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God bless the footy: dissent and distractions

Before the AFL, there was the much better, much cooler, much more local SANFL. heatherw/flickr

God bless the footy: dissent and distractions

This piece is republished with permission from State of Hope, the 55th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis of the economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges facing South Australia, and the possibilities of renewal and revitalisation.


When it comes to colourful and controversial views, the long-time mayor of Port Augusta, Joy Baluch, set elite standards. She said in 2008:

I hate sport.

I’ve never had time for it, been too busy looking after a family, you know, surviving. It’s a waste of time. I hate football and tennis and golf … and if ever the Asians are going to come in it’s going to be on grand final day … And they’ll just take over peacefully.

I’m not sure exactly which Asians she imagined would swarm South Australia on grand final day, destroying our white-bread, white-skinned way of life. Perhaps all the Asians – the Chinese and the Indonesians, the Japanese and the Koreans, the Vietnamese and the Thais – slaughtering innocent women and children with nothing but the power of kung fu, riding their Suzuki motorbikes, eating butter chicken and guzzling Chang beer after a solid day’s conquering.

The term “Asians” – whether she used it here thoughtlessly, provocatively or jokily – is symptomatic of Baluch the plain-speaking dissenter. But so too is her attack on sport. Few things are more shocking and inexplicable to huge numbers of South Australians (weird murders notwithstanding) than someone willing to have a dig at the footy.

Alan Killigrew, a Victorian who came to Adelaide in 1959 to coach the Norwood Football Club, offers a more conventional and comforting view:

After all, what is a football club? It is grass in the middle, posts at the ends, and bricks and mortar. It’s people that give it soul. A football club is a living body.

I’ve heard family and friends describe their church in exactly these terms. Footy isn’t just the dominant spectator sport and topic of conversation in South Australia. It’s a salve. It’s a community binding agent. It’s the best entertainment going, even in the digital age.

It’s a mass obsession, especially when one of the local AFL teams – the Crows or the Power – sits high (or low) on the ladder.

A love for Norwood

Before the AFL, there was the much better, much cooler, much more local SANFL.

When I was nine years old and living in the lead-smelter city of Port Pirie, not too far from Baluch’s Port Augusta, Norwood made the 1978 SANFL Grand Final. Never mind Asians: little green men from outer space could have landed their spaceship while Dad and I watched the last quarter on the TV in our lounge room on Three Chain Road.

Norwood – the mighty Redlegs – were 29 points down at three-quarter time against Sturt, who had only lost once all season. The ’Legs were only so close because Sturt had kicked poorly in front of goal.

Norwood’s then coach, Bob Hammond, told his players:

You can win it if you believe you can win.

Inspired – enraptured, perhaps – the players surged. In the chaotic final minutes, umpire Des Foster awarded Norwood’s Philip Gallagher a mark – or was it a free kick? – the legitimacy of which Sturt supporters still dispute. On a tight angle, “Gags” kicked the winning goal.

The ending to the 1978 SANFL Grand Final.

In the nearly 40 years that have passed, I have never strayed far from that spot in front of the TV, too tense to breathe as the clock ticked down: nothing could have mattered more.

I can still feel the disbelief, the ecstasy, as the final siren went and Dad lifted me off the ground and over his shoulder. Most especially, I will never lose my righteous fury at Mum and Dad, who had refused to let me get the train down to Adelaide to go to the game. My older brother Matt witnessed history that day from the concrete terraces of Footy Park, and that’s the reason he has done so well in life.

Norwood’s 1984 premiership was even more memorable, although I wasn’t even in the country. By then, I was a painfully shy teenager living with my parents in Logan, Utah, in a valley between two stunning mountain ranges and surrounded by Reagan-hugging Mormons.

That year, Norwood came from fifth, winning three knockout finals to make the grand final against Port Adelaide. On the Monday after the final, the family back home mailed us a VHS tape of the game. While we waited for it to arrive, nobody would tell us whether we’d won. Finally, Grandma Allington, under extreme pressure from her loving son and grandson, muttered down the phone in her faux grumpy way:

I promised I wouldn’t tell you who won. But if I did tell you, you’d be very happy.

When the tape finally arrived in the mail, we couldn’t play it because the US used the NTSC television display system. At a friend’s place – we had no video player ourselves, although we had access to something like a billion TV stations – we fast-forwarded the tape and, with electronic snow for vision, listened to the commentator’s distorted voice call the final seconds, his voice slow and deep:

Theeeeere … itttttt. Issssss … it’sssssss … alllllll … ovvv-errrrrr.

