When Australian Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo complained about multiple instant replays of Romain Grosjean’s flaming crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix, he felt “it was entertainment and they’re playing with all of our emotions”. What Ricciardo saw as “pretty disgusting”, “disrespectful and inconsiderate” is actually routine contemporary fare in the digital media sport world.

The spectacle of sporting violence and mayhem is a key component of attention-grabbing audience appeal. In this instance, F1 did follow its policy of cutting all media feeds until it was quickly confirmed that nobody had died or was seriously injured. This is not always possible or universally viewed as desirable in sport.

High-rotation, multi-angle replay followed. Australian driver and former world champion Alan Jones declared that it all goes with the territory in “a dangerous sport” in which “We all like to see a good shunt as long as nobody gets hurt”. But sportspeople do get hurt – as Grosjean was – and many are drawn to watch violent incidents involving various sports over and over.

Quest for excitement

As long as the media have been studied systematically, there have been debates about whether violent content has no or negligible effect on those exposed to it, operates as a safety valve to discharge violent impulses, or provokes imitative behaviour and anti-social attitudes. Contact sport has been sociologically theorised as a space of legitimised violence, part of the “civilising process” that turned chaotic and dangerous folk rituals into regulated modern sport.

In this influential take on the “quest for excitement”, everyday violence was outsourced to amateur and then professional sports organisations and on-sold as mass leisure. But, with the arrival of sport television, especially in digital form, practising sportspeople and the vast majority of spectators became separated by the screen. Increasingly, sport action resembled a video game with flesh-and-blood athletes reduced to two-dimensional moving images.

TV news could play and replay spectacular sporting incidents and calamities, sometimes in sync with their theme music. The Internet then offered many more opportunities to search for compilations of ‘greatest hits’ (physical collisions) or the most spectacular motorsport crashes.

As a result, the media’s technical capacity to show graphic sport imagery of legitimate, illegitimate and accidental violence in sport is now increasingly at odds with concerns about the health and wellbeing of sportspeople.

“Soft like our country”

While athletes and their representatives have, for example, taken chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a seriousness matter and headed for the courts, many sport journalists and fans still regard such concerns as signs of weakness and even as overweening political correctness.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump has characteristically taken this position, using the National Football League (NFL) as a metaphor in accusing the game of becoming “soft like our country has become soft”. At a time when the integrity of head injury assessments in the football codes is being debated in Australia, there were calls from sports journalists and others during the last rugby league State of Origin series to “bring back the biff” – that is, encourage players to punch each other.

In its relentless search for audiences, television has demanded that all sports become faster, noisier, more dramatic and aggressive. The once-stately game of cricket is no exception. The 2014 tragic death of Phillip Hughes on the field of play briefly demanded a rethink, but it was not long before the old take-no-prisoners approach returned, most notoriously during the acrimonious ‘Sandpapergate’ test match in South Africa in 2018.

Gender play

Notably, most of the focus has been on sportsmen, both because they have historically dominated sport and given the widespread assumption that violence and aggression are masculine traits. But the recent rise of women’s contact sports has challenged such conventional gendered assumptions.

Whether it is Ronda Rousey being knocked out by Holly Holm in an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bout in Melbourne in 2015, or Melbourne’s Meg Downie by Collingwood’s Sophie Casey in 2017 in the AFL Women’s (AFLW), the heightened professionalisation and media profile of women’s sport is bringing women’s sporting violence into the living room in prime time as never before. It is also now available for replay on multiple media platforms.

Representing violence in sport in the media raises serious ethical questions about the complicity of media producers, journalists, sport organisations and audiences in the circulation of voyeuristic entertainment. Both the watching and the watched are, in different ways, jeopardised by the disconnection between the distant spectacle and proximate danger.

Alan Jones advised Daniel Ricciardo to “give it up” if he is worried that Formula 1 is “unsafe” and wall-to-wall replays of a “good shunt” make for splendid entertainment: a demand that drivers should take it or retire to the backseat. There is a similar expectation that footballers – and even more so, boxers – should measure their own and their country’s ‘hardness’ by blows to the head. For Donald Trump, getting “a little ding on the head” and playing on regardless is a sign that the player is “tough” and patriotic.

In media sport, such armchair thrills are cheap. The real cost is absorbed by the brains and bodies of sportspeople, and their families, for whom endless replays of physical trauma in their everyday lives are not commanded by the flick of a switch.


Originally published on openforum.com.au,
November 4, 2020.
Copyright © David Rowe 2020
Email: d.rowe@westernsydney.edu.au
Twitter: @rowe_david
Website: https://westernsydney.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/david_rowe

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