Outraged by footy violence? Well don’t celebrate it

On Saturday, a day before Andrew Gaff broke Andrew Brayshaw’s jaw in Perth, footage of the violent “line in the sand’’ game of 2004 was shown on the scoreboard screen at the MCG prior to the Hawthorn versus Essendon classic.

That ‘‘line in the sand’’ encounter – which has assumed mythical status due to a largely false narrative about Hawthorn’s coming-of-age – was prominent in the pre-game promotion to a Hawthorn and Essendon game that was one of the season’s most exhilarating.

Essendon and Hawthorn in their infamous 2004 clash.
Essendon and Hawthorn in their infamous 2004 clash.

The Hawks, like much of the media, used ‘‘the line in the sand’’ game as part of the marketing of a game between a pair of storied rivals.

In the aftermath of the weekend, the Hawks have recognised that they, along with other parties, erred in allowing the violence of that notorious game to be promoted in the build-up to Saturday. This recognition obviously was influenced by the ugliness that occurred in Perth on Sunday.

In future, the Hawks will focus only on the rivalry between themselves and the Bombers, rather than the violence of the 2004 game or other encounters between the clubs.

‘‘The line in the sand’’ was a major talking point and promotional tool on Saturday in the pre-game programs and lead-ins. The broadcaster, Fox Footy, had a clip showing, in chronological order, the brawl from the 1985 grand final, ‘‘the line in the sand’’ game and the incident in which Matthew Lloyd knocked out Brad Sewell.

But the broadcaster was not alone in allowing past violence to be promoted or spoken about without opprobrium. ‘‘Line in the sand’’ also was discussed – with a glow of nostalgia – on the ABC pre-game show I participated in. Clips were shown, too, on the Hawthorn website.

It was a topic, too, at the Hawthorn chairman’s function attended by the Hawthorn and Essendon hierarchies and AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan. Richie Vandenberg was among those who were interviewed at the function and asked about the ‘‘line in the sand’’ game in which the former Hawthorn skipper was a central figure in the brawl. Some of those present felt uncomfortable with highlighting the 2004 game, others thought it was fine to talk about it in the context of the rivalry.

Vandenberg, Hawthorn’s football director on the club board, must be tired of having his role in that affair reprised. Externally, ‘‘line in the sand’’ has arguably overshadowed his enormous contribution to the Hawks as captain and the cultural groundwork he laid for the success (he retired in 2007) that followed.

To his credit, Hawthorn chairman Jeff Kennett told the function that, thankfully, the game has moved past the brawl of 2004. Kennett could not have imagined that there would be a throwback incident in the western derby the next day.

On Tuesday morning, ex-Geelong player Neville Bruns summoned other ghosts of football’s violent past when talking to Gerard Whateley on SEN about the incident in which he was felled and for which Leigh Matthews was charged by police in 1985.

Hawthorn and Geelong, who meet this Saturday, have never resorted to promoting the Matthews-Bruns incident – or Mark Jackson’s role in that awful day – in the lead-in to their blockbusters. They haven’t needed to – those clubs have put together more than a decade of extraordinary contests.

The narrative is more akin to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in that the rivalry has elevated the standing of both parties.

The truth about ‘‘line in the sand’’ is that it was an unsightly brawl in which the Hawks were thrashed. It was not the dawn of a new Hawthorn; that came at the subsequent national draft, when the names of Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin and Jordan Lewis were called out.

It is to be hoped that, in future, the Gaff incident doesn’t become promotional fodder for western derbies. The AFL and clubs can’t airbrush the ugly past. But they – and we, in the media – can avoid applying the lipstick of nostalgia.

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