“So which footy team to you support?” I asked people on my first day of Uni, thinking it the natural way to break the ice in any conversation started in Melbourne.
I was wrong. To my surprise, the most common answer I got was “Oh, I don’t follow football”.
I remember being particularly stunned hearing it from local students. Didn’t they realize what city this was? That it’s considered blasphemy to live here and not have at least a passing interest in the game, so anyone whose grown up in a Melbourne primary school will tell you?
While my fledgling Uni social life survived this hiccup, I still find people’s disinterest in AFL intriguing, because you can find it interesting even if you don’t like sport.
The appeal lies in AFL’s affiliation with Melbourne, dating back to the game’s founding in 1858. Melbourne was then a young city of 23 years, trying to prove itself as more than just another settlement.
The new game, created by cricketers wanting to keep fit during winter, reflected this desire for identity and also nurtured it: Melbourne now had a unique pastime by which to measure its development.
AFL has continued to reflect the growth and character of Melbourne in the 150 years since, to the point where it has become a microcosm of society: In the past few years, as with Melbourne itself, the AFL has confronted drugs, racism, homophobia and sexism.
The game doesn’t always respond to these issues in the same way the rest of society does, however, another point of interest to non-sporty types.
Sometimes, this response is disappointing. The booing Sydney’s Adam Goodes received for calling out long-established racism towards indigenous people – which has seen the champion fall out of love with the game and retire – comes to mind.
But mostly, when facing serious moral issues, the AFL community responds commendably, and leads thinking on these issues.
Take the recent cultural change around gender in the game: the first women’s football match was televised live on August 16th of this year, and a 6-team women’s competition is being set up for 2017. AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan also personally forced change at the male-dominated Carbine sports club in early September, refusing to attend a function of the prestigious club until it allowed women to become members.
But the national game has perhaps never had a prouder moment than it did following the murder of Adelaide coach Phil Walsh in July.
We were ready to forgive the AFL for not knowing how to respond to this tragedy. Yet the images of players from both sides standing arm in arm in silence, after each match the weekend following Walsh’s death, became the most befitting response of them all, an act of decorum and respect when the rest of society was still struggling to come to terms with the news.
The marks and goals, the narrative of the season so perfectly woven around the month of September and the promise of immortality – they’re what make AFL entertaining. But the moments of grace and sagacity are what make it beautiful and universally important.
The final issue of Catalyst is out soon, and Victoria will be given a voice by the stories it contains.
But if you want to hear this voice for yourself – hear this state communicate directly to you who it is and where it is going – then head to the MCG on match day, walk to the fence anywhere on the Great Southern Stand, and listen.