It was a couple of weeks before we found a kind stranger with a set-up that allowed us to watch the game.

Highlights of the 1984 SANFL Grand Final.

Footy embedded itself in my childhood life in deeper ways than winning games and the occasional premiership. I researched everything about football. More importantly, I felt everything. I cried one night in 1980, when Port Adelaide’s Russell Ebert won his fourth Magarey Medal and so deprived Norwood’s Michael Taylor of what was rightfully his.

I wasn’t only consumed by the season in progress. One day, Dad took me to meet an old man called “Wacka” Scott, who let me hold his two Magarey Medals (1924 and 1930).

Another time, I traipsed around a suburban cemetery to find the grave of “Topsy” Waldron, who played in Norwood’s first year in 1878 (Norwood were premiers on debut). In his book commemorating the centenary of Norwood, Red and Blue Blooded, Mike Coward wrote:

Waldron died a pathetically lonely man. He believed only his Norwood Football Club loved him.

But perhaps most of all my love for footy and for Norwood was about family. I loved reading old newspaper clippings of my grandpa’s football exploits. Harold Allington was a defender who played 56 games for Norwood between 1931 and 1935; he won the 1934 best and fairest; he played for the state; he had a clean pair of hands.

He was also – and this was the part I loved the most – injury-prone. The Advertiser reported on May 17, 1935:

This year he is still the shuttlecock of misfortune.

He broke his collarbone, missed ten games from a single concussion, did an elbow, badly bruised his hip, and more.

My favourite clipping detailed the day Grandpa cut off the middle toe of his right foot while chopping wood in the backyard:

Allington, who was wearing slippers at the time, limped into the kitchen unseen, and despite great pain prepared some hot water in which to bathe his foot.

How he managed to chop off one toe – why not two toes? why not half his foot? – was forever a mystery to me.

I was almost as proud of Dad, who played a couple of trial games for Norwood in the early 1960s. He could have made it – or so I’ve always believed – but he was at theological college at the time. One day the coach, Alan Killigrew, spoke to Dad after training. He said:

You’ve got to choose between football and God.

To my everlasting regret, Dad chose God.

It’s been several years since I’ve been to a Norwood game, although I occasionally watch them on television. I have followed the Crows, the made-up club “for all South Australians”, since their first game in 1991, but never with the same messianic fervour with which I followed Norwood.

Perhaps most importantly, being a Crows fan allows me to retain my culturally embedded and familial hatred of Port Adelaide. I go to the occasional game at the cathedral otherwise known as the new Adelaide Oval (South Australians will line up to tell you it’s a “world-class stadium”), and I watch replays of high-quality matches.

But despite my fading fervour, I retain a version of a football-is-everything mentality. Partly, I’m nostalgic for my childhood. Partly it’s because it’s still, on a good day, a magnificent spectator sport. And partly it’s because I miss my grandpa.

In South Australia, you’re traditionally either a Port Adelaide fan or you hate them. AAP

The off-field reigns supreme

These days, though, I find myself more interested in footy analysis, rumour and realpolitik than in actual games.

The AFL is a legitimate and sometimes compelling space in which to consider a range of political, cultural and social issues, including racism, reconciliation, sexism and misogyny, the deification of the alpha male, the profile of elite women’s sport, the use and misuse of “team first” philosophies, the carnivalised meaning of Anzac Day, the sanctity of Good Friday, performance-enhancing drugs, illicit drugs, gambling, the proliferation of sledging in public and workplace discourse, and more.

The AFL’s own approach to these issues is sometimes awkward, sometimes PR-driven and sometimes tokenistic. But, at other times, they display some sophistication. Often, it’s a bit of both – and in any case, footy fans are hardly the only subset of Australian citizens who struggle to engage constructively with complex issues.

But my interest in off-field matters goes deeper still, by which I mean shallower still. The AFL’s trade period in 2016 threw up its usual mix of players trying to leave clubs and clubs trying to push players out. For a week in October, I was transfixed by the possibility that Bryce Gibbs might leave the Carlton Football Club, even though he has three years to run on his contract, and come home to Adelaide.

