Founded at the initiative of Sun Foreign Affairs columnist, Douglas Wilkie, the Anti-Football League (hitherto confusingly referred to as the AFL) launched itself with gusto on Melbourne in April 1967. The AFL’s raison d’etre: to protect members during the winter months from the endless slew of football stories and analysis. The method: a Monday column by Keith Dunstan which served as a rallying point for the resistance. Within two months, the Anti-Football League enjoyed a membership larger than the Collingwood Football Club, and its pernicious influence was registered in a volley of attacks from the footy faithful.
As the AFL’s website attests“(a) letter received at the Sun read ‘Come to the Phoenix Hotel at 5pm and I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich.’ The Phoenix was a Flinders Street pub, owned at the time by former Collingwood footballer and Sun football writer, Lou Richards, and frequented by both footballers and journalists. There were many letters just as strong. One suggested he just move to Alaska if he didn’t like football. Others felt he was a Communist subversive, of dubious moral proclivities, or worse—un-Australian.”
Yet despite the auspicious start, the AFL has in recent decades lost its vital force, as well the will to publicly burn footballs.
The AFL’s war with Australian Rules football is all but lost, yet pockets of influence remain. Like the Cold War the battlefronts have been wide and diverse. On the intellectual front—the only remaining rampart of the AFL—a decisive battle of ideas has been waged in recent decades between those who view sport as the lowest of low culture and the influence of a motley assortment of dead intellectuals (a depressing thought for the AFL) who have viewed sport as a serious and sometimes profound cultural phenomenon.
Let’s run through some of these wonks and their views on sport.
The philosopher and literary theorist, Roland Barthes found something profoundly symbolic in mid-20th century French wrestling, considered by many to be an exemplar of cultural baseness:
“There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.”
Barthes discusses the dramatic roles of the wrestlers, reminiscent of costume theatre, where the display is a sign that reveals dramatic types. “(J)ust as Pantaloon can never be anything but a ridiculous cuckold, Harlequin an astute servant and the Doctor a stupid pedant, in the same way Thauvin will never be anything but an ignoble traitor, Reinieres the moving image of passivity, Mazaud (short and arrogant like a cock) that of grotesque conceit…”
Don’t our AFL players strut around like proud cocks and provide us with 120 minutes of quality dramatic tension?
For Friedrich Nietzsche, an avowed lover of classical philology, the modern age was rubbish – mechanical, acquisitive, cautious and disenchanted. As crazy Friedrich gushed:
“Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live: for that purpose it is necessary to keep bravely to the surface, the fold and the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in forms, tones, and words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial - from profundity!”
For Nietzsche there was no truth to uncover, only our own arbitrary designations for things. We don’t discover truths we construct them from unstable metaphoric and conceptual foundations. When we view a stock-piling of ideas as inauthentic, what can be more authentic than the thing in itself, the aesthetic spectacle?
Donald Horne saw in Australian sport a deadening hand, where “part of that code of mateship of men, that necessity constantly to demonstrate masculine sameness…provided one of the most flattening sources of uniformity." For Horne sport is something between a social terminus and a swamp.
Of course there is a sense of machismo in some Australian sport, but Australian Rules is somewhat different. It has always been well attended by females and it must be said that issues of class and politics have on varied occasions impacted the game. During the Conscription Referendums in 1916 and 1917, drill sergeants were given a violent greeting in Fitzroy and South Melbourne. At the MCG, Billy Hughes jingoistic pitch in 1917 preceding the second referendum “received a warm reception from the members, while in the outer, the air was thick with stones and bottles.”
In political terms, the AFL introduced anti racial vilification laws in 1995 a year before the Keating Government introduced its landmark Racial Vilification Act.
Space precludes us from investigating other intellectual boosters of sport, like CLR James, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, William Shakespeare, Woody Allen and a welter of post-modern scholars who challenge the concept of sport as a meaningless cultural tip.
So there you have it. If you can’t find a dramatic, symbolic, philosophical, literary, political or historical basis for engaging with this week’s Grand Final, maybe just surrender yourself to it, like crazy Nietzscho, as a spectacular aesthetic event in its own right - to an Olympus of appearance.
David Latham is an historian, pending author and freelance sports journalist.
Follow him on Twitter: @The_IronSock
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