We all know Jimmy Bartel as the successful Geelong football player but until last year, we knew little of his own experience with family violence. At the start of his final season of AFL, Jimmy announced that he was going to have a clean shave and cut, and not shave again until his final match of the year. In launching the #FaceUpToDV campaign, Jimmy wanted to raise awareness of domestic violence.

Jimmy grew up in country Victoria. As the youngest of three children, he was only a year and a half old when his parents divorced — far from old enough to understand the violence his father brought into the household. But as he grew older, he came to comprehend the crippling environment in which his mother and siblings lived, in the clenched fist of his father's aggression:

“Unfortunately the divorce didn’t stop the whole thing. That’s the first misconception: ‘I can leave.’ My dad was in and out of the house.” 

The physical violence inflicted on the family was fuelled by alcohol and gambling. And then there was the emotional abuse:

“It’s like he was two people. At the pub it would be: ‘come on son, get on my knee.’ But at home it would suddenly change and be completely different.”

It all came to a head when Jimmy’s older sister had a son of her own, and their father wanted to come and see his grandson:

“But he’d been down the pub all day. My sister asked him not to come but he was really aggressive. I was 20 years old at that stage. I knew this was going too far. You don’t want another generation to go through violence. So that’s where we cut ties.”

Jimmy is thankful to his mother, who instilled love and strong values into her children, helping them to appreciate that their experience with their father wasn’t normal. She also made sure to teach her children about healthy and equal relationships:

“I knew it wasn’t normal because of my mum and her strong values: respectful behaviour, don’t expect a woman to wait on you or do things for you. I grew up with a mum and two older sisters and there was always that equal value. My mum taught me to never raise a hand to a woman. I never even hit my sisters when we were little… What it comes down to is that you need to treat everyone equally.” 

So in his final season, Jimmy wanted to take these values and use his status as a sporting hero for good:

“It was something that bothered me for quite some time. I watch the news a lot and read newspapers a lot and there’s just too much of it. I was relating to articles and realising how lucky I was to no longer be in that situation. I also knew I was coming to the end of my career. I understand the platform that AFL gives me. Plus, with the arrival of my son I wanted to do something that he would respect and admire: I’d rather he care that he saw what I did for raising awareness than my playing career. He might not understand it now, but in 15 or 20 years I hope he’ll get it. Also, I had spoken about my experience briefly in 2007, but it was time to give it some depth and I felt I was mature enough and old enough.” 

For Jimmy and his family, talking about the violence turned out to be a positive step. “It was a kind of therapy,” he says. And once Jimmy opened up publicly about his experience, he found himself consoling other people: 

“I knew it was prevalent in our society, the numbers say it, but I found the experience overwhelming: the amount of people who would come up to me and say that they can relate to my story has made it rewarding that I did it, but also terribly saddening. I’m getting far too many people saying that they can relate, and they’re doing it quietly.”

Jimmy is glad that the conversation has started. And he’s noticed a difference even within AFL circles, where violent or misogynist incidents perpetrated by AFL players are less likely to be leniently pushed aside as if the behaviour is acceptable. Jimmy hoped that through sporting his untamed beard this season, he would encourage an open conversation amongst parents and their children around family violence and promote social change:

“Firstly it was to create the first conversation and encourage dialogue. The important thing for me was I didn’t want to tell the message that they wanted to tell: the point was that the kid would start it and ask the question so the parent can choose how they want to approach it. I’ve heard different ways that parents have been explaining it — the conversation changes depending on the age of the child.” 

Being an advocate for family violence will always be important to Jimmy. As he takes his next steps into post AFL life, he feels positive about where the conversation is going and hopes that, gradually, the stigma around family violence will lift, allowing survivors to talk openly about their experiences and encourage real change. 

Watch the video below to see Jimmy getting a much needed haircut: