Killjoys

As published in Inside Sport, May 2007. 

Are the fun police the only ones running riot at major Australian sporting venues?

In one of the superb cricket documentaries screened by the ABC in recent times, one 1970’s image seems light years ago.   As flannel hatted lads file into a cricket ground with eskies perched upon broad Aussie shoulders, the narrator informs us authorities have just introduced a one slab limit in response to concerns over crowd misbehaviour. 

During the recent Ashes series, a thirsty young attention seeker makes his way down the steps in the old Bay 13 area at the MCG, carefully balancing his ‘liquid gold’ (at a price approaching the precious metal).   He stops to drain the contents of one plastic cup, to the plaudits of onlookers.  Spurred by a growing audience, down the hatch goes another, then another.  To a spontaneous standing ovation and a ‘you are a legend’ chant, the fourth has disappeared in a fashion that would make a certain ex-Prime Minister proud.  The now bloated hero of the day takes his seat only to be tapped on the shoulder a couple moments later by the powers that be.  For the socially unacceptable crime of drinking one’s mid-strength beer at a Symonsesque run rate, a day at the cricket meets an abrupt, premature end. 

It is no easy task for sport administrators, venue managers, police and security to determine the line where behaviour has potential to put others at risk or impacts upon the enjoyment of other spectators.  In this instance, publicly guzzling a tray of low alcohol beers did more damage to the culprit’s back pocket than anything, save the most morally conservative patrons and impressionable kiddies.  Crowd management is a complex issue that reflects changes in social standards and even greater political, legal and economic forces.  The ideological conflict often lies somewhere between basic civil liberties and of the venue manager’s right to refuse entry or exit anyone that doesn’t play by their rules – that is, you’re in their house, they’ve got risk management considerations, so behave!  For Joe Public who digs deep forCPIbusting entry fees,  attending cricket/football/soccer/rugby can be a rather constrained, dull affair, especially when the game fails to live up to expectations.

The decision by some venues this summer to ban classically trained Barmy trumpeter Bill Cooper from displaying his skills at the cricket aroused considerable media attention.  Weight of public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of the talented Pom.

“The police told me my behaviour was affecting the enjoyment of everyone else,” said Mr Cooper. “But the thing is no one complained. The trumpet was making people sing and have a good time.”

One can only imagine that authorities feared a groundswell of faux Louis Armstrongs brandishing their instruments with intent to cause grievous bodily harm or Australian Idol rejects inflicting their lack of talent on the viewing public (aka AFL approved pre-game ‘entertainment’). 

Cricket patrons have been encouraged to ‘dob a yob’ via a text messaging system, a once inconceivable notion here.  A bikini clad Lara Bingle might have been the face and body of this summer’s Ashes, yet ’beer wenches’ have been no balled at the SCG.   Along similar PC lines, Russell Crowe (of all people), decreed that South Sydney’s rugby cheerleaders had shaken their last pom-pom.  Like the struggling Rabbitoh’s need another reason not to attend their games this season…

The Mexican wave has been a feature of sporting arenas in Australia and around the world since the 1980’s.  Where it evolved into a more dangerous incarnation coincided with the MCG’s Great Southern Stand’s opening in 1991 when Australiamet the West Indies in a one-dayer.  Anything not riveted to the ground became airborne flotsam and jetsam.  In the ensuing years golf balls, full plastic bottles, urine filled bags and even cats were reportedly thrown and some idiots’ aim was so askew that opposition fielders were endangered.  The nadir of this phenomenon required a helmeted Shane Warne to appeal for sanity and decorum so a game could continue.  Since 9/11 and subsequent precautions such as stricter bag checks, the wave has been somewhat disarmed.  Despite that, a Cricket Australia directive this summer had the wave banned from ‘the people’s ground’.  Aggrieved fan Matthew Newton’s clever use of the media encouraged rebellion en masse.  Newton’s ejection before Ritchie could say ‘none for tew off tew overs’ was a cost-effective way to make a very public point.  His martyrdom was widely applauded, the wave taken up with newfound impetus.

