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Sports A power for good: The Law Blog

Chief Justice, judiciary Address to University of Melbourne Blues and Sports Awards, 20 April, 2012:
As judges one of the most difficult things we have to do is sentence people.
As you might appreciate, in the Supreme Court we deal largely with many of the most serious and worst crimes that are committed in our community.
Most cases are about death. As judges we have to grapple with the consequences of the death of the victim and, also, the impact on the victim’s family.
We also have to grapple with the potential for the rehabilitation of the offender. We must address the appropriate punishment of the individual for their crime.
In sentencing an individual, let us take the example of a fight outside a hotel where, after a scuffle, a punch is thrown and an individual falls to the ground, bangs his head on a hard surface or a kerb.
Dramatic head injuries are suffered to the individual and he dies. In these sorts of cases, very often, alcohol is involved.
What are the sorts of things that judges look at?
The court will be told about the positive features of the individual such as their youth, prospects of employment, difficult family circumstances and remorse.
These are called mitigating circumstances. On the other side we will be told about the aggravating features of the criminal offending. We will hear about the aggression of the individual, perhaps the lack of remorse or insufficient remorse. We will be told about the level of drunkenness and the like. Judges will then weigh the factors up and take into account all the other things required under sentencing laws in Victoria.
I want to focus now on the connection or relationship between sport and criminal offending. Academic research shows that there are definite social benefits from sport.
Chief Justice Marilyn Warren believes sport can play an important part in reducing crime.
Regrettably, in so many of the cases we deal with in the Supreme Court, the individual has come from a disadvantaged background, suffered abuse, often been affected by drugs or alcohol and presents as a tragic individual.
The defence lawyers will say the person found it hard to help themselves in all the circumstances of the crime or, were in fact, a hopeless case.
In my experience many individuals being sentenced in the Supreme Court have not been exposed to the benefits of extra-curricular sporting or other social activities during their childhood and their youth.
They simply have not had the advantage of being driven to sporting events, encouraged to participate, having a parent on the sidelines keeping the score, a parent washing the football jumpers, attending cricket training, driving to basketball stadiums late at night and all the things that parents do and that our parents did for many of us.
My own life experience and that as a judge informs me that sport helps to keep young people out of trouble.
Competitive sport is a good thing. It teaches young people how to win and lose with grace and dignity. It allows them to take risks – to risk failure.
In my experience competitive sport helps to prepare young people for the competition they will face in life.
I am supported in my view by research published by the Australian Institute of Criminology and overseas research.
The criminologists tell us that “wilderness” therapy for young people at risk, including in Aboriginal communities, has a marked effect. Research reveals that the consistency of sports programs has a clear correlation with reduced delinquency.
In Western Australia programs involving young offenders led to a drop in recidivism by about 85 per cent.
Involvement of young people in martial arts has been found by researchers to increase self-control, discipline and self-esteem.
Overseas various experiments and research reveal similar outcomes. It is not rocket science. There is evidence in England, Scotland, France and Canada.
A study followed 16 children with severe disruptive behaviours aged between 8 and 10 years over a period of ten months. Half of the children were assigned to karate classes, the other half acted as a controlled group.Statistically significant differences were noted in the behaviour of the children participating in karate in terms of intensity, mood and adaptability.
In the United Kingdom research has been done on whether combat sport has an impact on the criminality of individuals. The findings reveal that those who engage in structured and supported leisure activities are less likely to take part in anti-social behaviour and offending. Some of the findings revealed a strengthening of family relationships and friendships; the positive influence of peers on behaviour; potential to meet and manage excitement needs usually gained by committing crime or using controlled substances – the thrill-seeking is channelled into the sport; and a reduction in aggressive temperament and behaviour as well as an increase in participants’ self-esteem.
One other example is some work done in England called the Second Chance Project.
In South Gloucestershire a special program was developed for young offenders in custody to improve their behaviour. Using football as the sport in focus, 15 youths aged between 18 and 20 were found to be overwhelmingly positive about the program.
Significantly the researchers found that sport proved to be an invaluable hook in engaging young people and establishing constructive relationships and achieving their resettlement in the community.
My thesis, therefore, is that based on my own experience and valuable academic research, sport, particularly competitive sport, is a marvellous social phenomenon.
I venture to suggest that we could do with a lot more sporting activities, competitions and facilities being available to all children and young people in our community. Desirably, it should be readily available and organised so that it is accessible.
Whilst there are obvious health advantages, there is also the positive social benefit that competitive sport plays in keeping young people out of trouble. When young people do get into trouble, sport helps with their rehabilitation into society.
It also contributes to the development of good values and good behaviour as a citizen.
A very fine example of the portrayal of two of society’s greatest values, courage and self-sacrifice, is demonstrated by the story of a Melbourne University Blacks footballer, Brendan Keilor.
Brendan was a lawyer walking along an inner city street on his way to work in the morning, having said goodbye earlier to his wife and young children.
Unfortunately, he passed by a nightclub where a man called Hudson was assaulting a woman, the two individuals having recently left the night club, it then being daylight and early morning. Drugs and alcohol were involved. Brendan Keilor and another man moved to intervene.
Hudson pulled a gun, shot both the other man and Brendan.Tragically, Brendan died.
The other man survived his life-threatening injuries. Hudson was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Brendan Keilor was a much loved individual around the University Blacks football club. His selfless efforts in trying to help an individual who was being harmed led to him making the ultimate sacrifice.
He was a good person trying to do the right thing in society. The Melbourne University Blacks Football Club now has an award called “The Brendan Keilor Medal”.
It is given to the player who demonstrates all the attributes that Brendan Keilor was respected for: above all else, being a decent and good human being.
The number 16 football jumper of Brendan Keilor hangs in a frame in the old Pavilion club rooms at the university oval. The Brendan Keilor medal is valued as much as the best and fairest award.
The fact that most of the sports men and women in this particular room are university graduates or students can, I suspect, be partly attributed to commitment to competitive sport. Just as you have benefited from sport so society in turn benefits from the person that sport has helped to make you.
I congratulate each and every recipient once again for the awards. I wish you all well on the track, the court, the rink, the river or wherever you may be participating. At some point while running, riding, rowing, swimming or whatever you do, from time to time pause to reflect on just how important sport is to our society.

Marilyn Warren (4-5-2012)

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