Caroline Daley Reviews Hess and Stewart

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Rob Hess and Bob Stewart, eds. More Than A Game: An Unauthorised History of Australian Rules Football Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1998. 304 pp. Illustrations, notes and index. $A29.95 (paper). ISBN 0-522-84772-2.

Reviewed By Caroline Daley

When I attended my first Australian football game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) last winter, several things struck me. Most notable was the behaviour and composition of the crowd. Supporters of the two teams sat side by side and seemed to engage in no more than mild verbal banter with one another. The number of women and children at the game was striking: this is not a game supported only or mainly by young men. When the teams came on they were led not by a cheerleading team but by a group of club members of various ages. It was not a glamorous start but it felt real. Then the game began and so did the crowd. They yelled and screamed and told the umpire and the linesmen exactly what they thought of them. They were barrackers, a term I now know is thought to have come about thanks to the verbal behaviour of soldiers from South Melbourne back in the 1860s. Having read More Than a Game I now also understand the origins of another Australian footballism, ‘Up there, Cazaly’. Roy Cazaly was a tall St Kilda and South Melbourne ruckman who played from 1910 until 1927. His team mates and later the public would yell ‘Up there, Cazaly’ to encourage him to leap even higher for hit-outs and marks. The expression soon moved into the vernacular.

In many ways More Than a Game, a collaborative effort between six Melbourne football fans, helps me make sense of my MCG experience. As the editors state in their introduction, Australian football (as it is now known) ‘has become an integral part of the cultural life of many Australians’ (p.1). Supporting a team seems to be almost a condition of living in Melbourne, as does attending a few games each season. Increasingly, as the game goes national, more Australians are at least watching the game on television, if not actually attending matches.

For those not steeped in Australian football lore, More Than a Game is an instructive and interesting place to learn about the origins and development of the game over the last 140 years. Although the book is arranged chronologically, four themes link the chapters. The first of these examines the often tense relationship between the various football communities: players, spectators, administrators, corporate sponsors. The editors’ term—‘football communities’—and the various references throughout the volume to tribal allegiances and affiliations captures the hold of the game and its significance to those involved in it. Yet if one thing disappointed me about this book it was that I did not get a feel of why football mattered so much to its supporters. There were occasional attempts to provide answers to this. In his ‘kick-off’ chapter Robin Grow traced the origins of the game and its early support. However, there is little in his analysis that seems different to me from the early years of rugby union in New Zealand, but in certain key respects rugby union and Australian football have very different histories. Russell Holmesby states that during the Great Depression football was a game of ‘tribal allegiance’ (p.146) and therefore was popular, but does not develop what he means by ‘tribal allegiance’ or how that developed and was maintained.

Part of my unease about this idea of tribal allegiance is the recurring claim through the book that Australian football is and always has been an inclusive game. There are a couple of throw-away comments about the involvement of non-English speaking migrants playing the game in the post-WWII era, but little sense of the new migrants being welcomed into the tribes. The tone of Dave Nadel’s brief discussion of Aboriginal players, tagged on near the end of the book, surprised me. Nadel discusses the ways Aboriginal players have dealt with the racism they face from other players and spectators, and how in 1995 they forced the AFL to implement a racial vilification policy. That it took until 1995 does not seem to concern him: instead he notes that by comparison with the federal government ‘the AFL had not done badly’ (p.245). Recent analyses of post-war immigrants and contact history do not seem to have made much of an impact on More Than a Game.

If the tribe remained fairly white, this book makes it clear that from its early days Australian football was set on a colonising course. South Australia proved willing from the outset and intercolonial matches were held there from 1877. Western Australia was also an early convert as were parts of Tasmania. But the long struggle to establish the game in Sydney and Brisbane was only realised once the corporate sponsors and commercialism of the recent past had gained the upper hand. The administrators of 1906 may have decided to fly the Australian flag at games and use only Australian-made balls, but the process of becoming a national tribe continues today. Calling it ‘Australian football’ does not mean that it is a truly national game.

