Since 2019, I have had a fraying relationship with Australian Rules football which has devolved into a contentious one.
I was a committed follower of the AFL from the time I was 8 years old. I passionately followed the Melbourne Demons in particular, a team of which I was a paid up member of for 10 years and one that makes no apparent sense for any self respecting Australian Leftie voter/activist to even remotely consider supporting. I watched games with a monastic zeal, and attended them in person when I could. I bought merchandise. I was elated to the point of ecstasy when ‘we’ won games, and deflated to the point of despair when ‘we’ lost. I often couldn’t separate my identity as an Australian male with being a football supporter.
Yet as we approach the AFL finals series, I really couldn’t give a toss as to what the results will be. This is coming from a person who was once bewildered when he met a fellow Aussie who had no interest in team sport, and summarily dismissed them as either hipsters, bohemians, wankers or ‘weirdos’.
How did I go from having what is essentially a form of distracting entertainment dictating my mood, social schedule, consumption and spending habits and personality to fostering a furious apathy towards said form of distracting entertainment?
There are a few reasons. Firstly, I don’t call Australia home in a geographical sense. I’ve lived in Japan for the last 5 years, and 10 of the the last 16. Distance can make the heart grow fonder, but it also dulls one’s passions. It gets harder and harder to find the like minded and passionate in a society where the concept of this specific sport is about as familiar to most as Morris dancing.
Secondly, I have found other ways to fill my spare time on weekends thanks to this estrangement. The amount of reading, writing, activism and exercise that I have been able to take on since I don’t deem it mandatory on weekends to ensconce myself in front of a screen for several hours and ferally scream. This has been both refreshing and constructive. My new obligations preclude me from watching too much TV full stop.
Thirdly, having cast a critical gaze upon the culture of Aussie Rules football, there is a lot to criticize.
Viewed from a philosophical perspective, Noam Chomsky’s idea that competitive sports are essentially a training exercise in irrational jinogism, and are hallmarked by the fostering of irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements is something that has started to reverberate with me. Watching team sports as passive consumption can indeed encourage mindless conformity and anti social behavior. Just look at English soccer hooligans. Melding one’s identity into the amorphous, intangible ideal of a team, and pledging loyalty to it regardless of it’s shortcomings can sow the seeds of a society that can casually dismiss the crimes and the malfeasance of power and of authority.
Viewed from a more recent historical perspective, the recent history of the AFL has been discomfiting at best. Aussie rules football ‘culture’ has always had a toxic and venal subculture metastasizing within it. In the age before social media, the good old boy network that controlled the TV and radio stations as well as the print media were able to massage the perceptions of the sport and it’s personalities. With the rise of the internet and greater scrutiny, the public avatar of Aussie Rules (as well as it’s blokey cousin, the NRL) has been whittled away and we have been left with a more revelatory and disquieting view of what it represents.
Biliousness misogyny. Toxic masculinity. Recreational and performance enhancing drug scandals. Standards of behavior applied to men (as well as their hangers on) who can kick a leather bag of air around a field that are indistinguishable to the average punter on the street. Irrationality among supporters leading to acts of violence. Indifference to those forced into retirement when the game has deemed them as having outlived their usefulness. The pathetic spectacle of political leaders pandering to tax payer funded, yet profit making, organizations by pretending they are rusted on supporters. These are the aspects of the AFL that furrow my brow, put knots in my stomach and arouse my anger or frustration.
Then there is the racism.
Despite it’s nexus being the so-called progressive epicenter of Victoria, Australian rules football has always had issues with race. Starting with the Essendon football team* originally being unofficially referred to as the ‘Blood Stained N***ers’ for their all black uniforms with a red sash superimposed over them□, Indigenous players and officials such as Robert Muir, Michael Long, Nicky Winmar, Glenn James, Chris Lewis and Sir Douglas Nicholls, the first non white Governor of an Australian state, have been targeted with racial invective that was deemed up until 1995 as being ‘just part of the game’ and something they needed to get over. The outlets of this invective haven’t always been knuckle draggers in the stands or players on the ground. Club presidents, recruiters and media personalities have also gotten in on the act.
