Why I Didn’t Play Australian Rules Football

by John Kinsella

There’s not a lot I really need to say about “Aussie Rules” being a blood-sport. And there’s probably not a lot I really need to say about the blind nationalism that has led to the propagation of the game through many strata of Australian society. That it feeds on these “strata” by generating a sense of fusion, a sense of crossing over, that the bloke next to you might be a labourer or a lawyer, that even those in the comfort boxes are “regular” Australians – both male and female – underneath, reassures the club member in the cheapest seats. Australian Rules, that hybrid of Gaelic football and rugby, breaks down those class barriers inherited from the British Empire, the new class of wealth modelled on America, while feeding on the tensions of an Anglo-Celtic rivalry. That indigenous people have made it their own, that members of different migrant communities have found a mainstream status they felt excluded from for years, that it has been seen and used for reasons as different as tokenism and communal pride, personal achievement and as a medium for certain kinds of social change, narcissism and self-sacrifice, are all part of the mythology pushed by the Australian Football League advertising gurus. Australian Rules is the campaign headquarters of the Aussie variety of capitalism.

First off, the game is about the body. Steak-eating, meat-eating generally go with footy culture. Eat your meat, son, and you’ll grown up big like your father, and if you’re lucky hit the big time as a player. It is even used to encourage kids to eat their vegetables, though primarily in the context of a meat-and-three-vege meal. Cultural variations increasingly allowed for, strength comes through the possession of the blood of conquered beasts. Tall and thickset is promising – a future in the ruck, in defence. Tall and lanky and fast – a forward. Small and wiry and fast, a rover or on the wing. There’s room for body types, but strength and aggression and maybe stealth are prerequisites. With the body goes the attitude – this is something that goes with aggression. It’s the desire to win, to succeed. It fits well with a colonial society struggling to throw off the shackles, but also with the government-supported agenda of a passionate nationalism – this new identity that is rooted in tradition of federation and the constitution – and, ultimately, the corporate desire for profit and control. A spectator sport, football ensures a controllable market, but one in which passivity is given an edge: enough violence and enough of a wildcard to create new marketing possibilities, to keep the hunger for the show going.

Men’s Aussie Rules is also about owning the sexuality of a woman, or women. Your sweat alone weakens the opposition. And when you become engaged, your offshoot will be sexually attractive, lusted after by all the other guys, but remain unavailable to them. A cross between the flirt and the demure. Warwick Capper got it wrong – his girlfriend, the centrefold, was lust-plus for the hormonal teen fans, but she got away. Maybe he wasn’t all that team membership suggested he was! The team: the blokes and individual achievement. The star culture, but in the end, stepping back to let your mate shine. To come to his defence and hit the shit out of the guy that’s just shouldered him into the dirt. Might have been your teammate before the draft put you in another team. Pumped up by the coach, by celebrity, by a sense of self-worth and self-love, the body takes over. The great players use their head as well, we’re told. Then there are the clowns, the entertainers, who maintain their status despite declining skills by being both amusing and “hard men”. Jacko was a good example; he advertises batteries and goes on and on and on. His hit single was titled “I’m an individual”, which the industry doesn’t mind us thinking he is. As long as there are not too many of them. Dermie Brereton, lust object of the smart girls who didn’t even like football, pledged to support the IRA. Eloquent in aftergame “chat”, his political sensibilities were of the moment and the rush of centre stage. But he took his background to war with him, the Irish Australian with a chip on his shoulder, the Ned Kelly wannabe. Ah, such is life. My father is of Irish extraction, though I don’t know what he thought about Brereton. He didn’t play for Western Australia, so I’m sure it’s not relevant.

The game has changed dramatically over my life, certainly in organizational terms. More than that though, they say it has got faster, that there are more handballs, that it’s more graceful. I know it’s more television-orientated, that it’s no longer simply a case of rugging up in winter, that the meat-pies-and-beer culture has merged with the champagne and canapŽs of the hospitality tent. But don’t let the corporate take bluff you! Teams were strictly regional up until the 80s – district, League in the cities. It wasn’t really played in the rugby territories of Sydney and Brisbane. It wasn’t associated with heat, though regional teams in the Northern Territory and far north of Western Australia had learnt to associate sweat and humidity. In the south, the winter game became a semi all year round game, with night matches, pre-season in summer. It spread North to Sydney and Melbourne after becoming the Australian Football League. The home of football, the Victorian Football League, Melbourne, still retains its steady grip, spreading its influence through the national game. The politics and cultural determinism of the Victorian Game, the triumph of Melbourne within Australian culture, are another discussion. From a Western Australian’s point of view, all that’s required is to know that they’re the enemy, though we all go to the Coliseum, to Rome, for the big battles. The empire is held together by a desire to beat the centre, to beat their best at home. It has a religious element, and associated fervour, about it. The Catholic versus Anglican aspect risks opening a can of worms.

