White Line Fever – a myth manifesting as mind madness or a mere aberration for aggression transgression? When the AFL: introduced ‘trial by video’ more than twenty five years ago, it was designed to moderate this malevolent affliction and eradicate all mental malfunctions on the field. Yet, too often the Match Review Panel is busy after most weekend games; meting out punishments that continue to confuse supporters and even football pundits such as Wayne Carey commented on Talking Footy this week that these punishments were inconsistent. If fans and former football stars are puzzled by the MRP’s decisions, what of current footballers and coaches? Do they have a clear idea of what’s permissible?
There is little mention these days of white line fever; terminology I first heard in the 60s when my passion for football was punctuated by a violence I deplored, used as some kind of powerful parlance to justify “a brain fade” for a punch behind the play that many players perpetrated with impunity. Physical contact was one thing I applauded; twisting that controlled contact to put opposition players out of the game, oft celebrated as tough and tenacious and a part of whatever was needed to win the game I found, and still find, abhorrent.
Now that cameras proliferate at the grounds white line fever seems to be as alive and well and thriving as it was more than 50 years ago, players anonymous though we know the ‘usual suspects’ too well. Is white line fever just a convenient excuse for violence on the field or is there a fine line that ‘invisibly’ obfuscates the rules of the game, albeit acceptably so to the sages in sport? Indeed, even Wayne Carey penned in this newspaper just two years ago that he, as well as other players, deliberately conceived to ‘hurt’ competitors on the field, making a mockery of the sanctity of the sport. And what of the psychological violence implicit in ‘sledging’, not just in football, but in so many other sports; white line fever nonetheless? Does sport imitate life or is it the other way around?
So many sports’ clubs now employ specialist psychologists to inculcate players with the skills, understanding and acumen to win the mind games out on the field; indeed, even Solomon, author of Ecclesiastes 9:11 (ESV) in the Old Testament encourages us to do whatever we do with all our might and to use wisdom instead of folly in all our endeavours: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.” Creating your own chances, however you can and whatever that demands, seems to be the biblical advice irrespective of prayers in the pews.
“Roughing’ up opposing players at the first bounce has been intrinsic to Aussie Rules for decades as some attempt to befuddle competitors on the ball. During the recent Friday night game between the Cats and the Crows, one TV commentator pertinently observed that the Crows’ players were initially ignoring Dangerfield, remarking later he had a quiet first half. It was an interesting comment that by NOT paying him attention, the Crows nullified his endeavour at the ball. It took him two quarters to reignite his dynamic attack in the match.
The term white line fever was attributed in 1921 to a mental state called ‘highway hypnosis’ whereby a person could drive a truck or other automobiles great distances, responding to external events in the expected and correct manner, with no recollection of having consciously done so. The conscious and unconscious were able to concentrate on different things. In sport, it has been credited as a ‘way of playing’ that involves aggression and a physicality in players that they don’t display anywhere but on the field; Jeckyll and Hyde moments that can catapult them to great achievements; a separation of mind and body otherwise in sync; changing gears on the field deemed intolerable anywhere else.
In 2013, before embarking on another tilt at winning a flag and breaking Kennett’s infamous curse against Geelong, Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson told his assembled players that half of them were so laid-back and gentle off the field they “wouldn’t hurt a fly”. But this preliminary final would require ‘a personality change’ for all of them. When they crossed the white line, he said, they had to become different people, like warriors going to battle, prepared to do whatever it takes – within the laws of the game- to secure victory. Indeed, he went on to inspire them to become ‘bastards’. The key is of course, within the laws of the game! What does that exactly mean on game days?
The MRP perceives physical contact in the game so differently, from game to game, week to week, year to year, so that interpreting the laws of the game can sanction a ‘fever’ generated across the white line as innate to the game; tacit acceptance for the ‘borderline’ transformations in the players’ personalities. It can be an invisible fine line that the MRP tolerates on an incomprehensible and inconsistent basis, making its adjudications farcical and fallacious. Since Barry Hall received just a reprimand for striking St Kilda’s Matt Maguire in 2005 allowing him to play in the Swans’ winning premiership side, the MRP leaves us all floundering about violations of violence on the field.
In the recent Tigers versus Demons match, Demon Jack Viney should have copped some ‘punishment’ for striking Alex Rance after he hit teammate Jack Watts in the head while he was lying on the ground. Rance was ‘frustrated’ and had a ‘brain fade’ it was reported. The MRP suspended Rance for a week, but Viney wasn’t even named as another culprit, even though he was just an accidental witness who became physically involved in a ‘feverish’ moment.
Reality seems to thwart more noble and idealistic intentions for a fever-free zone across the white line; indeed, many sports can be potentially violent, but it’s usually a no-blame game that attributes moments of unconscious madness to a fever that assaults some competitors as they run over the ‘infamous’ white line. As the AFL joins the campaign to stop male violence against women and children, it behoves it to ensure that the white line does not engender a dangerous fever on the field in defiance of the laws. Unconscious instincts must be made conscious and accountable. There must be no invisible fine line; instead audacious action on all misdemeanours to maintain cool temperatures and preserve the game within its legal parameters. There must be no more blurred lines, either of the white line variety or the invisible fine one as the MRP manufactures its consent. Indeed, it is imperative that it must redraw its own lines in black and bold to ensure that all ‘fever’, not fervour, is banished from the bounce. Let games of sport represent the game of life, without white line fever an excusable euphemism for basic bad behaviour. It’s all violence and should be outlawed in the game.