Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Five Problems with Australian Rules Football

Last year John Weldon and I created a podcast called Behind the Play. He was the straight guy and I was (something he had called me for years) 'The most hated man in (AR) Football'. We produced some thoughtful discussion I think. My rationale for wanting to undercut the mytholgies of Australian Rules was laid out in the document below, for want of a better title, The Five Problems of Australia Rules Football.

Australian rules is lumbered with five contradictions at its heart. They are so profound and historical that they are obscured from the plain view of aficionados and fans.

First the game is a syncretism of two incompatible modes of football. While the rest of the football word world was busy codifying and arguing between soccer-ish and rugby-ish impulses, Melbourne football decided to amalgamate the two and create an insoluble 160 year old ongoing argument about the holding the ball rule.

Secondly, Australian rules developed and found its basis during a period of Victorian optimism and expansionism. Many Victorians, at this point in its history seemed to believe they were on the road to nationhood. The Victorian Navy, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Victorian National Flag were products of this period. Footy also represented a cultural product of this nascent Victorian nation and so induced and rapidly cemented commitment at political, cultural and ideological levels. It came to represent an expression of Victorian manifest destiny. Its adherents constructed a frontier over which they needed to carry the game to the uncivilised regions of Australia. This frontier still exists in the form of the Barassi line.

Thirdly, and this point relates closely to the previous one, the rhetoric of Australian rules shifted from being a Melbourne game to a Victorian game to a National game over the first 50 years. The game’s imperialist urge was submerged in arguments that came to see the game as always having been representative of Australia in its entirety. This desire to capture Australia and in some instances the world stands in contradiction to the fact that even at its highest level the game is still centred emotionally in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. This region is its powerhouse and for many supporters it remains the heart of the game. Interstate teams are welcome to join the Victorian game but they must do so paying respect to the origins. The clash between Collingwood and Port Adelaide over the right to wear black and white illustrates this perfectly. At the heart of the game is the denigration of not only other codes of football but also other places of Australian rules, including the Victorian football Association which represented an outer suburban ring of Melbourne clubs.

Fourthly, and this point is more recent, the game is saddled with the myth of indigenous origins. While the idea that Australian rules sprung out of Marngrook is sustained, it will forever miss vital points of its own development. Certainly indigenous players have influenced the game tremendously. However, they were absent at its origins. The nature of colonial Society at that point forbade their inclusion. If a story is to be told of Aboriginal influence on Australian rules then it is about their initial exclusion through racist attitudes and laws, their parallel development of their own teams and competitions outside of the mainstream and eventual inclusion in the history of Australian rules when they worked, perhaps better, forced their way in. This is much later than the signal dates of 1858 or 1866 or 1877. This argument, it should be noted, does not actually rule out the influence of marngrook, it simply does not recognise it at any purported moment of origin.

Finally, it is not a particularly good game. Though that is merely my opinion. I don't think it's possible to premise football narratives on how good or how bad a particular game is. Yet, many footy supporters and footy historians start their arguments using the idea that football, their football, is the greatest of games. I do not doubt they believe this and are being honest in their assessments. Around the world games have developed in regions which all seem to think that theirs is the greatest of games. Whether it be Manchester, Wigan, Brisbane, Boston, Auckland, Montreal or indeed Melbourne, passion arising from the tremendous support these cultures give to their local game leads supporters to make greatness claims for them. This belief distorts the reality of a game’s values and problems. Australian rules supporters can be left thinking something like “Hey, this is such a great game, why doesn't the rest of Australia or, indeed, the world take it up?” That's a kind of noble ambition I guess. But the bigger problem might be that supporters can be influenced into thinking something like “Hey this is such a great game, why is the game I'm watching right now a bit shit?” Supporters of footy (and all games for that matter) need to realise that the greatness of a game is not so much because of its intrinsic or aesthetic qualities, but is rather generated by the strength of a culture's commitment to it. We all have a game that we look at and think “Well that's boring as batshit,” while supporters of that game obviously believe the opposite. Who is right? Melbourne, despite all my best attempts, is profoundly committed to Australian rules football. The culture highlights the game’s spectacular and beautiful moments as representative; it tries to dismiss the dreary and drab and problematic aspects of the game as other, problems that have been introduced over time because of the failure of someone, somewhere to stay true to the spirit of the game, whatever that means.

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