I worried about what player or draft picks the Adelaide Crows would give up to get him. Not Mitch McGovern, surely, who could be anything; not Charlie Cameron – please, no – who Eddie Betts has taken under his wing. In the end, Gibbs stayed put, with the Crows announcing they “were not prepared to meet Carlton’s unrealistic demands”.

These are the sorts of footy issues that capture my interest: which coach is about to get sacked? Which player has filmed himself snorting a white substance and whacked it up on the internet? Was Norwood’s 1984 premiership – coming from fifth when the finalists came from a top five only – a greater achievement than the Western Bulldogs’ 2016 AFL triumph from seventh to premiers?

Only parochialism can deal with an unanswerable question: Norwood is by definition better than the Western Bulldogs or Footscray or whatever they’re calling themselves this week, and South Australia is by definition better than Victoria.

All this is harmless fun, innocent downtime. But think back to Joy Baluch, who suggested that we’d be too distracted on grand final day to notice an Asian invasion.

Leaving aside Asians, Baluch is onto me – but the situation is more insidious than she suggests. Footy chat doesn’t distract me. I don’t find myself wondering why I am listening to Trade Radio – yes, for a couple of weeks after grand final day, there’s such a thing as a digital nine-to-five talkfest on club negotiations over player movements, real and imagined.

I seek out Trade Radio, specifically seek it out to avoid confronting other, harder, messier things. I’m a political junkie who can’t bear to hear things I don’t want to hear, just as a kid I couldn’t bear to watch Norwood lose.

Carlton’s Bryce Gibbs (right) requested a move home to Adelaide in the recent AFL trade period. AAP/Joe Castro

Politics and footy

As Cory Bernardi, senator for South Australia, has grown in prominence, he has begun to remind me of the giant Christ the Redeemer statue that looks down on the city of Rio de Janeiro.

But chiselled Cory is fully animated. He is a faith-fuelled greed-is-good humanoid who invites and incites ridicule, allowing him cover to get on with the business of saving souls; bringing the national budget back into balance; keeping heathens offshore; fixing the UN; making his (now-former) Coalition colleagues appear more centrist and moderate than they are; and scaring people silly.

As political activism goes, whinging about Bernardi is an increasingly lame act. This is a bloke who offers his opponents fresh ammunition every time he aggressively expresses his unpleasant and anachronistic ideas.

But when, say, Jacqui Lambie tees off at Bernardi – “prostitutes are far more honest, sincere, humane and compassionate, and better bang for buck than Senator Bernardi will ever be able to deliver” – I laugh, but then I cringe (and not only because sex workers can surely be humane and compassionate human beings).

Taking a stand against Bernardi means – or might mean – taking a stand against family, neighbours, friends, colleagues. It means being willing to scratch at a veneer of community conviviality and solidarity.

At a certain point, I want to get through my day in a good mood, without feeling the need to scream “Who the hell did you vote for?” at the bloke in the car next to me at the lights. I want to deny Bernardi’s public existence, just as I want to avert my gaze from youth unemployment rates, just as I want to pretend that the bodies in the barrels murders didn’t happen in a suburb in the city I call home.

Instead, I want to think about something truly unjust, like why Norwood never got its own team in the AFL. And so – very often – that’s exactly what I do. It’s a free country, after all.

As political activism goes, whinging about Cory Bernardi is an increasingly lame act. AAP/Mick Tsikas

South Australia and dissenters

Privilege, distractions, parochialism, state pride, complacency, conformity, passivity: these are natural resources that South Australia has in abundance. We can put a positive spin on them too.

In Drawing the Crow, his book about South Australia in the 1950s and ’60s, academic Adrian Mitchell says that Adelaide’s long-time moniker as the City of Churches:

… identifies not a freak nor architecture nor a rampaging wowserism, either current or in the past, but a lifestyle of civic steadiness, regularity and propriety, the values of its founding settlement, in both its English and German constituency.

I recognise my Adelaide – I recognise myself – in Mitchell’s description. And it leaves me deeply uneasy.

In 1957, the year Port Adelaide beat Norwood by 11 points in the grand final, historian Douglas Pike published Paradise of Dissent: South Australia, 1829–1857. Pike’s book – at times riveting, at times dense, at times tedious – opens with these resonant lines:

South Australia was settled in 1836 by men whose professed ideals were civil liberty, social opportunity and equality for all religions. Though each of these ideas was moulded in England, each was a protest against English practice.

The first colonists, Pike says, arrived harbouring dissatisfaction with the pace of reform in England:

Only the impatient departed.

