I’m 10 years old sitting with my dad and sister at ANZ Stadium, watching our South Sydney Rabbitohs get smashed by the Sydney Roosters. In the dying stages of the match, David Fa’alogo becomes upset after being tackled. He shows his displeasure by punching the defender in the face. The man reels away holding his jaw, and a jubilant roar fills the stands. We might be losing, but at least someone has finally punched Braith Anasta.
Whatever your sport of preference is, chances are a top level player has been suspended for violent conduct. Unless the violence was particularly egregious, the player was also probably celebrated for it. In this year’s State of Origin, fans were treated to a spectacularly one-sided brawl between Dane Gagai and Matt Burton, with fans and pundits applauding the display of state pride.
The noteworthy cases are endless. Apart from being one of the best strikers of his generation, Luis Suarez is perhaps best known for biting his opponents. He accumulated 26 matches on the sidelines for three separate nibbles on opposition players. Then there’s Mike Tyson, who famously took a break from inflicting brain damage at an unprecedented rate to give Evander Holyfield’s ear some unsolicited cosmetic surgery with his teeth. Roy Keane captained Manchester United to glory in the 2000s, and was renowned for his dogged determination and relentless aggression. While commentating in 2021, Keane reminisced about how he would deal with a poor performance: “What I might do, I might smash into somebody, just to make me feel better”. Non-contact sports aren’t exempt either. Earlier this year, 15 year-old tennis player Michael Kouame slapped his opponent in the face after losing, and who could forget the fight between the Boomers and the entire nation of the Philippines back in 2018.
To a certain subsection of sports fans, thuggery equals commitment, and blow-ups are the best indicator of how much you care. I have never quite understood how losing control of your emotions and making yourself ineligible for numerous weeks signifies your love for the team, but for some this connection is self-evident. When it comes to fisticuffs, context matters: no one really cares when two consenting millionaires square off before being dragged away by their respective teams, and in the case of Gagai and Burton, the consequence was a fine of less money than they were paid to play. Beating the shit out of someone in a pub is a fair bit less heroic, and far more likely to land you a place in a jail cell than the rich tapestry of Australian sporting folklore.
There is a term for the psychological shift that occurs when sportspeople step across the boundaries imprinted on the grass and onto the field. It speaks to the transformation that otherwise reasonable human beings undertake when they become violent combatants. In Australia, that term is white line fever.
George Orwell described the negative effects of organised sports on the human psyche pretty well. “As soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused,” he said. “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
As discussed, white line fever runs hot in the veins of many professional sportsmen. Yet even at an amateur level, white line fever threatens to turn meaningless weekend fixtures into feisty affairs. Alas, even I—a goalkeeper who peaked shortly after highschool and now plays in Division two of the Northern Suburbs All Age Mens competition—am not immune from its effects. One incident springs to mind.
I took off as soon as the pass beat my defence. My negligible footspeed shouldn’t matter because the pass was overhit. Try as he might, their striker will not beat me to it. Why would he try when I have quite clearly gotten here first? Astroturf is a bit uncomfortable to go to ground on, and I’d rather not get a scrape on my knee – you know, that weeping scab usually reserved for children and skateboarders that adheres to every fabric it comes into contact with and never fully heals until the season ends. As I gently bend over to scoop up the ball, I can’t help but notice that his airborne legs have made rather a lot of contact with the side of my knee. The potential for a significant injury compels me to stand over him and inquire about the state of his mental faculties.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU STUPID CUNT?”
I spent the next 40 minutes praying for him to get another chance so that I could launch myself at his body as hard as humanly possible. Probably towards one of the more important joints as well, because I wanted to get my money’s worth. I am not usually like this.
In 2019-20, 3,279 Australians ended up in hospital as a result of an injury sustained playing soccer. I happened to be one of them, thanks to an overzealous forward dislocating and fracturing my right big toe. Injuries are scary to watch, and even scarier when they happen to you. It is only when you end up on the sidelines as a result of unsanctioned aggression that you realise what we excuse as “White Line Fever” is really something far more sinister.
The recent Round 24 clash between the Sydney Roosters and the Melbourne Storm is the perfect analogue for what is wrong with how Australians watch sport. The intensity on the field was unbelievable, and had boiled over into obvious cheap shots by both sides. The commentators once again applauded it as an example of the epitome of Rugby League. That was until Victor Radley suffered a concussion that left him bubbling at the mouth and convulsing on the grass. Radley could conceivably have died on the pitch, and it was only then that commentator Warren Smith called for restraint.
Perhaps I am not the ideal spokesperson for holding back, given I just outed myself as a psychopath with a penchant for ruptured knee ligaments. Sports are inherently dangerous, and playing at the limits of the rules may give you a better chance of winning, but it can also change the trajectory of another person’s life. We consent to the combat because it is fun, but more needs to be done in Australia to ensure that the heat of battle is not seen as the benchmark for on-field performance. Soccer season has just ended, and in the offseason I plan to do plenty of soul-searching to finally kick my white line fever for good.