There is no better recent example existing that illustrates the ugly smear of racism festering in sections of the AFL than that of the Adam Goodes booing saga, which was the trigger for me to reconsider my interest in the sport altogether. Goodes, an Indigenous player for the Sydney Swans who was a two time Brownlow medalist▲, Australian of the Year, and vocal indigenous activist, was forced into premature retirement from the game thanks to the jeering of a gaggle of brain-dead muppets that were initially aggrieved over something that he had done during a match in 2013 (a match I attended with my then girlfriend and now wife). Goodes pointed out a 13 year old girl, one who had audibly called him an ape over the fence, and requested that security remove her from the stadium. After the match, the president of the opposing Collingwood Magpies team, Eddie McGuire, graciously apologized personally to Adam for what had happened. Defying all belief, he then went on the breakfast radio show that he hosted the next morning, and proceeded to suggest live to air that Goodes should be considered for a part in promoting a musical rendition of King Kong that was running in Melbourne at the time.
The situation devolved into a grotesque slanging match over perceived sleights and, for mine, exhibited the worst of Australian culture. Those with guilty consciences or axes to grind are free to say whatever they want as to why they took the positions they did at the time. As Melbourne sports writer Francis Leach so eloquently put it, I believe they were mostly aggrieved because Goodes refused to be the Black man they demanded him to be. He refused to be a passive receptacle for racist taunts during an infamous Indigenous round match against Collingwood in 2013 that coincided with the 20th anniversary of Nicky Winmar’s famous show of defiance to the baying racist mob at Victoria Park. He wanted Australians to look at the historical relationship of it’s colonial settlers with the Indigenous population and the disquieting statistics concerning areas such as life expectancy, incarceration rates, education, health and deaths in custody. In reality, this is the conversation that all Australians should have been having at the time, rather than cobbling together prosaic, semantic justifications of their obnoxious behavior and vomiting obtuse questions like ‘why can’t I have a day as a straight, white man?’💡. Yet, Goodes’ behavior was the issue thats was over the line for the faceless masses. It felt like Gamergate in the sense that ‘ethics in gaming journalism’ had transmogrified into ‘ethics in booing someone for being a flog’.
Each documentary serves a purpose. The latter is better viewed as a historical time capsule. No new footage is included in it. It is a chronicle of all that went on at the time, and I believe should be used as a means of correcting the record in the face of historical revisionism. The disingenuous and the sophists among the Australian commentariat have tried to countenance criticism of the abuse dished out to Goodes as him being ‘divisive’, ‘aggressive’, a ‘stager for free kicks✫’, a ‘sniper〇’, and that race was irrelevant to the conversation. All despite this being against a backdrop of incidents such as him being an immediate target of online racist abuse after lending his support to an anti racism campaign.
It also shows that Goodes, when interviewed directly after the match, was oblivious to the collective pearl clutching of the AFL commentariat in response to his ‘provocative’ war dance during the match against Carlton because of its supposed ‘hostile intent’. It almost felt like to me that there was almost an unspoken pact among the commentators that night. As if they were looking at finding a way to find some way to impugn his motives, so as to rehabilitate their mate, Eddie McGuire. While that is my take, I don’t know what lives in people’s hearts, so I can only speculate.
The misrepresentations and obscurations of the culture war obsessed Australian political Right, who expediently latched onto a specific Goodes’ quote that stated the young girl that he pointed out in the crowd ‘was the face of racism in Australia’, are on full depressing display here. What they conveniently ignored, and continue to ignore, was that he stressed repeatedly that it was no fault of her own, and that she should not be publicly shamed beyond what had already inadvertently occurred. His implication that casual racism is unconscious, the process of incultration, and often borne from ignorance rather than inherent malevolence was dismissed by those looking to pour gasoline on troubled waters.
‘The Final Quarter’, through sheer impact of replaying old footage, additionally made me reconsider my take on many of the AFL identities who I looked up to when I was younger. The Footy Show※ was something I will admit that I regularly watched until about 2015, and something I thought was fairly harmless at the time. Seeing the aforementioned Newman hissing at a television camera like a feral cat as he defended what was happening to Goodes, as well as Collingwood president and former Footy Show host, Eddie McGuire making the incredulous ‘King Kong’ joke on morning breakfast radio made me understand why that show needed to be confined to the historical archives. It also made me consider what I have let slide when I was younger as ‘just jokes’, ‘mucking about’ or ‘telling it like it is’.
Of the two documentaries, ‘The Australian Dream’ is better used as a broader picture of race in Australian society. While Goodes’ activism, stance on indigenous issues and personal history is portrayed in ‘The Final Quarter’, a broader view of Goodes’ life and the circumstances surrounding it is provided here. A collaboration with Australian Indigenous journalist, Stan Grant, it shows the devastation felt by Goodes on the night of the original incident of racial abuse, his return to the countryside to escape from the incessant vitriol that was being cast his way, as well as his family history regarding his mother and upbringing. It also takes in the perspectives of many other key and peripheral figures in his career including his former coaches Paul Roos and John Longmire, opposition coach Nathan Buckley, fellow Indigenous teammate and Go Foundation co-founder Michael O’Loughlin, brother and former Western Bulldogs player Brett Goodes and Eddie McGuire himself. There is also a historical outlook provided by the testimony provided by other Indigenous athletes not necessarily directly involved in this lamentable episode, such as Nova Peris (whose story about being slurred by a fellow Australian athlete in the Olympic village left me cold), Gilbert McAdam and Nicky Winmar. In this sense, it is an excellent resource for those unfamiliar with Australian history concerning race and it’s foibles.