As a Western Australian, or more appropriately in the vernacular, a Sandgroper, Aussie Rules was part of my life from the moment of birth. For those without football-minded parents, if such people exist, kindergarten, television, and advertising are sure to rectify the omission. My father was a football player, but one with a chip on his shoulder. He injured his back and knee – or was it his knee on its own? – playing for the East Perth Colts, on the verge of selection for the Big Time. He was on his way to playing League. My grandfather, a lifelong supporter of East Perth, was disgusted when my father, after leaving the game, became a supporter of East Fremantle. To my grandfather, it was nothing less than betrayal. Brought up by my father as an East Fremantle supporter, even though I distrusted football from an early age, I was often placed at loggerheads with my grandfather, to whom I was otherwise close. It wouldn’t be any easier to say I couldn’t care less, which I really didn’t, because not to follow a team at all was less than manly. I should say that my grandfather was not a “he-man” – he loved art and music, was never ashamed helping my grandmother prepare flower arrangements, and was a keen gardener. But the roles of men and women were neatly apportioned, even if the “power” in the house was shared, or even in the hands of my grandmother. Hammer-toes kept him at home during the war, and this probably informed his attitudes. He enjoyed nothing more, though, than mixing it with the blokes – his rich friends, who owned planes and boats, even, to my absolute horror, a whaling station. He owned a rifle and held no great feelings for animals, though he was not a cruel man by nature – a strange mixture of gentleness and role-play. Football suited his semi-passive restlessness perfectly. He saw it as civilized abandon. He loved cricket because of the strategy and control, but also the power and risk. He was, not surprisingly, an ardent monarchist, having come out on the boat as a twelve-year-old to the pink of the empire. Piano and boxing, the euphonium and the fire-brigade, painting and cards. And, above all else, Aussie Rules football. He probably harboured a desire to play it, but it never came about.

My father is a different man altogether. At the football, his father would instruct him to give a punch in the head to a “big-mouth” supporter of the opposing club. It was war. My father’s struggle with his aggression and semi-meditative side (read: sarcastic, laconic, Australian) found focus in football. He was going to make it big as a ruck. He could kick a ball higher than he could longer, which was a problem, and he loved the attention. My mother thought he looked good. She went to his games. She loathed football. Says it all.

It’s easy to say I preferred books to football, but plenty of people like both. Hemingway is the author I dislike the most, and you can find his equivalent in Australian letters over and over. I don’t fit that bill. The unspoken and spoken war between my mother and father centred on his attitudes to corporal punishment. I associated football with being in trouble. He bought me a plastic football when I was a couple of years old, followed by a Burley, and then a ball I wanted as much for the brand name as anything else, a Chesson. When he and my mother divorced, his in-between partners talked about football with my brother and me. My brother was like a whippet – fast and a good handler of the ball. But he couldn’t be controlled, so “full of natural talent”; they couldn’t pin him down. And I was “strange”, inward-looking, and rebarbative, at least on the football front. His eventual second wife’s mother knitted us beanies and scarves in East Fremantle colours, de rigueur for the ardent follower. I liked them for some reason, and wore them everywhere. I went to the first games I really remember, and felt the adrenaline rush. When opposing players started brawling, I’d yell with my father, though wondering deep down why. “But it’s a skilful game,” always came the refrain.

In grade four I injured my knee, seriously. I had to go to a physiotherapist. I’d been playing football as part of sport and twisted my leg making an effort to kick towards goal as a bunch of “tough kids” crashed me to the ground. That was it, and I felt well shot of it. My father on an access visit assured me it would mend, but his chip grew heavier. Two down, and one to go.

In truth, I wasn’t shot of it at all. My grip on my gender status had always been tenuous, being a reader and interested in science, and not particularly sociable, but now I was out of contention as a footballer (on any level) it was quickly asserted that my sissyness and poofterism were confirmed. A life of beatings and victimisation followed. School became a hell. Resentment prevented me from showing that such ostracism affected me deeply, but every time a girl I liked avoided me on instructions from a football-playing “cool kid” or “tough”, or persecuted me for being a “poof”, I felt it more than all the punches and kicks my body absorbed over those years. Rather than inclining me towards misogyny, it showed me how boys are obsessed with control, that they will oppress at any opportunity. It made me distrust my gender, and to look to those places where gender lines are blurred, where people can be themselves and function semi-independently of the social unit. Later, I would learn that one can create a community of like-minded people, community in which male and female are respected for who they are and not for what they are expected to be. Footy was used to define the category of girl as much as boy, and even now when my daughter can play Aussie Rules with the other young school kids, the same codes are lurking beneath. They time segregation with puberty. Ironically, at one level, these continuous fights toughened me physically, and I dare say I would have functioned okay on the football field. In truth, it’s a wonder I don’t hate the game rather than find it merely symptomatic of a greater malaise.

