Politics of Football: Mind-Numbing Salve of the Masses?

In this posting I want to explore a provocative question: is football a mind-numbing salve of the masses?  Australian rules football is deeply embedded in the culture of the city of Melbourne, as it is across the rest of Australia excluding New South Wales and Queensland.  Footy is ingrained in my own upbringing.  If you can talk about footy you can talk to virtually anyone.  So why then would I pose such a provocative question?  Let me share a few observations and the occasional colloquialism which I hope will spark some thoughtful conversation.

My football romance

I love football.  I’ve loved footy since I was old enough to hold a ball in my hands.  By the time I was six years old, I had constructed a sophisticated imaginary football league, played by teams of imaginary players with names and rich back-stories.  Every evening after school my make-believe teams would do battle in pursuit of premiership glory, in front of crowds of 200,000+ imaginary spectators.  As the best football competition in the land, it was important that my stadium have a seating capacity well above that of Football Park or the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).  Naturally I was the star player in my imaginary football league, dominating the competition under the pseudonym Ben Rex.  The surname reflected my position as the dominant player in the land as well as my captivation with dinosaurs as a six-year-old boy.

The author as a twelve year old footy phenom (well almost).
The author as a twelve year old footy phenom (well almost).

Some of my greatest memories growing up are intertwined with the highs and lows of football.  I remember attending the 1988 SANFL grand final at Football Park in Adelaide with my great-uncle Charlie to watch Port Adelaide defeat Glenelg.  That same year I kicked my first goal in football as a member of the West Lakes Shore Primary School under-8’s football team.

I remember my first Adelaide Crows match, a home night-time fixture against Essendon in 1991 that I went to with my dad.  I still hate Essendon for beating the Crows in the 1993 preliminary final, after the Bombers reigned in a seven goal half time deficit.

When I was 16 I broke my arm and was knocked unconscious while being tackled to the ground as I kicked a goal.  I enjoyed many under-age drinks with the offending tackler a couple of weeks later, choosing to ignore the laughter induced by my doctor’s cheeky decision to set my plaster cast in the pink (in lieu of red) and white stripes of my football team while I was still unconscious.   How could I forget road trips to Melbourne in 1997 and 1998 to see the Crows beat the Western Bulldogs in successive preliminary finals on their way to back-to-back premiership glory and redemption for the failure of 1993.

I was overjoyed when my nephew was drafted by the Fremantle Dockers a few years back, relieved that he didn’t end up playing for Port Adelaide or Collingwood.  And I’m still haunted by the Crows near miracle comeback against Hawthorn in last year’s preliminary final at the MCG, a game I was privileged to attend.

The bubble bursts…or who cares what Juddy’s partner is wearing to the Brownlow

Every trip to Football Park or the MCG felt like visiting a holy shrine.  The roar of the crowd was intoxicating, the rich narrative of footy folklore spell-binding.  As I grew older, however, my boyhood footy fantasies began to evaporate when I realised that many of my footy heroes were actually arrogant pricks in real life.  I began to resent the increasing intrusion of corporate messaging—like the relentless sensory barrage of advertising and the idiotic verbiage of radio personalities conscripted into service as on-ground MC’s pre-match and during breaks in the game—which cheapened the quasi-spiritual experience of the football match.

My coming of age has coincided with the commercialisation of suburban footy into a national marketing phenomenon.  Like all contemporary professional sport, the core business of the Australian football has little to do with footy and everything to do with delivering a sizeable captive audience to advertising clientele.  That captive audience may come packaged as a crowd attending a match, a television or radio audience, or readers of print publications and online media.

For those readers who go to the footy regularly, take a moment during your next trip to a game to dispassionately observe just how much corporate propaganda and marketing wank the footy patron is bombarded with on game day.  Next time you reach for the Friday edition of our city’s tabloid cum-rag, compare the journalistic rigour and rich statistical analysis in the footy section at the back of the paper with superficial, hyperbolic garbage that passes for journalism printed at the front.  At least we can be content in the knowledge that football has a functioning fourth estate.