Alas, it also gives a platform to News Corp. columnist, Andrew Bolt, who led a long running campaign against Goodes implying that he should be the one to apologize to the girl he pointed out to security. This decision has been criticized by some as giving a platform to someone undeserving of it. I have mixed feelings on it. For all of Bolt’s incessant whining about conservatives (though I personally consider him a reactionary) being excluded from the public square, he has multiple radio spots, a nationally syndicated news paper column and a TV show. He has a big enough platform as it is. That being said, I believe that the airing of his opinions in the documentary is akin to exposing bacteria to sunlight. When he asks the audience whether they would shame a young girl instead of letting it slide, it’s clear to me that he is speaking to an audience that CAN’T see outside their own experiences. As the documentary shows, if you had experienced life as an Indigenous person growing up in Australia, it would be a struggle to say that you would just ‘turn the other cheek’. The type of person who would accept Bolt’s argument on face value would be someone hard pressed to empathize with Goodes’ lived reality regardless of the unimpeachability of the evidence provided to them. ‘The Australian Dream’ is not likely to resonate with them.
So after the release of these documentaries, where should Australian society go from here? Firstly, while verbal racial vilification and denigration is a complimentary means of enforcing systemic racism, Caucasian Australians from settler and convict stock (of which I qualify as) should be confronting their history and understanding that it has created a system designed to favor them. This should not be manifested in expressions of performative white guilt, token gestures or self congratulatory twaddle about how diverse and accepting Australia is. It needs to cast it’s gaze at things such as the incarceration of indigenous youth in places like Queensland, indigenous poverty rates and deaths in custody. To paraphrase the Australian journalist, John Pilger in his documentary Utopia, few Australian political parties have ever gone into an election campaign promising to bring about better outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Ascertaining why this is the case and changing the political conversation is indispensable to reorienting Australia’s trajectory.
Secondly, Indigenous voices need to be elevated in future conversations about the Indigenous experience in Australia☇. A welcome aspect about ‘The Australian Dream’ was that Indigenous people were able to speak to their own experiences and the history of white colonization in Australia. Grimly watching the entire imbroglio play out, the trend that struck me most was that most comment was coming from white, financially comfortable journalists, whose privilege and position insulated them from the daily reality many Indigenous people in Australia face. It wasn’t until this year that the abovementioned Stan Grant became the first Black man to report on Black issues for the ABC’s flagship Four Corners current affairs program. When this is the reality coming from a supposed cabal of Leftist newspeak propaganda (at least they are from the viewpoint of the reactionary Australian Right), it goes to show that those allowed to have a voice at the roundtable of discussion needs to be greatly expanded.
As for AFL football? While I may have appeared to have written about it here in very condemnatory terms, there are and were bright spots emerging. The players and fans coming out in support of Goodes after his self imposed sabbatical showed there ARE people who actually did display the requisite humanity demanded of this scenario. While the reticence of the AFL to call the abuse from the stands what it was is, and should be, a blot on it’s reputation, they too ultimately apologized to him for not having spoken out sooner. My life circumstances have reduced my interest in Aussie Rules, but it is encouraging that progress, no matter how large or small it’s degree, has been made. It’s just tragic that this had to happen for it to come about.☀
□ To be fair, Essendon was a consistent booster of Indigenous footballers during the era when Kevin Sheedy, the founder of the Dreamtime match, was coach.
▲ This is the AFL’s equivalent of an MVP award.
💡Just for the record, there was an entire policy designed for straight, white men which the Australian nation was founded on. It was literally called the ‘White Australia Policy’.
✫ This is the AFL equivalent of being awarded a penalty or foul.
〇 Someone who deliberately exaggerates the severity of contact in order to be rewarded a free kick.
※ Long running football/variety show known for numerous off-color and questionable incidents.
☇ I can see the irony in me typing this.
☀ As of writing, Adam Goodes has cut all ties with Australian Rules football and the AFL. He didn’t take up the AFL’s offer to complete a lap of honor upon his retirement.