In High School at Geraldton, the footy team included a number of yamajee and other aboriginal players. In the racist Geraldton environment, where a weekend’s entertainment was a race riot down at “front beach”, where the cops were regularly accused of harassment and abuse, where custody was a dangerous place at the best of times, but potentially fatal if you were black, the internecine support for the Aboriginal football player, within the school system and district club system, was a revelation. So even the most extreme racism could be temporarily put on hold if the oppressed helped bring glory to a football team. The battle fought by indigenous peoples in Australia for recognition of their spiritual, physical, intellectual, and cultural brilliance has been partially focussed through this success within the national game. Every indigenous player you speak to will tell of the racism that is endemic to the sport, that even the non Anglo-Celtic players, who also endure it in their own context, will happily dish out. Football, the egalitarian game, becomes the focus of race hatred. The examples are so numerous, it is again a case of not needing to state them. I will add, though, that as a very young man I accompanied my grandfather to a match between South Fremantle and East Perth, in the days when Stephen Michaels was at his best. Standing in the crowd, I heard a conversation between two opposing supporters that went something like this:

South Fremantle Supporter – Give the bloke a go, you’ve got to admit he’s got strength. And plenty of grace as well.

East Perth Supporter – You can’t trust those black bastards, they’re all the same. He’ll go walkabout next week and then where’ll you be?

South Fremantle Supporter – He wins more than he loses. You’re just a jealous bastard.

East Perth Support – Piss off you Abo lover. They shouldn’t be allowed on the trains.

And so it went. This really happened; it happens now. The precise nature of the train comment struck home. And the marginalising use of “grace”. It is interesting that Perth, racist city that it is, celebrates its greatest Aboriginal sportsman, Polly Farmer, by naming a recently-built stretch of freeway after him. The section that forms a tunnel under the city is known as the Poly Pipe. The joke goes: black and quick, and any number of variations on that.

The negatives aside, it is a sign of cultural “assimilation”, of recognising the power of Australianness, that sees a new migrant culture represented in an Aussie Rules football team. The first Italian players, the first Greeks, and the first Asian players all come to mind. How many more-or-less minority Australians got bashed would make for an interesting statistic. Football is not simply gladiatorial, though it’s popular to describe it as such. As much happens outside the ring as in it. The protection of errant footballers – drunk-driving charges, rape, all manner of crimes, are deconstructed and reconstructed by a supportive media (jobs, boys, jobs!) and the industry. Violence on the field is tried through tribunals rather than public courts. A different set of rules, Aussie Rules. I have heard of two deaths in country football teams – grudges led to the violence, but fair in the field of play. No charges laid.

Watching television football is probably the context for more domestic violence than any other broadcast. Now, this is an unsubstantiated observation, or a slanderous piece of conjecture. Back in my drinking days, I’ve visited houses where bunches of blokes have forced women to watch the game, have mocked them for “getting off” on the “short shorts”, have grown more aggressive and more drunk and more angry with each umpire decision against their team. The hatred is there, and just needs a trigger, true. But it’s the pack nature of the drama that is most disturbing.

I suppose I should add the disclaimer that, apart from people beating each other up, being unable to control their tempers on the field, revelling in full body contact, failing to come to grips with the homo-erotic nature of the sport, to recognise the confusions of their desirings, the game does interest me. Sure, the skills – the aerial ballet (or the “like poetry”, but these are the “dehomosexualised” versions of ballet and poetry), the team coordination, those “ball-handling skills” – get me going. And throwing back to my childhood, I do find myself being parochial. I think of the various “barracking” criteria from over the years: the old Auntie following the team of her impoverished inner city neighbourhood, connecting God and the flower of youth, the other elderly Auntie who is bitter and hates all around her, who releases her aggression by blending footy and brandy, the politics of football and belonging, the migrant identity signature of my grandfather, a loyalty to the new home while being loyal to the Empire (he obsessively barracked for the English in cricket); the decolonising and assertiveness of the indigenous players, the bloodlust of the powerless and the greed of corporate sponsors, the rivalries of school and then the pub, the splits between families. War, civil war, acts of civil disobedience. It’s all there. No simple answer.

As a vegan though, in the end, it’s a bunch of blokes – women’s Aussie Rules football teams are to be celebrated but they will always mirror the testosterone-lust of the genre – kicking the inflated skin of a dead cow, or dead cows, around a field. It’s a cruel sport, as most are. So where do I fit in thus? Well, my father had another son by his second marriage. This son was more than a promising footballer. On the surface, he seemed to love it, though such tales were always mediated by a desire to prove manliness to my very large father. I suspect there’s more to it than that. I’ve been in those change rooms, and I know even the jocks don’t ultimately enjoy the show. The mighty so easily fall. And you only need one slip up in there and good maleness can suddenly become suspect. If only they’d all recognise the camp pantomime they’re playing in – the travelling circus that is kept deranged by the threat of being dropped from the team. Of losing public iconicity. Anyway, back to the stepbrother, my stepbrother. On the verge of joining the Colts, one step before my father’s achievement, he was badly injured. He lost all – the adulation of girls and women, the approval and admiration of the blokes, a passport to a cushy job as a bank teller with plenty of time off, a future in the media on a kid’s programme or talking with other ex-footy stars about the latest brawls, gossip, or the size of a girl’s breastsÉ Or maybe he escaped in the nick of time.