While More Than a Game is concerned with the football communities within Australia, Rob Hess does point to efforts to take the game beyond national boundaries. New Zealand did not join the Australian federation in 1901, but it was present at the inaugural meeting of the Australasian Football Council in 1906. As Hess notes, New Zealand offers the first instance of the code ‘taking root outside the cultural context in which it first thrived’ (p.96). It is an aspect of the game that deserves more attention, as does the attempt to introduce the game into North American universities and colleges at this time, and later contacts with Irish or Gaelic football.

If the book underplays these international connections, it is very strong when it comes to the growing commercialization of the game. Nadel’s two chapters on the period since 1976 offer a detailed narrative of the involvement of big business and the business ethic in the game. His research is impressive, but I longed to read more about the fans who still went to the game, who still cared about their team, regardless or in spite of who owned it.

The corporatisation of the game is tied up with the second theme running through More Than a Game, the influence the media has had on Australian football. As Grow’s chapters on the early years make clear, press support and reportage was always important. By the time of the Great War many of the debates about the game were conducted in newspapers, particularly whether it was patriotic to play ‘more than a game’ when the ‘greater game’ of war beckoned. In the 1920s radio began to make an impact, and by the 1950s, when television began, there were many radio talk and panel shows. I wish Bob Stewart had written more about these antecedents to the numerous television shows of more recent years. The administrators of Australian football were wary of television coverage through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, but then, like football administrators around the world, they recognized the potential of live coverage in terms of reaching new spectators and earning the code vast sums of money from television rights.

Before televised matches, Australian football had already changed to suit spectator demands for a fast and free-flowing game. More Than a Game documents the rule changes that ‘cleaned up’ the game, but the authors are also concerned with the violence associated with Australian football. This theme of the underlying violence in the game is most obvious in Grow and Rob Hess’s chapters on the game before WWI. One of the notable aspects of Australian football to outsiders is the relative lack of violence on the oval, despite this being a collision sport, and the almost total lack of physical violence in the stands. There is only one known death of a football spectator in the entire history of the game, despite the huge number of people who attend matches. The tribal allegiances of spectators do not seem to spill over into tribal warfare. More Than a Game offers few reasons why this is so.

Hess gives one of the few explanations for the non-violent behaviour of the fans. He mentions that from the outset Australian football has been notable for the large proportion of women supporters and women members of clubs. Women’s presence in the game and the idea of women having a civilizing influence on male spectators is the fourth theme of the book. Yet Hess begins his chapter on the late Victorian-Edwardian era of the game with a section called ‘Kill the umpire!’ and those advocating this drastic measure were women. There is an uneasy tension throughout More Than a Game whenever issues of gender are raised. There is very little here about the relationship between the game and changing ideas of masculinity, and while the constant presence of women at games is noted, there is a reluctance to state why this was so. One potential reason for recent female support is mentioned—‘the spectacle of men running around in sleeveless jumpers and tight shorts’ (p.258)—but the male editors will not even commit themselves on this. The illustrations in the book show the slow development of the uniform to its present distinctive style, but there is little mention in the text about when and why these changes took place. Nadel mentions that ‘the colour and style of the club uniforms’ changed with the advent of colour television, but he does not explore this further (p.200). Needless to say no homoerotic reading is offered either. The editors are aware that this book cannot deal with all the questions that need to be asked about Australian football. The gendered dimensions of the game, and related issues of sexuality, would be worthwhile avenues for others to pursue.

There is a strong tradition in sports history of fans writing for fans. More Than a Game was certainly written by six footy fans, but their audience deserves to be wider than fellow supporters. For those interested in the development of this distinctively Australian experience, the book offers all the necessary narrative details. For those interested in the cultural history of the sport, or the cultural history of Australia (especially Melbourne), this collection is also rewarding. I am still a little puzzled as to how the Collingwood and Geelong supporters could so amicably sit side-by-side at the MCG last winter, but I now understand the composition of the crowd, why American-style cheerleaders did not dazzle me with their pom-poms, the rules of the game and the origins of ‘Up there, Cazaly’.

Caroline Daley teaches in the Department of History of the University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand