(Originally published in The Swanston Gazette print edition one, 2019)
Fists are clenched. It’s April 16, 2016. Loud voices erupt from the Windy Mile, a popular pub in the north-eastern Melbourne suburb Diamond Creek. A Saturday night crowd spills onto the street. Alcohol-fueled tension boils over.
A 33-year-old man watches the fight unfolding between men and boys. He’s seen it bubbling. He makes the decision to join. A young man with long brunette hair rushes towards the brawl. His name is Pat, and he’s always helped his mates. He’s what you’d call a good friend.
Pat makes the decision to help. He seizes a friend from behind. His muscles tense. They’re exhausted after a game of senior footy during the day. Yanking his mate from the aggressor, the young men assume the confrontation has lost its sizzle. But a wild arm swings. In a horrific arc of futile anger, pulsing knuckles connect with the back of long-haired Pat’s head. He is rocked by the impact but carries on pulling his mate away. Little does he know that blow will end his life.
Matt Cronin. (Photo: Sean Mortell)
Pat Cronin’s death epitomises the trauma caused by one-punch attacks. His family’s reaction was pure shock. It was a moment “you never think is going to happen to one of your own”, Pat’s father, Matt Cronin, says. He powerfully objects to the label ‘one-punch’.
“I call it a coward punch, giving it a negative connotation compared to one-punch. Who wants to be known as a coward?” Matt says. His eyes carry the weight of grief and strain. He absent-mindedly fiddles with a dark red band that adorns his wrist. The faded yellow lettering reads ‘Be Wise – End the Coward Punch – PC12’.
Pat is known in the community for his long hair and footy jumper. His cartoon depiction is emblazoned across the Pat Cronin Foundation, along with the ‘Be Wise’ owl which he drew before his untimely demise. His death has inspired his family to act against coward attacks and start the foundation.
“A day after Pat’s death, we had an open house for family and friends,” Matt reflects. “I was standing on the veranda out the back of the house when some mates asked what they could do to help. We had a house full of flowers, but they understood flowers don’t achieve a lot.”
Matt and the Cronin’s moved swiftly after the tragedy. On April 18th Pat was removed from life support after being declared brain-dead the day before. By June they had organised a registered charity. The dissemination of education against the coward punch had begun.
But the message is yet to sink in.
At the MCG in the early rounds of this AFL season, tensions still boil over in the crowd. Following a close Collingwood v Carlton clash, irate fans turned to confront each other. Fingers were thrust aggressively. Saliva was spat as obscenities were yelled. Once-idle hands were raised and fists began to fly through the air towards unguarded heads, seeking to cause trauma. Frantic onlookers rushed to break up the brawl. These people will miss the last five minutes of a close AFL game but they know that is no sacrifice compared to the risk of loss of life that one punch presents.
The MCG. (Photo: Sean Mortell)
There is fear that Pat Cronin’s death and the work of his parents has been in vain. But perhaps the inspiration for these waves of deadly punches is coming from the players the crowd is there to cheer on.
Sport is such an important part of the Australian psyche. It’s woven into the fabric of our society – almost every household is involved in sport in some way. But research conducted in 1989 by Brian Wenn for the Australian Institute of Criminology led to the article ‘Violence in Sport’, discussing the aggressive behaviour breaking out in Australian sports. Wenn’s piece criticised Australia’s newspapers and the TV coverage of AFL for not condemning violence on the field.
In the 2019 AFL season, the Collingwood v Carlton brawl is not the only instance of crowd violence. Spot-fires of ugly crowd fights have broken out. The media have hyped these incidents and fought against increased stadium security. Fear over preserving a misunderstood interpretation of ‘freedom of speech’ has been prioritised over human safety. Innocent Australians like Pat Cronin will continue to be fatally struck as they try to defuse the violence.
This violence occurring around Australian sport, whether it be at matches or in pubs, is worrying. The nation is running in ignorant circles. Something must change.
“Pat was just trying to look out for his mates. It was totally senseless,” says Matt. “Everything Pat did that night was honourable.”
So why isn’t Pat’s legacy being honoured by a change in behaviour?
Just last year West Coast star Andrew Gaff let his anger take over during a match.
Instead of walking away, he punched young Fremantle opponent Andrew Brayshaw in the jaw, rendering him unable to properly eat for some time. Gaff was suspended for eight weeks and missed playing in an AFL Premiership. He was lucky he didn’t cost a young person their life.
Pat Cronin Foundation merchandise. (Photo: Sean Mortell)
When trying to spread the message of being wise, Matt and his family have faced their fair share of obstacles. A pivotal one came in the early months of this year when a member of a brawl at a Richmond v Carlton AFL clash was discovered to be the recipient of a medal awarded in Pat’s name for his service to Research Junior Football Club - the same club Pat played at.
But a key pillar of the Pat Cronin Foundation is research and with this hard work comes powerful knowledge. “What we’ve found is that alcohol does play a big part in violent incidents,” says Matt. “Around 75 per cent of them happen in or around licensed venues.”
The other issue surrounding these ghastly punches and attacks is respect, or perhaps a lack of it. Pat had respect for his mate, pulling him away from a dangerous situation, while his attacker refused to respect Pat’s valiant actions. In Gaff’s case, he didn’t respect Brayshaw as a young footballer merely trying to quell his influence on the game. For the members of the numerous crowd fights this season, they all disrespected the people trying to enjoy a game of football around them.
Police reports suggest this isn’t a problem solely isolated to AFL. State of Origin nights in New South Wales and Queensland attract at least double the number of domestic violence cases. Violent acts, regardless of the sport, spread like wildfire through the community. Firstly, avid followers of the game see it from the grandstands and begin to copy the behaviour when frustrated. Later, an alcohol-infused person in a local town swings their arm and ends a life. This is all connected. No incident is meaningless.
“The problem may be a values system – Pat grew up knowing to pull your mates out of trouble,” wonders Matt, wistfully looking up to the heavens.
You can learn more about the Pat Cronin foundation at patcroninfoundation.org.au.
This article discussed domestic violence. If you’ve been impacted by family or domestic violence, you can call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for help.
For help to stop using family or domestic violence, call 1300 766 491.
Remember to call Triple Zero (000) if you are in immediate danger.
For further resources, visit whiteribbon.org.au.