“Cricket Australia just want to fill their stadiums with plastic fans, wearing the official T-shirt, eating the official pie and drinking the official drink” said 22 year old Newton.

The wave isn’t everyone’s, certainly not the cricket purists’ idea of frivolity, but for the vast majority who attend one-dayers knowing full well what to expect, complaints are rare. CricketAustralia’s decision was understandable to the extent that to not act could be deemed negligent. The ban was an unenforceable public relations disaster with just 38,858 fans attending the final.  Perhaps for many, one-day cricket at the ‘G had lost its allure.   CA might only console itself that it made a reasonable effort and attention had been effectively drawn to the throwing of debris, a concern supported byNewton. 

Arguably, CA’s own clever marketing in winning the ‘theatre-going’ audience has contributed to crowd control issues.  Not really grasping the nuances of the game, many one-day fans with small attention spans expect to be entertained all day long.  The challenge now is to breathe life into a tired format that increasingly induces restless spectators to stand up and stretch their limbs in a choreographed fashion or to play ‘piggy in the middle’ (no pun intended) with inflated beach balls.

It seems odd that a nation renowned for larrikinism and disrespect for authority has apathetically allowed itself to become so regulated in every facet of life.  Even those visiting from the famously austere Mother Country are bemused by our penchant for rules.  A new age of fear – terrorism, drugs, violence and other safety concerns, three tiers of government, relevant sport and venue authorities, lobby groups with health and safety agendas, not to mention a sensationalist media and growing litigiousness have taken their toll.   Another underlying factor is our susceptibility to the ‘knee-jerk’ reaction.  When an incident occurs, whether due to a lunatic fringe, technological failure or simply bad luck, authorities feel compelled to introduce a new rule or safety measure in an effort to prevent a reoccurrence and potential law suit.

Sporting bodies also ensure the family demographic’s interests are paramount. Their long-term viability rests on winning over both parents and children and nothing is left to chance.  Negative publicity over the actions of a high profile star, unruly supporters or violence on the field can bear a high price. 

In Australian Rules where the Mexican wave, contraband beach balls and Barmy buglers aren’t an issue, the fun police have made their mark in other ways.  As per the cricket, full strength alcohol has limited availability and only at nightclub prices and smokers are the new lepers.  Once upon a time diehard supporters enjoyed a whole day’s entertainment with under 19 and reserve grade games supporting the main event.  Now they’re forced to arrive early in time to watch the grass to grow and be force fed innumerable sponsors’ ads at headache inducing volume.  Thou shalt not obscure advertising hoardings with club scarves and with passouts at Telstra Dome recently removed for ‘security’ reasons, thou shalt remain in the stadium at all times (cue the sound of designated caterers’ tills).  Patrons are tracked on closed circuit TV, kids are no longer allowed to kick footies on the concourse and recently aMelbournenutritionist even had the temerity to suggest the banning of the traditional meat pie for health reasons!

There was a time when not only were the old suburban terraces subject to jungle law, but even some umpires condoned a ‘he copped his right whack guvner’ view of physical retribution on the field.  Players are often confused as to what constitutes acceptable physical contact. Inordinate video scrutiny has seen suspensions meted out for unavoidable collisions and other trivial actions that were once merely a free kick.  Shows of strength and player theatrics, which have rarely caused injuries beyond players’ egos, are spurned and punished.  Once a ho-hum game at least satiated a primal desire for a red-blooded contest – now players are expected to turn the other cheek in an ‘un-Australian’ way.

