How violence on field opens the door to violence off field

Chris Judd, AFL legend and man of good character, wrote a comment piece for The Age in the wake of a number of incidents of physical violence on the football field that were well outside the realm of a contact sport. Incidents, where players down-field threw punches at other players, at times knocking them unconscious. While Chris Judd was advocating for this behaviour to change, he also offered his own beliefs as to how such behaviour occurs. Chris stated he believes in moments of heightened emotions on the field, in which men considered to be of good character are overcome by inner animal urges. Chris suggested that in these moments, they are ‘guided by instincts’, and are not making conscious decisions to use physical violence.

Chris’ sentiments are an echo of beliefs held in many different circles that excuse the use of physical violence as an involuntary response to provocation. A belief, that when difficult emotions are heightened, violence is an unavoidable, uncontrollable response. But if we’re not in control of our behaviour, then who is? What is instinct, and what are just our beliefs? What are the stories we tell ourselves to excuse our choices of behaviour and are these stories part of the problem?

As a family violence counsellor, I’ve spoken with hundreds of men who use forms of violence and controlling behaviours toward their partner or family. Regardless of their level of remorse, it’s very common for men I work with to avoid taking responsibility for behaviour they have used that have hurt those they love. I’m frequently told by men I speak with that they lost control, that it was instinct, a normal behavioural response to a difficult emotional state provoked by others. However, upon reflection, these same instincts don’t apply for the same men in other contexts; they don’t push and yell at their boss when they are frustrated with them, they don’t strike a police member if they are angry at being given a ticket. This suggests they have control of their behaviour in all moments of heightened emotions, but give themselves permission to use violent and controlling behaviour in their intimate or family relationships. Rather than some kind of primal instinct, it’s the narratives that promote a lack of responsibility for behaviour that can encourage choices of violent behaviour. Narratives that excuse certain choices of behaviour in certain contexts, just because our emotions are in the red.

How does this relate to football? Well, as much as we may hold football in our hearts and minds, it is not instinctive either. We are not born with a Sherrin in our hands, goal posts don’t rise out of the earth and umpires don’t emerge from parted seas with rules of the game etched in holy tablets. We invented the game, we teach ourselves the rules. We train ourselves to play, to choose specific behaviours in high pressure situations; where to run, when to handball. Coaches and those in leadership positions can directly influence these learned behaviours by actively teaching, or by modelling the behaviours themselves.

In a less tangible way, a club’s culture can inform a player’s decisions too. A “winning culture” can be a collective of affirming beliefs and attitudes which can impact an individual’s decision to put in that extra effort when energy levels are seemingly exhausted. Beliefs and attitudes shared by the players, promoted and modelled by the club’s leaders, can become so ingrained in the club they can seem normal, innate, even instinctive. But a club’s culture can change; players are influenced by it, but also contribute to it, consciously or not. If the club’s culture isn’t supportive of the sort of outcomes player and coaches want, they can actively challenge it. They can challenge their own beliefs and attitudes, and those of team mates around them, to shape the culture of the club as a whole. To work toward a culture that influences players to make choices in every moment that are in line with the values and integrity of what the club wants to achieve.

This understanding of a club’s culture can help us unpack how our attitudes, beliefs and choices of behaviour are influenced more broadly by a range of cultures we are immersed in. We teach ourselves to choose certain behaviours in every context; at work, school, in public, at the beach, at a party etc. Different contexts have their own cultures that hold different norms; it’s normal to get around in next to no clothes if you’re near a beach, but this isn’t the norm in the office. Likewise, in many cultures inanimate objects are assigned a gender; neck ties are considered masculine, high heels feminine. All of these norms are not written into our DNA, but are learned, taught and modelled. Likewise, we grow up with norms around roles of different genders in public, in relationships, at work and in sport. We learn what behaviour is valued and what is discouraged for men as opposed to women. Dominance, control, aggression and stoicism are not instinctually masculine traits, but exist in many gendered norms in different cultures. The gendered norms we hold affect us all in our interpersonal relationships, if we are conscious of them or not. It’s no secret that some of these gendered norms include violent behaviour, and attitudes that reinforce it.

Which brings us back to family violence counselling. I work with many men who want to change their use of violent and controlling behaviours in their relationships, and a large part of this work involves them taking responsibility for these choices of behaviour in order to do so. But for meaningful, lasting change in behaviour to occur, this work has to go beyond individual choices. The cultural norms in many social contexts a man moves through can influence attitudes and beliefs that value, reinforce or excuse violent behaviour being used. Much like the belief Chris Judd expressed in his article in The Age – a man’s choice to punch someone was instinct and out of his control. There are many aspects of football and male cultures that informed Chris’ beliefs, and being a prominent figure in both, expressing these beliefs so publicly reinforces and legitimises these beliefs.

There are narratives like this woven through many aspects of our cultures, and they have become so ingrained they can seem normal. At the football club, at work, among friends and in our newspapers, we are impacted by cultures that influence what we consider normal, how we think and how we behave. But they aren’t innate or set in stone. If these shared beliefs and attitudes contribute to or excuse violent behaviour and abusive relationships, we can change them. We can challenge ourselves, and each other, around what attitudes and beliefs we want to be considered the norm, what behaviours we want to value. We can challenge our own narratives that get in the way of the change we want to see happen. We can, and should, do better.