How coward king hits ended my AFL career
By James Fitzpatrick
Last week, the now former AFL Diversity Chief was banished from the game and his job, and prosecuted by police, for a coward punch in a suburban AFL match.
I feel bad for him — his world has been flipped upside down in under a week — but the consequences of his actions have been apt and just.
Why isn’t Fahour’s fallout more common? Why isn’t Melbourne’s Tomas Bugg serving a 16 week suspension and being prosecuted by police?
I’m unashamedly biased and emotionally invested in this debate. My AFL playing days were cut short at the age of 18 because of a king hit and I now live in fear of the potential long term damage the incident may have caused.
In my case, the perpetrator got six weeks reduced to four, no police prosecution, and could carry on his footy playing days (and life) without a worry in sight. To me that seems unjust.
I was by no means a star footballer but I did make representative sides and captain my school’s team as an inside mid and tagger. Talented young footballers aren’t used to being tagged, so I frequently got under player’s skin. I was a pest and I accept that — but tagging is a just and fair part of the game — and very few people debate that.
On this fateful day, something snapped in my opponent’s head; we were well behind play, when, while I was focused on the ball downfield, he turned and king hit me directly in the jaw. I fell like a sack of potatoes. I barely remember impact, but clearly recall the sudden blackness and silence.
Next thing I know, I’m being carried from the field, there’s a large scuffle going on with teammates who came to my aid, and I can hear my mother noticeably upset on the sideline.
The police arrived and took statements but I decided not to press charges. I now regret that. I felt the pressure of some kind of unwritten player’s code: ‘what happens on the field, stays on the field’.
It’s all part of the game, right?
I did play a handful more games that season, but something had changed in my brain. Ever since that day, even the slightest head knock would now knock me out cold (which is distinctly different to pre-king hit).
I suffered concussion another three times that season, and the third occasion would be the final game of proper footy I would ever play.
While the other incidents were innocuous, the final concussion was another brain snap from an opponent I was tagging. I caught him holding the ball, let him know about it verbally, and he responded by head-butting me. I was knocked out cold, only this time when I came to, I couldn’t feel my front teeth and there was blood coming from my mouth. Being shorter than I, he had head butted me square in the mouth, damaging the nerves to my front teeth and knocking them out of place (a well-fitted mouth guard probably saved further damage).
After an emergency trip to the dentist, I spent the next few weeks with concrete mould and a wire brace across my front teeth to hold them in place. My younger cousin had travelled from Melbourne to watch me play that day. It shook her (and me). By now I think my mum had stopped watching altogether.
Physical consequences aside, both of these incidents began taking a mental toll on me. I’m not a fighter, I don’t like confrontation and I’m not overly big. If presented with fight or flight, I would choose flight. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide on a football field, you have to look tough and stand up for yourself.
That same year (2009), despite alleged attempts by the NFL to silence it, research by a Nigerian-American physician, Bennet Omalu on the link between a degenerative brain disease (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)) and concussions sustained in contact sport, made it to main-stream media. Since then, the research on the topic, and similar issues related to concussion, has continued to grow, and it doesn’t look good.
Even if it wasn’t proven at this time, this was enough to stop me from playing another game of football. No matter how much I love the game, there’s no way I could justify the risk of damaging my brain or losing my memory.
For a while, I blamed myself; maybe I deserve it for playing the nagging tagger role. I soon realised how stupid I was being: nothing justifies a king hit or coward punch.
Don’t try and tell me it’s part of the game, it’s go nothing to do with scoring more points than the opposition. No one goes to an AFL game to watch someone get king hit — the same way that no one goes to a nightclub to get king hit.
Punches to the head, outside of play, should be investigated by the police the same way a king hit in the street would be. Nowhere in criminal law does it state that a coward punch during an AFL game is exempt.
King hits in the street now have harsh penalties by law because it’s the type of violence we’re trying to eradicate from society. The AFL field should be no different. Perpetrators should have the future of their AFL playing days brought into question and police should approach the incident the same way they do any other.
I’m being dramatic but why shouldn’t I be? My AFL career ended at 18 because I was king hit by a coward. The only thing worse would be if one day the long term damage of these incidents inhibits me from writing articles such as this one.