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On Tuesday night the AFL tribunal handed West Coast star Andrew Gaff an eight-week suspension for his sickening hit on eighteen-year-old Andrew Brayshaw.
The unprovoked attack was violent and difficult to watch with the victim’s injuries so severe he is unable to eat solid food for four weeks.
Many, including Brayshaw’s father Mark, have defended Gaff, claiming the incident was out of character for an otherwise “good bloke.” Nobody has linked the incident to the broader issue the AFL has with systemic acts of violence.
The media’s focus on the personality of Gaff has allowed the AFL to frame the incident as isolated and out of character for the game itself.
Recent history tells a different story. Last year, Melbourne’s Tom Bugg and Richmond’s Bachar Houli received lengthy bans for sickening striking incidents that left both their victims unconscious.
These incidents were framed as abnormal for the men, with Houli even receiving character references from Waleed Ally and Malcolm Turnbull before his tribunal appearance.
Let’s imagine if Gaff was playing in the NRL for the Canterbury Bulldogs. He would have been portrayed as another rugby league “thug”, indicative of the grubs who play the game.
That isn’t to say the NRL doesn’t have a problem with violence, the romanticisation of brawls come Origin time is enough proof of that, but the incidents of violence in the AFL have been just as bad, if not worse, than the NRL over the last few years.
The first step in addressing any problem is recognition. The culture surrounding the AFL celebrates tough men who hit hard, with niggles between opponents an accepted part of the game.
If the AFL is serious about ensuring there is no repeat of the weekend’s events, they must openly admit that the culture of the sport promotes and naturalises violence. Focusing on the character of the perpetrator and avoiding the link to broader problems the game has with violence only delays the inevitability of more sickening acts occurring in the future.