Australians have a remarkable affection for their sport, an affection which has endured for well over 150 years. They love the sports they play but, even more so, they love the sports they watch – both in large numbers at the grounds or via broadcast. This enduring love extends to all codes, particularly Australian rules and rugby league.
What binds Australians so closely to their AFL and NRL teams? Why do these institutions remain so popular – cherished, even – when levels of participation and interest in our churches and our politics have slipped considerably over recent decades?
The main reason is that the two football codes continue to offer a sense of shared identity to their followers, one that churches and political parties do not. When Australians identify with a football club, they enjoy a strong feeling of belonging outside of their families and their places of work (which, after all, are not voluntary in the way football is voluntary).
A shared sense of identity is what foundational sociologist Emile Durkheim considered to be the basis of all societies, large and small. Identifying with others through beliefs and rituals, he thought, is what makes societies strong. Conversely, if people lose their sense of commitment to the communal aspects of their lives, Durkheim was convinced they and their societies would fall into a state of despair, for which he used the word “anomie”.
One of Durkheim’s most insightful 21st century followers, the American scholar Robert Putnam, has come up with a magnetic catch phrase for what he sees as the spread of anomie today in many parts of his own country – “bowling alone”.
In a book with this title, Putnam suggests that when activities which deliver a shared sense of identity, like communal bowling, are allowed to fade into inconsequence or oblivion, they are replaced only with individualistic pursuits. It is not just the local area that suffers: it is as if the national spirit takes a hit.
For Australians, footy might well be an inoculation against anomie.
As well as identifying with a club, Australians identify with other fans, and with the media outlets that feed them their daily fix of information or gossip (for many this fix might now be hourly). They even seem to identify with the codes themselves. They may well be suspicious of the empire builders at AFL House at the Docklands and at NRL HQ in Moore Park, but even so they remain loyal to “their game”.
Most of all they identify with the players. Players are granted the status of dear friends unmet, or even family members who are loved despite not visiting. This is why diehard fans aren’t keen on players who switch teams without a good reason. That is a reason the fans can understand. Such reasons can include money or family location, but woe betide any “deserting” player who lets it be known he is leaving because he doesn’t like it “here” and feels no sense of loyalty to the place.
It’s also the reason, I suggest, most fans are not buying into the indignation some media commentators are working up about the use of supposed “performance enhancing” drugs at some clubs. It’s not that the fans approve of the use of such substances; they don’t, especially where they are shown to be dangerous to the players’ health.
But they are offended by the idea that “their” players might be very severely punished simply for following the instructions of authority figures at their clubs, something the fans (and the clubs) normally regard as a vital component of doing well. These proposed severe punishments thus seem “un-Australian” in most fans’ view and not at all a “fair go”.
Just as they would accept with equanimity their teenager being given a minor punishment by the school principal for smoking but be outraged if the kid were handed a two year suspension, so to they are outraged by the idea of a two year suspension for players who simply followed instruction.
This brings us to another important reason behind Australians’ deep commitment to their codes and clubs. Football allows them the chance to dance with the universe, as it were, to revel in the occasions when the gods deliver them justice and victory and to wallow in the misery of injustice and defeat.
Injustice and defeat are two qualities many footy followers regard as inseparable twins. In this way, few defeats are “just” in the minds of true believers, mainly because these believers would have to turn on their own if they have to deal with too many “just defeats”, having nothing else left to blame but the players.
This is something they are not keen to do. But they have demonstrated often enough that they will do it if they feel they have been humiliated by the universe in the eyes of rival fans - or even just in their own eyes.