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Too much of a good thing? Why the AFL’s media overload is damaging the game

Former Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett has made himself the centre of attention after the Hawks’ loss to Geelong last weekend. AAP/David Crosling

Former Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett says Hawks’ coach Alastair Clarkson should leave or be sacked at the end of the year. Angry at the Hawks’ seven-point loss to Geelong at the MCG on Monday – their 10th-straight defeat to the Cats – and an inability to claim a premiership since 2008, Kennett said it was time for change. – The Age, April 2

The 24/7 media cycle has become a familiar aspect of Australian political life. At least since Kevin Rudd, prime ministers are available all day and all night, seven days a week, to respond to the political crises of the moment and to issue statements from The Lodge, Parliament House, or foreign capitals - wherever they might happen to be.

Quite apart from the personal cost to political staffers whose own lives are caught up in this endless cycle of fresh policy pronouncements, the public has visibly grown weary of this new way of doing politics in Australia and other Western democracies.

Voters are measurably unimpressed with both political parties and their leaders, producing a new sense of disengagement and at times cynicism about the role of ideas in political life. The 24/7 cycle seems to have created, or at least provided the framework for, new levels of opportunism that leaves true believers aghast at what their elected representatives will say or do next.

With my colleague Tom Clark, I am co-supervising a doctoral student, Jean Ker Walsh, who is looking at the 2013 federal election campaign from precisely this standpoint, to try to understand the new sense of democratic engagement that seems to pervade Australian politics six years after the triumphal “Kevin 07” campaign.

Social media is so much more important now in 2013 than in those distant days of the defeat of John Howard. Individual citizens are able to express their views on any political matter without the mediation of “experts”. Pundits are bound by rules and conventions of evidence and studied argument – those producing tweets, blogs and youtube videos respect and obey fewer such protocols.

And now the 24/7 cycle has come to footy. No doubt it has pervaded all major sports, but I want to focus on the Australian Football League.

The issue is timely because we have now been told that the (alleged) use of drugs at Essendon Football Club is part of the proof that Australian sport has recorded its “blackest day”. The chattering that resonates through social media has picked up and amplified these (unproven) allegations.

Fans now express their indignation at their team’s defeat, or opine on loftier matters such as these corrupt practices, without any boundaries of common sense, prohibitions on slander, or (dare we say it) the use of empirical evidence.

Newspapers now record these social media messages where they might have once conducted a vox pop of random fans in a local pub. It is pretty tempting material. Fans sitting at their PC screens or thumbing their iPhones are liable to write stuff that is appealing to the hard-nosed editors looking for a gritty story. An AFL team humilated in a good old-fashioned shellacking? Read and transcribe the anguished screams of the faithful as they vent their spleen on the coach, the players, or the umpires. It makes for good copy.

Online commenter “Procrastinator” wrote in the wake of Hawthorn’s narrow defeat to Geelong last weekend:

Actually, I think Jeff has it spot-on, just as he did in saying Demetriou should go. Clarko has no clue how to beat Geelong or win any of the big games. No ideas on match-ups or tagging an obvious match-winner out of the game. His game plan is one-dimensional and oh so predictable as the Cats know all too well! He has no b or c plan, no defensive capabilities and is clueless and rudderless on game day if things don’t go his way! Time for ‘Choke in the Box’ to go. BRING BACK BARNEY (Leigh Matthews) NOW!!! Before it’s too late HAWKS! – The Age, April 2

Does all this matter? Football of the AFL kind has always been a faithful record of what is going on in Melbourne and the other centres of AFL madness. In some ways this is just the latest permutation.

The AFL has historically been protected by an aristocracy of journalists and other scribes who have acted as the gatekeepers of what could or could not be said about particular clubs, their administrations, and their players. Players who were transgressive and thus often brought success to their club were a protected species. In one-club towns like Geelong and pre-Fremantle Perth they were regularly outed. Now all players and their administrations are under 24/7 scrutiny.

Perhaps that is not altogether a bad thing.

In a backflip, Kennett sent a written apology to Clarkson yesterday, admitting he was out of line and sorry for any stress he had caused him and his family. – Herald Sun, April 3

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