Control of the Blame

“We never think injuries like this can happen.” Liz Hayes, Reporter for 60 Minutes

#RiseForAlex round, 2014: McKinnon with Knights captain Kurt Gidley and player Willie Mason (photo credit: ABC)
#RiseForAlex round, 2014: McKinnon with Knights captain Kurt Gidley and player Willie Mason (photo credit: ABC)

Over the last 20 years of watching rugby league, I’ve seen some horrific injuries. Two that come to mind was in the 2000 season when Scott Prince snapped his shin bone in half and in the 2012 season when Jharal Yew Yeh smashed his ankle to smithereens (you could see the bone pierce the skin – through his footy boot). These were horrific in nature due to their immediate and gruesome impact. Prince recovered and continued a lengthy career, Yew Yeh never played again.

Nathan Brown, Brent Tate, Gordon Tallis and Ben Ross are all players that I’ve seen play, break their neck in some form – and mostly played on, albeit needled and bandaged to the eyeballs. But they played on. They were fine. They broke their necks but they were fine. Gladiators.

Yet over the past 20 years, the game has gotten faster, the players have grown bigger, and defence strategy more astute and, as a result tackling technique has evolved to become more crushing, restrictive and arguably dangerous.

Along with the broken necks, I’ve seen many a lifting tackle or spear tackle (where the ball player’s legs are lifted above the horizontal – with usually one player driving up high and the other “lifting” his legs). Sure, they have resulted in injury and suspension and calls for referees to take a tougher stand with penalties, but the tackled player has always been fine. When his centre of gravity has lost control, he’s heading for the ground head first with no part of his body touching the ground; they played on, they were fine. Gladiators.

Example of a lifting/spear tackle: Billy Slater illegally tackled by Beau Scott (driving), Josh Reynolds (lifting) (photo credit: Fox Sports)
Example of a lifting/spear tackle: Brent Tate illegally tackled by Beau Scott (driving), Josh Reynolds (lifting) (photo credit: Fox Sports)

Alex McKinnon’s broken neck from a lifting tackle in the 2014 season was different. A gladiator was broken in the most catastrophic of ways. When we learned of the extent of his injury – a quadriplegic, facing a lifetime in a wheelchair, and the very real possibility of never walking again – we all shed a tear. And I shed more than one watching the 60 Minutes interview.

**I’ve chosen not to include a direct link to the footage or photos of this tackle. Knowing the extent of McKinnon’s injuries, it’s too gruesome and heartbreaking to watch.

As the injured player, McKinnon has been dictating where the blame is to be laid for his injury – and rightly so. McKinnon has inspired many by maintaining positivity in his long road to recovery, but he is also still carrying and expressing a lot of anger – and rightly so. Yet, the backlash during the judicial hearing of the primary tackler Jordan McLean through to the fallout of the 60 Minutes story has been “well, with the greatest respect, if he didn’t tuck his head under he wouldn’t be a quadriplegic”. Admittedly, after watching the tackle a few times when it just happened it too was my reluctant, initial reaction.

While I won’t try to link sexual assault and rape with quadriplegic related injuries, I’m not an expert in either – there does seem to be a consistent echo of blaming the person who unwillingly received the trauma. She shouldn’t have been walking home alone at night, he knowingly plays a high contact sport, she shouldn’t have had those drinks, he knows that high risks injuries are possible, she shouldn’t have been flirting with that guy. He shouldn’t have tucked his head. These attitudes reflect a victim blaming culture in this country, that is wide-spread and toxic.

In the 60 Minutes interview, McKinnon responds to (rather than defends against) those critics, the victim blamers: he said that he tucked his head under to protect his fall. He was being speared, lifted head first into the ground. His argument was that it was a natural reaction, as if you were falling over and you put your hands out to catch your fall. His hands were occupied, he only had his head and neck to protect his fall. In the greatest of tragedies, McKinnon’s head and neck didn’t protect him, but they shouldn’t have had to. In rugby league the onus is on the ball carrier, the attacker, to control the ball, but in defence the onus is on the tackler, the defender, to control the ruck with aggression, but with technical and legal restraint. When this line is crossed, it can be deliberate, reckless or careless (as the judicial system reflects). Jordan McLean, the player charged and suspended for seven weeks for the career-ending tackle was not going into that tackle with deliberate intent to injure McKinnon. Thankfully, everyone in the rugby league community including McKinnon knows that. Yet there lays the platform for the victim blaming: McLean and McKinnon are both stand up, decent men. McLean didn’t mean to hurt him, but McKinnon did tuck his head under, so…

Who is to blame? And who is controlling the direction of the blame? McLean for the lifting? Jesse and Kenny Bromwich for driving? Cameron Smith for whinging to the referees for the penalty, as McKinnon was getting stretchered off the field in a neck brace by nine medical staff? The NRL judicial system for not handing down a tougher penalty to McLean? His lawyer for using McKinnon’s actions against him? The NRL for not genuinely cracking down on lifting tackles sooner? 60 minutes for running the story of the Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Australian Captain in a not-so positive light, just days before the biggest Origin game in a decade?

Maybe one of them, maybe a combination of them. But the blame should not be on Alex McKinnon in any way and he is well within his rights for as long as he sees fit to feel what he feels about his reality. It is never, ever right to blame the victim, regardless of the situation. Regardless of tackle intent, regardless of money raised for #RiseForAlex – a then 22 year old rugby league player not only lost his dream career, but his livelihood was taken from him in the most cruel of circumstances. How could he possibly be blamed for that?

Post Script: Earlier today I posted the following as my Facebook status: “By Channel 9 airing the Alex McKinnon 60 Minutes story just days before Origin 3 is a NSW conspiracy….Sweet baby yeezus, I’ve now heard it all. Will be posting about this story very soon!!” This sentiment was going to be the narrative of my blog post this evening, the fact that some people thought that Cameron Smith/ “Nicest Guy in Rugby League” was unfairly characterised in this story. I have strong opinions about Cameron Smith the footy player and captain. Whether he was given the right of reply to this 60 Minutes story is beside the point: the evidence of his disrespectful behaviour was there for all to see, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter in this post out of respect for the true victim – survivor – Alex McKinnon.

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