First published in The Age
THERE’S a culture of abuse in AFL football. OK, so some players have white-line fever on and off the field, but that’s not what I mean. My problem’s different.
I’m a Sherrin addict. That’s it. I’ve finally said it. I just can’t stop watching my team boot that ball.
In a writing class earlier this year, our lecturer began a weekly segment in which two students would interview each other, in front of the class, on a subject of their choice. The topic, he said, should be a hobby or interest of ours. Something we were passionate about.
That was when I first realised I had the habit. It finally twigged, much to my dismay, that I have no hobbies and know nothing about anything in particular. Nothing, that is, other than the Richmond Football Club.
My fellow students are mature-age writers in an esteemed creative writing course. I couldn’t very well admit such lowbrow tastes.
Football, after all, is the very antithesis of intellect. Through an ever-expanding winter, we are subjected to pages of print and hours of meaningless monosyllabic footy banter. Commentators ceaselessly construct mountains from molehills.
Now, at the end of the regular season, the September king tide of football-fuelled folly is upon us. Waves of cross-dressing misogynistic ex-players will soon flood our screens. This is the month when our addiction really takes its toll and, with Victorian teams in the hunt for the flag, there may be no other news to report.
Imagine, for a moment, that the national football wisdom, with all its detail, nuance and historical perspective, was instead turned to art. Or better yet, to science. Imagine all the fervent debates on tactics and all the hours spent watching game upon game were turned instead to the betterment of humanity. To a cure for cancer perhaps, or the development of renewable energies. Such a civilisation we would be.
Yet every home game in this dismal black and yellow season I walked to the ground with the ceremonial beat of culture in my chest. I felt connected to the others striding through the park today and to those from years and decades gone by. I walked with the hope for a close game, or at least a flash of brilliance from a new young player.
I stood in the same place and I knew that my Tiger friends would be there. We don’t need to plan. We just front up and launch into debate about the team for the week. When the game starts we growl and gesticulate in time with the play. This season, lose, lose or lose, I walked home with my earpiece while ignorant talkback callers bagged Richo.
My weekly football ritual, like family, gives me my place. It binds me to this town, to this year and last year, and to the hope of the year to come.
In a time where the same junk food is found in every big city and where media is merging the western world into one, footy is something distinctly Australian. Like us, the game was born of the meeting of cultures, from the indigenous game Marn Grook and from Gaelic football too.
Despite the futile expansionist policy of the AFL, Aussie Rules isn’t going anywhere. The Japanese and South Africans just aren’t interested. It’s our sporting oddity, stranger even than cricket, and that’s no easy beat.
Don’t get me wrong. Following the game isn’t a citizenship test, nor a call to dreaded nationalism. No one has to like it and it’s a good thing that not everyone does.
As the finals begin, we junkies should reflect on the possibility that the advance of civilisation might be hampered by our collective Sherrin addiction. Then we’ll head off to the game, thump our bellies and revel in the eccentric passion all of our own.
The writer’s triumphant endnote: A few months into semester I came clean to one classmate about my weekly habit. My bold move paid off: he was a diehard Demon fan and the very next week the Tigers flogged them. The first win of the season.