Time to surrender our brain snap cards
Last Sunday my six-year-old son and I watched the Sydney-West Coast AFL match. It was a one-sided contest which failed to match the closeness or intensity of so many previous encounters, chronicled in an excellent pre-game package on Fox Footy hosted by former Swans coach Paul Roos.
Even with the passage of time it is still nerve-tingling stuff – Leo Barry’s heroic defensive mark in the final seconds of the 2005 grand final, Micky O’Loughlin getting in the faces of the Eagles fans after goaling on the fence at Subiaco, Ben Cousins pumping the air on the podium after West Coast’s ledger-squaring 2006 premiership. And of course Barry Hall, landing a perfect example of a punch known in boxing as a left-hand lead, square on the face of West Coast’s Brent Staker, whose eyes rolled around inside his skull as if in a Warner Brothers cartoon before he fell on to the grass.
Hall got seven weeks on the sidelines for that punch. It was one of a number of incidents – commonly known as “brain-snaps” – which would ultimately see Hall ostracised by his coach Paul Roos and end his first grade days with the Western Bulldogs. I am not about to bag Barry Hall, and not just because if he could clean up Brent Staker with such ease, he’d have no trouble with some poncy newspaper columnist.
Others accused Hall of being a rotten role model and dragging the game into disrepute, with conduct which has no place on a football field. Yeah, yeah. Hall was an absolutely brilliant player, albeit one who was so behaviourally flawed that you could almost set your watch by his meltdowns. But I would still rate him as one of the all-time greats of the game. And perverse as it may sound, when Fox Footy showed the highlights reel of him decking Staker, I didn’t avert my eyes but found them transfixed to the screen. It didn’t overly concern me that my son saw it either, even though I am a person who opposes violence, has never been in a fight, and socialises with like-minded blokes who are also teaching their kids that you don’t solve problems with your fists, that there is nothing clever or impressive about being a macho man, nothing shameful about walking away from a violent situation.
There is obviously a significant logical flaw in all this. It is something I was discussing with mates this week in the wake of the murder of Thomas Kelly in Kings Cross, the victim of an alleged king hit by a passerby with whom he had never had a conversation.
Hall might have got seven weeks for that punch, and faced criticisms (from some) in the footy community for his ill-disciplined brutality. But the fact that this punch still gets star billing in the pre-match highlights package shows that people aren’t just prepared to tolerate that kind of violence, but will even celebrate it. Perhaps it takes on a cartoonish or unreal quality because it happens on the footy field. Maybe its impact is softened by the rationalisation that it in a contact sport such as Aussie Rules things will occasionally get a bit willing. The reality is though that if you could transpose that punch from Homebush Stadium and replay it on Darlinghurst Rd, acknowledging the reality that it was potentially a killer punch in the truest sense of the word, Barry Hall would not have faced a seven-week suspension but a charge of assault. If things had panned out differently, in the setting of the street not the footy field, he could have been charged with murder.
The video of Hall belting Staker has been watched on YouTube 225,117 times. If you type Hall’s name into Google the first suggested search is “Barry Hall punch” and the sixth is “Barry Hall Staker”. Clearly, Australians aren’t that troubled by this violence. They kind of enjoy it. It’s one of the reasons why the opening 10 minutes of State of Origin is regarded by millions of men as must-watch television.
It also explains our use of excuse-making terms such as “brain snap” to describe men who, like Hall, have the odd blow up, or lose the plot just one time. I have been talking about sport, but it’s in no way confined to sport. When Russell Crowe decked some poor Mexican concierge at a New York hotel, he described it as a brain snap. Nick D’Arcy has spoken of the brain snap he had down at the King St wharf that night, from which fellow swimmer Simon Cowley has never recovered. The bouncer who hit Hookesy had a brain snap. A few days later they turned off Hookesy’s life support. Many of us have been in a pub when someone has had a brain snap. On occasions the person on the receiving end of said brain snap hasn’t got up.
The concept of the brain snap is probably the most dangerous feature of our warped psychology when it comes to violence. It is almost as if there is something in our culture which gives men permission to throw just one punch, and then play their brain snap card, saying it was just a spur of the moment thing, out of character, something they regret. And as the Hall example shows, there can even be a weird kind of reverence attached to the black art of decking somebody. That reverence is felt not just by men but in some cases also women who like the idea of a tough bloke, especially if that tough bloke is defending their honour, and decking somebody in the process.
It is as dangerous as it is absurd. More importantly, it is utterly, utterly tragic, as the family of the late Thomas Kelly, 18, knows all too well. One punch is all it takes. The sooner every bloke in Australian can surrender his brain snap card the better off we will all be.
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