Sports brawls and the pro-smackers

Just what are we teaching our kids in school sport?

The spectacle of an all-in brawl involving players and supporters from Kelston Boys’ High and Auckland Grammar 10 days ago was an ugly symptom of a bigger problem.

Incidents like this are more common than we might think but this one was treated more seriously because it was caught on camera. The outcome was public shock and plenty of debate before and after the judicial findings were released.

The outcome was four Auckland Grammar players suspended from rugby for up to six weeks while seven Kelston players were banned from playing for between 10 to 16 months.

So why all the interest? We regularly see sports brawls on TV and here in New Zealand it is more commonly in rugby than other sports. Any physical contact sport where brute strength plays an important part will raise tempers and outbreaks of violence from time to time are inevitable.

What surprised was that these were teenagers attacking each other with fists rather than adult men. It shouldn’t have been surprising. Why should teenage schoolboys be expected to behave better than their adult role models?

Even worse was the result of the disciplinary hearings. If these were All Blacks they would have received the slap-on-the-hand-with-a-wet-bus-ticket treatment and been off the field for a few matches. By comparison these Kelston boys have been harshly treated. For an All Black a suspension for a couple of weeks is significant. For a schoolboy a year’s suspension is a lifetime. I agree with those who think these punishments are unreasonably severe. They are outrageously beyond what usually be contemplated at higher levels of rugby.

If we want our boys to behave better then tackle the behaviour of the men first. Until then give these boys a break. In the meantime hypocrisy is a more influential teacher than the bans they face.

It would have been good to hear the disciplinary body criticise the initial reactions of the two school principals involved. They both made excuses for the behaviour and tried to turn the blame on the opposing team. And what about the spectators who threw punches? Only school students were punished. Here again the anti-violence message is clouded for the young men who sit in these school assemblies.

The overwhelming feeling from this episode is that many schools see their status as more important than outcomes for their students. One commentator has suggested this has been exacerbated by Tomorrow’s Schools whereby a school’s reputation is an important marketing tool and there’s a lot of truth in this. Bearing this in mind it says a lot about New Zealand that these schools saw their reputation in rugby as more important than the worry they might be seen to be excusing violence.

Another side of the violence argument was on show over the weekend. Those who campaigned for the right to strike their kids without fear of prosecution celebrated in style at an Auckland hotel. Not a good look. Isn’t there something unsavoury about raising a glass to make merry of the right to hit kids? Yes the majority agreed with their loaded, misleading question and were swayed by their disinformation campaign. If they had been more honest and asked “Should parents have the right to hit their kids without fear of prosecution?” the vote would have swung the other way.

The debate now enters the unsavoury area of just what violence is acceptable and what “smacking” means. Some think open-handed smacks are OK; Family First’s Bob McCroskie thinks wooden spoons are fine; other think belts should be used and a few even think fists are acceptable.

If people like Bob McCrokie really wants to put children and families first then they must face up to the reality that violent abuse of kids is one of a whole raft of social problems which are exacerbated in societies where there is greater income inequality. The evidence is plain, unassailable and sobering. We don’t need a Royal Commission as Family First suggests. To reduce and eliminate child abuse we must first adopt economic and social policies which value all members of society and level the income field for families and children.

To reduce child abuse and alleviate the awful social problems which bedevil the country we need economic policies which redistribute wealth from those who haven’t earned it to those who do the work. Taxes on capital gains (on all but the family home) and heavy death duties are the logical place to start. A financial transaction tax should follow and GST should be abolished.

Tax and income policy should be based around what is needed for a breadwinner to maintain his or her family at a decent standard of living after a 40 hour working week based on sociable hours.

This is what putting families first is all about.