Football and fisticuffs

Unless you're an NRL fan, you're probably not familiar with the name David Smith; and nor would you countenance his positive effect on violent death and injury in this country may one day rank next to gun laws and random breath testing.

Smith is the CEO of the National Rugby League and certainly has his hands full with a variety of issues. However, thanks to his announcement in June the code would take a zero-tolerance approach to players punching each other, we've witnessed a well-contested finals series without a hint of biff.

As most fans would know, if a player now strikes an opponent they are sent from the field by the referee for at least 10 minutes - no ifs or buts; it's mandatory. This has enormous implications in the modern game because being minus a man often results in your team conceding points and possibly losing the match.

Coaches and players seem to have got the message pretty clearly, because we're already seeing a reluctance on the part of competitors to damage the chances of their team and the wellbeing of multi-million dollar franchises simply because they want to snot someone.

As a previous fan of footballing fisticuffs, I'll admit a twinge of disappointment when the rule change was announced but after digesting reams of mournful tripe from commentators, former players and fans that the law would "ruin the game", I changed my mind.

As the finals have proved, not only will the game survive but the rule change may well have far-reaching societal ramifications that could save and protect lives.

Young men are great mimics. Many of them lack the imagination or fortitude to do anything other than ape the behaviour, dress and speech of their friends, sports stars or the cast of the latest Underbelly series.

It's hardly surprising a 20-year-old boofhead, filled with sponsor-advertised alcohol, considers it a great idea to re-enact the king hit he saw delivered on prime time TV by a highly paid football player.

The chuckling indulgence of sportscasters, columnists like myself, and peers when players punch each other entrenches the attitude hitting someone in the head is a bit of lark instead of a potentially deadly action.

I don't mind admitting I was wrong on this subject and my past opinion was juvenile and irresponsible. I cringed reading this post from 2011. I couldn't get to the end. I dare say it's the only thing Richard Hinds and I will ever agree about.

More than 3000 Australians suffer some kind of permanent brain damage each year because of violent assaults, with at least 20 killed by "king hits" in the last seven years.

I cannot even comprehend what it must be like to lose a child or parent to something as avoidable as this.  

Fans of the biff might counter that the general public still gets its fill of violent inspiration from boxing and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) but these are fringe sports in this country, which is why our TV networks don't bid hundreds of millions of dollars to air them on weekends; the mainstream audience isn't there.

A friend told me recently of being in primary school, when his teacher wheeled in a TV to show the class the Ali versus Holmes heavyweight title fight, live.

"That's how big boxing used to be," he said. "Imagine if you did that in a Year 6 class today?"

Times have changed. If the majority of people wanted to watch men punching each other in the head, Anthony Mundine's fights would be on Channel Nine, like Jeff Fenech's bouts used to be.

In the weeks following the NRL rule change, a Channel Nine audience watched a melee in a game between the Brisbane Broncos and Sydney's St George Illawarra Dragons.

Granted, there were air swings galore but the enduring image was of the Broncos captain, hard man Sam Thaiday, laughing and smiling amidst the jostling players because he wasn't going to be tempted into punching anyone and disadvantaging his team.

It's a given that thousands of kids want to be like Sam, and if men like him react enough times to threats of violence with a smile and folded arms, this behaviour will increasingly be codified in our young men.

It will take time; however, I can envision a day when we shake our heads in disbelief about memories of on-field violence, just like we do now about idiots driving home after 30 beers or having a semi-automatic rifle in their kid's room.

And we might remember to thank David Smith.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

Please don't take it personally if I do not reply to your email as they come in thick and fast depending on the topic. Please know, I appreciate you taking the time to write and comment and would offer mummy hugs to all.