Conflicted

A football love-hate story

As published by The Footy Almanac, 8 May 2012

It’s happening and I swear I had nothing little to do with it.

A couple months ago my wife dragged took my five year old boy to church. To her incredulity, out of nowhere he started singing Good old Collingwood for da ever (sic).

Right hymn / wrong place perhaps, but I couldn’t help but feel a sharp pang of pride in my son’s first important life choice.

Whilst Luke is way sharper than me at the same age, my teenage brothers’ indoctrination had me knowing every Magpie and their number from 1-60. I’d listen to The Captain and The Major at our 1970’s orange kitchen bench whilst tracking the game on my DIY Lego scoreboard. At half time I’d draw pictures of Billy Picken leaping over ten men for mark of the year. After World of Sport I’d be at the local oval copping the occasional welt from my brother’s well directed stab pass. Hilarious! My revenge would be refusing to leave until I’d emulated Billy’s marking heroics.

So far I’ve taken a comparatively passive approach to Luke, I promise. You see they learn stuff like footy songs at kinder these days, so no need to call Child Services.

Since the church singing incident his interest has intensified. An act of kindness by his football-atheist aunty entailing footy cards has sparked a new obsession to rival Ben 10, and a raft of personal childhood memories as he learns all the teams, colours and mascots. At his request the Collingwood jumper (I admittedly bought for last year’s birthday) is now on much higher rotation.

I wish this was a nature or nurture discussion, but my angst goes to his burgeoning love of football coinciding with mine reaching a crossroads. At <40 I don’t mean to be bashing down the door of the Grumpy Old Men’s Club, but like the inequitable, manipulated fixture, I’m at a tipping point.

The eponymous AFL, which somewhere along the line consumed the code, has never won much kudos. Not unlike the public transport operators – widespread dissatisfaction aside, they kind of get a tough job done. Under Demetriou’s watch though I reckon the AFL express has left a critical mass at the station.

Is these ‘rusted-ons’ support that unshakeable? Their needs and sense of footy justice would appear irrelevant to the big picture focus on maximising the value of TV eyeballs and courting the unconverted. As Monash University’s Dr David Nadel speculated, for all the bells and whistles, has the game lost its soul?

The obsession with growth and profit now has us drowning in ‘content’, arguably at the expense of quality. Of course there’s no going back, the AFL are committed to a billion dollar contract that facilitates a huge ongoing financial burden to support a new club in a notoriously difficult market, and another in an unreceptive, speculative one. All for a possible payoff a generation or two away.

Meanwhile, for some historically vital clubs whose loyal supporters have endured more five year plans than Mao’s China, long overdue flags and certain futures are still pipe dreams.

The ubiquitous nature of today’s inflated competition has been further exacerbated by social media, footy tipping, Fox Footy, gambling promotions, dream team competitions, WAGS, scandals and gossip all filling every last crevice of footy-free space. It’s relentless – if there was an off-season last summer I missed it. If mainstream media and the proliferation of boofhead panel shows isn’t enough, AFL Media has entered the fray with 40 journos delivering a superfluous (perhaps one day lucrative) ministry of truth.

Sure, adding my warblings to the white noise renders me somewhat hypocritical. Alas, the writing bug is as hard to shake as the footy bug.

But I’ve got to the stage where I’m reducing my footy intake. Last year I shut down a tipping comp I ran since I was twelve. Haven’t missed it one iota. Nor do I watch much on the box anymore, granted Seven’s underwhelming coverage is a factor.

Whilst I cannot dispute modern players’ incredible skill, in my opinion the enormous resources invested in strategy and fitness have rendered the game no more aesthetically enjoyable than 20 years ago. Any sufficient pause in play is a cue for 36 players to position themselves within 80 metres of the pill.

What hasn’t helped is rule change upon rule change in the attempt to correct previous corrections, and hastily inserted interchange rules lacking in medical justification. Adrian Anderson and the rules committee appear to treat the game as if it were a five speed bike. Does any other sport tinker so? Walking the dogs down the road and watching West Preston never had more appeal. There’s a lot to be said for decent standard local footy right now as a more accessible and comprehensible form of the game.

And from the long suffering umpires let me move onto the tribunal system which employs a convoluted points system administered by a panel struggling to impart common sense or consistency. Deliberately punch someone and you may get a week, or nothing. Make the wrong split second decision in the course of play and you might be cooling your heels for weeks. In 2010 they bumped the bump, last year it was the tackle, and this season being first to the ball is called into question. The #FreeLindsay campaign was far more compelling than #FreeKony in my book.

My other peccadilloes include Grand Final ticketing, arbitrary salary cap bypasses and the AFL’s sense of ‘integrity’ which has an organisation obsessed with image and social engineering on one hand, yet so willing to open the floodgates on gambling that ruins lives and has plunged other sports into disrepute.

My own mob is not beyond reproach. There must be ten million worthier targets for Federal funding than a wealthy AFL club. But I suppose for Magpie man Bill Shorten, whatever his mate Ed said about community recreation hubs must be right. And despite the club’s impressive efforts to make their 70,000 strong army feel important, I know I’m just another number. From my experience a vacuous tweet is more likely to glean a response than a considered email or letter of some import.

I envy Luke’s wide eyed innocence. He’s not ready for me to spill the beans on the Easter bunny or Santa, nor is he ready for my jaded views on footy. I can’t help wonder what kind of game he may or may not be playing and watching in ten years though, and how I’ll manage to keep the faith for his sake.

There’s certainly innumerate worse things in the world the boy could be doing with his time. I can only hope Luke experiences the same exhilaration and inner peace I (still) enjoy after a win as we sing Good old Collingwood forever, together.

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