The South Australian self-perception of exceptionalism – a “sense of difference”, as historian Derek Whitelock puts it – emerges from these origins and this origin story.

And South Australia has indeed had its fair share of dissenters. There is Catherine Helen Spence, the feminist, electoral reformer, social activist, preacher and writer. Spence thought:

My work on newspapers and reviews is more characteristic of me, and intrinsically better work than I have done in fiction.

Maybe, but her politically charged fiction resounds still, not least a foray into science fiction in which her terminally ill protagonist trades the last couple of years of her life for “one week in the future”.

South Australian dissenters, including Baluch and Bernardi, have often operated within the political sphere. My favourite colonist is Boyle Travers Finniss, who, in 1856, was the first premier of South Australia under responsible government, when the local Legislative Council revised South Australia’s constitution to achieve self-government.

In 1864, Finniss led an expedition to select a site for the capital of the Northern Territory. After he insisted on surveying a swamp, some of his men sailed for Singapore, while six others acquired a seven-metre boat and floated all the way to Champion Bay in Western Australia.

Finniss straddled a line between dissenter and misguided visionary, between principled outlier and dogmatist, between self-confidence and delusion.

American legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues that democracies need dissent; he warns against an excess of conformity. But he also condemns “political correctness” – which he calls “squelching those who reject left-wing orthodoxy” – while acknowledging, correctly but unhelpfully, “we do not need to encourage would-be dissenters who are speaking nonsense”.

Is Bernardi speaking nonsense on behalf of South Australians? It depends who you ask.

And then there is the grand political dissenter of the 20th century, premier and superhero Don Dunstan, who dragged the state – and, to a lesser extent, the Labor Party – into the modern world, and towards something much more resembling a just world, a fair world, a diverse world, a creative world, a food-loving world.

But in time, the phrase “paradise of dissent” has become a slogan, detached from the complex and messy history Pike told. We don’t need Pike’s observation that conformist tendencies kicked in early in the new colony. We don’t need to think about the practical limits of the religious, cultural and political freedoms imagined by the new establishment.

And it’s best, still, that we don’t think too deeply about our treatment of the land’s original inhabitants. In our complacency, we need only know that South Australia was planned (like a kit home), was convict-free (at least in theory) and that it has produced a bumper crop of dissenters (like a tomato plant in a Mediterranean climate).

We need only bask in the afterglow of the Dunstan era, not protect and extend its legacy. We need only know, or believe, that we are exceptional. According to Mitchell:

What South Australians have done, perhaps more doggedly than those in any other region, is to veil or reserve their own regional identity – not because of any sense of inadequacy or unfitness, but because that is the particular character of the South Australian.

Again, I recognise this South Australia; again, I recognise myself in this South Australia. But such recognition offers us a hole to crawl into that is deep and deceptively warm.

It offers us the chance to pretend that South Australia, in its distinctiveness, is merely the sum of its better parts. It offers us the chance to imagine that South Australia, a place that exports uranium and has a long association with defence industries, stands aloof from the world.

As premier, Don Dunstan dragged South Australia into the modern world. National Portrait Gallery/Anthony Browell

The best dissenter of all …

In the end, in the neoliberal and memed world we have created, everything’s a competition. So I’ll call it: the best-ever South Australian dissenter isn’t Catherine Helen Spence or Don Dunstan or Cory Bernardi. The best South Australian dissenter is also the best footballer ever.

Garry McIntosh was a small, muscled, goateed, hairy, unkempt rover who threw himself into packs, didn’t mind a bit of violence for a good cause, and who changed the course of history with his hardball gets and his handballs: premierships, Magarey Medals, an altered perception of the Norwood Football Club.

In 1982, the North Melbourne Kangaroos drafted “Macca” into the VFL, but he stayed home. When the Crows were formed, eight years before Macca eventually retired, he still wouldn’t shift from the SANFL.

Did he shun the AFL out of love of the local, out of parochialism, to make a stand against a national league, or as a lifestyle choice? Or did he understand his own limitations: was he just too slow to play in the best competition in the land?

When Macca was added to the SA Football Hall of Fame, he insisted he had no regrets because he’d got to play for Norwood:

But if I were an 18-year-old kid now – with the mentality there is now – things would be different.

Macca hasn’t yet been inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame. Now there’s an injustice, or a distraction, worth protesting about.


A full version of this essay, along with others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition, is available here.