Naughtiness on all fronts has now been reigned in but howling condemnation is ready and waiting for the professional role models and common fans who transgress.   As Matthew Newton observed of cricket, is the ‘football light’ experience so watered down as to render it an expensive, covered in plastic bubble wrap imitation of what used to be accessible entertainment for all, albeit a bit rough and ready at times?  Local football leagues may be the beneficiaries as they provide an on-field product and off-field atmosphere more in tune with the common folk and the days of yore, at a price everyone can afford.

Our notable crowd control issues often relate to the ridiculous, such as streakers and stray pigs on the field depicting porky players.  No doubt the pre-emptive measures, of which some have been critiqued here, have helped spare us a more menacing and dangerous anarchy seen overseas but we’re not entirely immune.   Last year Chaser’s Chas Licciardello divided opinion with his comic take onCanterburyfans proclivity to engage in violence with his mock Bulldog ‘supporter kit’.  Whilst Chas was vindicated in the courts, he hit a raw nerve for considerable work had been invested in ridding the ‘Bulldog Army’s’ blight on rugby.  With a linkage to the Cronulla riots and bearing in mind the Bulldogs’ Lebanese supporter element, the issue is a seriously hot potato for the club, the NRL and the NSW State Government.

Soccer (for the purposes of differentiation) has notoriously been in a league of its own when it comes to mob mentality and violence.  The ways in which English football has been reinvented and rid itself of such baggage has been a learning curve that has empowered many administrators to nip trouble in the bud. 

Academic theories on crowd behaviour are also an interesting reference point.  Gustav LeBon’s contagion theory’s simple explanation is that the excitement of a sporting contest increases one’s suggestibility and likelihood of copying the behaviour of those around them. ‘Inciting the crowd’ is now the cover-all reason given for many evictions for behaviour that breaks no known laws.    Certainly the infectiousness of the wave, which when analysed in the cold light of day is a fairly childish and pointless activity, is a lot more fun in the hurly burly of a large stadium packed with fans. 

Australian soccer never held a candle to Europe orSouth America’s bent for supporter strife, but in the days of ethnically aligned clubs, there was enough friction to hold back the sport for an interminable period.  When clubs’ names changed, the window dressing failed to break down the walls around a secular sport that to the community at large was a curious domain that few felt comfortable entering.  Now that the sport is on a winner, sections of the media with vested interests still did their best to undermine A-League with overblown reports on a couple trivial post game incidents.  Hopefully supporters understand that the sport’s massive gains can be quickly undone.  The sport’s reputation precedes them. 

Racism on both sides of the fence is a festering and damaging issue for sports.  A racist element within Australian crowds still rears its ugly head on occasions but it seems that gradually the message is getting through.  One can’t turn a bigot into an accepting human being overnight but for the purposes of respectability, at least offensive comments are less likely to be aired now with better educated social standards (plus the threat of eviction).  Since Nicky Winmar’s watershed moment in 1993, where he made an iconic stand against racism at Victoria Park, indigenous sportspeople have engendered greater understanding and respect but it is still a work in progress.  After poor performances againstSouth Africain 2005/06, Australian crowds scored some badly needed runs this summer with English spinner Monty Panesar.  Having sought professional advice for coping with anticipated racial sledging, instead Monty quickly became an overwhelming crowd favourite. 

Over the top or seemingly unnecessary regulations and limitations that are imposed at our sporting venues give little credit to the average Australian’s intelligence and sensibilities.  We are not a nation of oppressed people, nor is there a culture of venting frustration with fists or lethal weapons.  The problem for our sporting bodies is that the lowest common denominator and ingrained political correctness has a habit of forcing their hand.  No reasonable member of the community would argue that racism, violence or other actions that threaten the enjoyment and safety of others has a place.  The question is whether some measures are being enacted under the guise of public safety when they are really bound in political or bottom line interests.  At a lower level, are we being confined by the most conservative moral sensibilities?  Our television networks certainly don’t conform to the same level of censorship.  How much more will Australian sports fans accept before they decide to stand up, raise their hands in the air and make a ruckus?  They certainly better not chuck stuff!

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