “Free Kieran Loveridge”, though later denied by Fifita, the Telegraph went berko; “SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL” was the headline that day.

Why then was I so riled by a simple choice of words in a Sunday Herald column this past weekend? Well, about a third of the way through it, Halloran writes: “[Hall’s AFL] career was punctuated by several notoriously violent moments, including knocking out West Coast player Brent Staker in 2008.”

Sorry, “knocking out”?

Let’s be clear. What Hall did to Staker late in the first quarter of that early-season game was nothing short of a coward punch. At what point in the last eleven years has that changed? Prima facie, Halloran’s account of the incident is correct — Staker was knocked out by the punch—but her choice of words, in an article about boxing (where a “knock out” is synonymous with success and glory) and in a publication which gave voice to victims’ calls to change how we communicate one-punch assaults, is regrettable at best and appallingly facetious at worst.

In the fast-paced and deadline-driven world of print journalism, it’s easy to imagine a single line in a 127-page newspaper could be repeatedly missed right up the editorial chain of command. But this howler stands out because the words more or less match the glaring headline: KNOCK HIM OUT.

This kind of sheer hypocrisy needs to be called out. The Telegraph has sold millions of issues on its moral crusade against Australia’s epidemic of violent coward punch assaults. They will readily lean on the death of an eighteen-year-old to tug heartstrings, whip up sentiment and push for change… when it suits them to do so. When it suits them instead to promote a fight between two popular ex-footballers—guaranteed back-page fodder for the next month—it seems they are equally ready to pack away those negative terms that only dredge up unhappy memories.

Sadly, this is nothing new for the Murdoch press, and many will say to me, “Just don’t read it” or, “That’s the Telegraph for you”. Fair enough. But to use the “boys will be boys” defence for this kind of hypocrisy is fine if we’re talking about a niche publication with a limited readership; the diehards who, purely through lack of numbers, will never have any significant influence over politics, culture or the very way we are as Australians.

Sadly, I can’t say that for the 826,000 people who read the Sunday Telegraph. Over fifteen percent of Australia’s biggest city consumes this content and has their opinion formed by it, whether they are aware of that or not. Every three to four years, they vote. Think about that, then think about what we are allowing to slip through the cracks.

Call it confirmation bias, but before I paid up at the café on Sunday morning, I took a quick glance at Phil Rothfield’s ‘What’s the Buzz’ column. Listed as a ‘Saint’ (as opposed to a ‘Sinner’) was another footballer and sometime pugilist, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who just copped a three-test ban from the NRL for, in Rothfield’s words, “protecting a teammate” in a brawl outside a Bali nightclub last week.

In case you missed it, Asofa-Solomona allegedly rained haymakers on revellers in what appears to have been an ugly and totally disproportionate response to a coward punch on his teammate Suliasi Vunivalu.

We must ask ourselves if we are progressing at all on this issue. If we continue to so carelessly blur the line between celebration and condemnation of violence, we won’t get far.

Oh, and here’s the kicker. Who is promoting the Barry Hall vs. Paul Gallen fight in November?

Danny Green, the champion Australian boxer who is the founder and face of the “Stop the Coward’s Punch” campaign.

Righto.

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Matt Poynting

Matt Poynting studied media and communications, and is currently studying international relations. He works in nonprofit communications, does a bit of sports journalism and webcasting as a side hustle, and writes (far too infrequently) on similar issues of discourse and ethics when inspired by contentious issues and social justice.

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