Opiate of the masses

At the conclusion of the Collingwood vs. Adelaide match at the MCG last month, I boarded a train at Jolimont Station bound for Greensborough on the Hurstbridge line.  When the train stopped at Clifton Hill station, a voice on the train PA system informed passengers that the train was in fact bound for South Morang and that passengers en route to Greensborough should disembark and wait for the next train.  Every passenger on the crowded train disembarked.  There were a few murmurs of discontent, but no reaction to such an obvious case of incompetence by the city’s train service provider.  At the MCG not sixty minutes beforehand, these same passengers were hurling all kinds of abuse at the umpires, apoplectic that Travis Cloak missed out on a couple of debatable free kicks.

At every game, spectators use the umpires as whipping horses for all their life’s failures and frustrations.  Out in the real world, however, passivity reigns.  I have been guilty of it too.  From a political standpoint, public passivity makes for bad governance and dysfunctional democracy as people check out from their responsibilities as citizens.  There is far more to democratic participation than voting once every three years; it requires active and informed participation of us as political, economic and social actors.

Hard Questions

I still love my footy but I’m under no illusions that every moment I devote to supporting my beloved Adelaide Crows is a moment that I could have spent on something with real, tangible relevance to my everyday life.  It’s a moment I could have spent bettering myself or helping to make the community I live in a better place.  It’s a moment I could have devoted to becoming an informed and involved democratic citizen.  As much as it pains me to admit, I believe that footy is increasingly becoming a drain on the collective mind.

To conclude I would like to pose some pointed questions to you, the reader…

  • Is professional football making its fans collectively stupid?
  • Does professional football make its supporters passive and distract them from more important issues?
  • Is professional football a vehicle for massive materialist indoctrination and commercial propaganda?
  • Is it possible to retain the romantic essence of footy?
  • In an age when our society is facing a series of existential problems, is the devotion of attention to professional football a dangerous waste of time?
  • Am I a disgruntled, ranting academic reading too much into a leisure activity?

Given my passion for footy, I am uncomfortable with the logical conclusions that these questions lead to.  Nonetheless, there is no other way to grow as individuals and as a society other than through critical self-reflection.

I encourage and look forward to your passionate responses.

The author, exited pre-match before the 1997 AFL Preliminary Final, Adelaide Crows vs. Western Bulldogs.
The author, exited pre-match before the 1997 AFL Preliminary Final, Adelaide Crows vs. Western Bulldogs.


  1. Ben, excellent article and I believe Aussie Rules is so unique and unites people and that is a good thing.  Go Pies

    Sent from my Telstra Next G device

    • Thanks Joanne for your response. No argument from me on that point. Footy is a powerful uniting force, particularly at the grassroots community level (as anyone who has lived in regional areas can attest). My unease lies with the professional level of the game and how commercialisation is cheapening everything that is good about the game.

  2. Great article Ben. Coming from someone who is fairly apathetic to the world of football, I do believe that it can be used as an avenue for commercialism and propaganda (consider the money that could other wise be spent on improving the lives of the disadvantaged and working on solving existential threats to society). However, these issues are not exclusive to sport alone. From music to the film and television industry, we are bombarded with messages that promote numbness, and mindless spending. Although perhaps it is possible to spend the time doing ‘more useful’ things, football and sport in general provides an opportunity to both unite and divide the masses and brings out a sense of hope and healthy competition in our nation. Plus, you cant be solving the worlds problems 24/7.

    Bear in mind, I haven’t actually watched a full game of AFL for several years.

  3. Great read Ben. Some gut reactions to your questions:

    No – they’re mostly that way to begin with
    Yes – but we all need a bit of distraction every now and then
    Certainly – no one who loves footy does so for the commercials, sponsors or WAGs
    No – we all need temporary release from the problems in our world. I guess you have to hope that having that release allows us to better cope with problems of ‘the real world’.
    Definitely – but that’s what academics do. Keep it up!

    cum-rag …..Hehehe

  4. Thanks Jimmy and Lisa. I agree that footy, like other leisure activities, has a pressure release function that helps us cope with the stresses of everyday life. Friday night footy certainly does that for me. I get concerned when coping strategies become obsessions and even addictions, filtering out more important concerns from our field of view.

Share your thoughts...

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.