How good is this break from football? I say that as someone who has followed the game since the age of three and who still thinks it is one of the best spectator sports in the world. But of all the incidental benefits that have stemmed from the coronavirus, is there any more valuable than this hiatus from football? Not for mine. I hope common sense prevails at the AFL and it lasts the whole year, although I know there is as much chance of that as there is of the Adelaide Crows being given an earnt home grand final at Adelaide Oval.
The lockdown has reminded us of a time when football was in its proper place. Anyone on the wrong side of fifty can remember it well. Life was more about neighbourhood. If you needed bread or milk or wanted to buy the paper you walked or rode to the deli. People worked five-and-a-half days a week to earn an honest keep, most often in a trade or profession that they stayed in for life, and football was a Saturday afternoon entertainment. The game was an important part of the week and was looked forward to, but the players too held Monday-to-Friday jobs, the kind that kept the wheels of the community turning.
Yes, it’s easy to romanticise the past and there is much to be grateful for in the progress that has been made in the decades since, but when it comes to the place that football holds in society, I wish we could go back to something closer to the way it was in that earlier time. Imagine if our grandparents and great-grandparents could have been told that games would be televised around the country four or five days of the week, that players and administrators would be full-time professionals earning more than the Premier or Prime Minister, and that the media would be speaking and writing about the game every day as though there was no more important matter in national affairs. They would have thought Australia had acquired some kind of sickness, which brings me to my point.
The football culture of today is Australia’s underlying, undiagnosed health problem. If left unchecked it will before too long induce a nationwide physical and emotional stupor. The players may well be getting quicker, stronger, and fitter but followers of the game are getting proportionately slower, weaker and fatter. Take the family to a restaurant for some quality time and there is a screen showing the football. Go to a pub for a quiet drink with friends and every wall in every bar is showing a different game. Even weddings are no longer safe. Guests make sure that the reception centre has the television on and spend half the night sneaking past to check the score or, doing away with the pretence, standing and watching regardless of the speeches going on behind them. One of the lockdown restrictions is that you can only have five guests at your wedding but at least you know that they will not be watching the football. You should have five polite, attentive guests, which is probably more than you would have in normal times with a guest list of eighty.
This break from football is precisely what the doctor ordered for Australia. It’s an opportunity to clear our minds of their football junk and lift our heads a little higher. The Australian lifestyle is diminished, not enhanced, by the ‘football spread’. It keeps us on the low road, and the bigger the spread, the lower the road gets. I don’t say that as any kind of culture snob sneering at football. I have loved the game ever since I was sitting on my Dad’s shoulders watching South Adelaide in the late 60’s. The history of football in all of the states that started playing it in the late nineteenth century is a significant chapter in the Australian story and the game continues to be an important constant in people’s lives. The problem is the spread into more and more of life’s available spaces. Football is, indeed, more than a game. It has become an instrument for blunting the nation’s potential.
The reprieve won’t last much longer, unfortunately. The AFL is saying that when, not if, the season resumes, games will be scheduled on six or maybe all seven days of the week. They seem to be suggesting that this is something to be excited about. It feels more like punishment for the enjoyment of the current respite. The sensible thing for the AFL to do would be to forget about this year and start again in 2021. Apart from all the logistical problems of pushing ahead in 2020, the eventual premier will always be remembered as having won in a makeshift season. In fact, I tend to think that if a poll was conducted on that question a majority would say the same thing ‒ don’t worry about 2020. But it would not matter to the AFL if ninety-nine per cent of people responded that way. They are going to force this manufactured season on us come hell or high water.
They are doing this not with any thought to how it will be received by the people. They are doing it solely for reasons associated with money, and, at long last, they are not disguising that fact. In this time of the coronavirus the facade that AFL decisions are made with the people in mind is finally done away with. It is true that part of their motivation relating to finance is to try to save jobs, which is of course understood. But this possibility of people losing their employment is the only sad thing in what otherwise will be a welcome slimming down for the game. Maybe the CEO, senior executives and commissioners could sacrifice a percentage of their salaries to provide for better packages for those who turn out to be unlucky. Only a small redistribution should be enough to see them through a number of years.
The AFL has been causing enough anguish for football followers already, especially those outside of Victoria, the interstate Australians. Pain points for me include the MCG grand final rule, the treatment of Tasmania, the fact that the competition continues to be no more than an extended VFL, the lack of vision and courage on the part of the administrators and the fact that no one is able to hold those administrators to account. Now the AFL wants to dump a seven-day-a-week season on us, one where yet again more than half the teams will come from one city. Talk about death by a thousand cuts. It’s time to set myself free from football once and for all, at least from the AFL version of it.