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Moving the goalposts: how place shapes our perception of violence

At a recent school visit a student asked Ben, “What’s the difference between punching someone on the footy field and punching someone on the street?”

Take two scenarios. A group of people are standing on a football oval. One person punches another person. In scenario A, there is a football game taking place. In scenario B, there isn’t a match being played. In scenario A the violence is viewed as an infringement, to be dealt with by the referee and the tribunal. In scenario B the violence is viewed as a crime, to be dealt with by the police and the courts.

Violence that occurs between domestic partners is abhorrent and it doesn’t matter that it occurs in the privacy of the home – it is a crime. The relationship between those two people, the fact it may be hidden from plain view, is no excuse and no protection.

So why would violence that occurs on a sporting field be dealt with by referees instead of police officers? Or tribunals and fines instead of courts and imprisonment? Why is it a different thing to punch someone on the footy oval depending whether there’s a match on?

Frankly, it’s not. They are the same: one person choosing to use violence against another. So if they are the same thing, then why do we respond to them differently? I wonder whether sporting players would still throw a punch on the field if they knew that police would arrest them for assault when they walk off the pitch.

I’m a Swans fan but don’t often get the chance to go to games here in Melbourne. A few weeks ago my Dad visited from Sydney and we went to the match between the Swans and Carlton. Just before half time there was a melee. In those moments of uncertainty, unclear of who is who, what’s happened and happening, I felt distressed.

I felt distressed because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I felt distressed because I knew that there were children watching in the stands and from their living rooms, and I wondered what it must feel like to them to see their idols doing this. I felt distressed because I love my team and I want them to be role models for good behaviour. And then I felt distressed because I knew that many of the people in the stadium weren’t having the same reaction as me. I knew that instead of feeling distressed they were feeling anticipation, excitement, adrenalin, and indifference.

I have seen fights in real life. Between strangers, between patrons and bouncers, between adult men on the street during the day over a parking space, between my friends, between my friends and strangers. It is not fun. It is highly distressing.

I know that some people love Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and think it’s a great sport. I have always avoided watching UFC, because frankly it makes me feel ill. Not in a hyperbolic, sensationalist way. In a true, visceral way I feel deeply uncomfortable. Like I am witnessing something that is wrong. It doesn’t make me excited; I just feel a sense of dread. Because I know that no matter what, someone is wilfully trying to beat another person into unconsciousness. Partly my distress comes from knowing that I am part of a society that cheers on this violence, of a society that has chosen to legalise it.

Why are we willing to accept that it is okay to beat someone beyond unconsciousness just because there is a referee present and because they are consenting adults in the prime of physical fitness? Why is it okay to kill another person by hitting him nine times to the head, as happened to João Carvalho, just because you’re both there to fight?

Culture by its nature is something that we don’t reflect on, we accept it as it is. Our culture glorifies and celebrates, and then excuses, the intentional beating of a person. What does this say about our values? Our beliefs?

In Team Fighting Championship (TFC) two teams of five beat each other up. If TFC was brought to Victoria, would it be legalised just as UFC was in 2015? And if not, why not? Why is TFC one step too far but UFC is okay?

And what of boxing? Last year 23-year-old Queenslander Braydon Smith died from injuries sustained in a boxing match. The Australian Medical Association believes boxing should be banned.

People say that it’s the intention that matters. In UFC the intention is to hurt someone, but of course not kill them. In many instances of social violence that have resulted in death the perpetrator has said, ‘I never meant to kill him.’ And while that might be their true belief, it is flawed. Because there is all likelihood that if you punch or kick someone in the head, where their precious brain lives, once or multiple times, then common sense tells you they might die. In fact eight Australians have been killed by social violence in 2016 alone.

We know that it’s possible to kill someone with a single punch; since 2000 more than 100 people have died after being hit once to the head. We know that it’s possible to kill someone with just a few punches or kicks to the head. We know that it’s possible to beat someone to death in the time that it will take to read this paragraph.

So why do we refuse to accept that people can die, and have, during UFC? Why do we view violence on the sporting field as more acceptable than violence on the street?

It doesn’t matter if it’s on the street or on the sporting field. Punching or kicking someone in the head is just as dangerous as getting behind the wheel drunk – someone could end up dead. It’s time, as a society, to set our intention to end social violence.