As a long time devotee to the AFL, I’ve experienced abuse in many forms. It is so entwined in the experience, removing it could be harmful. But that doesn’t make it right. Or does it?
I’m an unapologetic devotee of Aussie Rules Football. It’s not just the game itself that I love. I love the culture, I love the community and I love the sense of belonging. For me, it fills the void that we’ve been left with as other institutions and societal constructs fall by the wayside.
It’s the only area of life where it’s completely acceptable (in my humble opinion) to place blind faith and support in something.
But my team is an institution within another: the AFL.
And while my support and passion for my team and the game itself is infallible, the institutions surrounding the game are not afforded the same protection.
The AFL has become a magnifying glass for a number of macro-societal issues over the past couple of decades. We’ve seen issues related to racism brought into the spotlight by way of Adam Goodes, Eddie Betts and others; we’ve seen issues related to gender being brought into the spotlight by way of the AFLW; we’ve seen issues of mental health brought into the spotlight by way of Matthew Broadbent and Jack Steven; we’ve seen issues of mortality and grief brought into the spotlight by way of Phil Walsh and John McCarthy. The AFL at large is a microcosm for Australian society, and how we deal with some of these issues can actually have a flow on effect.
So it’s no surprise that one of the biggest issues that Western society has at the moment has been dragged into the spotlight of our great game: political correctness—and the perpetually offended. It’s an issue that I’ve honestly struggled to get my head around; or more accurately, have struggled to reach a position on.
There is a unique atmosphere that is built on fierce rivalry and banter. Seeing that disappear from the game would destroy its heart and soul and leave it unrecognisable.
In the macro, we have a divisive argument continuing over free speech and the protection of others. Those on the more conservative side of the political spectrum often complain that “political correctness” has taken over and that they don’t feel they can say anything without fear of offending someone.
In many cases, particularly when it comes to conservative commentators, this complaint is just a flimsy shield made by those who aren’t capable of empathy. They aren’t worried about accidentally offending someone—they want the right to do or say what they want without consequence. But there are many people who are legitimately confused at the constantly moving target that is what we are and aren’t allowed to say publicly.
On the flip side, we have those who believe that offending anyone, accidentally or not, isn’t acceptable under any circumstances. Within that group you have the more militant who would be happy to completely destroy someone for the crime of unknowingly using the wrong pronoun, and you have those that genuinely believe that there just shouldn’t be a place for it at all, but accept that intent is a factor and should be a factor in deciding how to deal with something.
Most of us, however, lie somewhere in the middle, curled up in the foetal position having an existential crisis. The idea of offending someone or hurting someone doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t want anyone to feel victimised, ostracised or targeted as a result of something I say. At the same time, I have absolutely no problem with a comedian making sexist, racist or bigoted remarks (providing it’s done in the context of a joke of course). Yet I’m certain that a misogynistic joke made by a comedian is likely to genuinely hurt some women despite there being no intent to do so. If there’s a balance to be struck, I have no idea where it is.
A few weeks ago, a Richmond fan was handed a three-game ban by the club he supports for allegedly calling an umpire a “green maggot”. Last week saw a Carlton fan ejected for allegedly referring to an umpire as a “bald-headed flog”. For one fan, possibly the biggest AFL fan, “Joffa” Corfe of the Collingwood Cheer Squad, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Joffa this week called for a fan boycott and issued an ultimatum directly at the AFL’s CEO, Gill McLachlan. Taking to social media, Joffa said:
I won’t attend another AFL game until Gill (McLachlan) comes out and apologises to all supporters at the way we are being treated. Someone has to make a stand on behalf of all other decent like-minded supporters at the way we have been portrayed… Football is all about banter and fun booing and having a go at the umpiring. It’s about us you and me. I have never sensed outrage in the Terraces as what we are seeing now… So AFL get your supporter cardboard cutouts to replace us, get your fake crowd noise over the loud speaker systems at all grounds to replace us. We are the game or at least we thought we were.
On the one hand, I completely agree with Joffa’s sentiment. There is a very unique atmosphere at an Aussie Rules game that is built on fierce rivalry and banter. Seeing that disappear from the game would destroy its heart and soul and leave it unrecognisable. It’s borne from unbridled passion, and that’s hardly something we want to mute when it comes to footy.
But at the same time, it’s far more complicated than that. I remember taking my mum to a game in Melbourne when I was living there many years ago. The game was against Joffa’s Collingwood. As we walked out of the Docklands Stadium towards the city, I didn’t feel safe. Both Mum and I were on the receiving end of a barrage of abuse and threats from Collingwood support for the egregious crime of wearing our Crows scarves proudly. It wasn’t banter or passion—it was hate; and much of it wasn’t from random bad elements, it was from the Collingwood cheer squad. For the record, I’m not singling out Collingwood specifically here—similar behaviour happens in all clubs’ supporter groups, including my own.
Part of the culture and tradition of our great game is it’s supposed to be for the entire family. Parents taking their kids who in turn take their kids. Based on that night, I wouldn’t be likely to ever take my daughter to an away game against Collingwood. Granted, this incident occurred over a decade ago and the AFL have made huge progress in making venues and games more family friendly, but it highlights why this is such a complicated issue.
It wouldn’t be acceptable for someone to walk into my office and call me a green maggot so by the same token, it’s not acceptable to yell it at an umpire while they are at work.
The two recent incidents were related to umpire abuse specifically which raises an entirely different set of questions. Booing or questioning the umpire might be a tried and true tradition in the eyes of Joffa, but does that make it right? Umpiring, particularly at an elite level, is an incredibly difficult job. Add to that the fact that an AFL game for an umpire is their workplace. They have the same rights that all of us have within our workplace—as they should. It wouldn’t be acceptable for someone to walk into my office and call me a green maggot so by the same token, it’s not acceptable to yell it at an umpire while they are at work.
Nor is it something I want my daughter to see. Banter between sets of supporters is one thing, yelling at someone doing their job is another and not an example I want to set for her.
So what’s the answer? Well, like in the macro, I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if the necessary balance is achievable.
But the only place to start is better communication. The two men banned and ejected for umpire abuse have likely yelled similar things to umpires many times before. They’ve likely heard others do it at every game of football they’ve ever attended. If the AFL wants to remove it from the game (and I don’t have a problem with removing it from the game) then they need to make the rules, conditions and penalties clearly known and understood. Just as is the case in the world at large, half the frustration for people is borne from trying to get a firm grasp on what is allowed/acceptable and what isn’t.
The best way to make this situation worse is to leave things open to interpretation and to be inconsistent in the application of the rule.