The public and AFL footballers… If ever there was a story of disappointment, over-adulation, passive-aggression, and schadenfreude (joy in another’s misfortune, m’lord), it’s encapsulated in the thrills we get every time we log onto a news site to see what some 19-year-old who can kick a ball has done next. Though this has to be done with a degree of ritual obeisance to trauma (‘learning and growing’), and the medicalisation of everyday life — ‘X, who is paid $X million to kick a ball, is struggling with depression’ — what we really like is the spectacle of young guys screwing up. I mean really screwing up, I mean not having a clue about how anything works. ‘X, centre-half-forward for the Hobart Daddies, the AFL’s new 20th team, crashed a limo into Crown Casino while trying to freebase with a tiki lighter which set fire to the gorilla mask he was wearing. His companions, the Matildas Seconds, were unharmed.’
We love it. The actual playing of the game now definitely takes second place. Eventually, the matches will be abolished altogether, and points will be awarded to teams for their players’ weekly screw-ups, with the most comprehensively disastrous going-on to win the coveted premiership trophy, which they will then lose in a Macau brothel. Beats football, which is actually kind of shitty and boring.
That’s only the first part of the story. After more events like this, and being counselled about their ‘public role’, X will have some total collapse, check into rehab a few times, have court appearances for sentencing to punitive community service, appear on the ABC’s Australian Story — which counts as punitive community service — spend two years, 11 months and 29 days of a ban working with troubled kids, and on the 30th day… be found with two powdered rolled-up fifties in his nose and an inflatable sheep, in that same Macau brothel.
Watching all this, some people say that footballers are wasting our time and their lives. Quite the contrary. This is a vital public service. In technical anthropological terms, every society has need of Dionysian figures: heroes who dwell in excess, and burn up the accumulated detritus of civilised living. In simpler terms, the world needs screw-ups. In Homer’s Iliad, the founding story of civilisation, Greece is almost lost because Achilles is in a snit about Agamemnon stealing his girlfriend. The gods who stalk the myths are always accidentally creating whole river systems because they overturned a giant wine cask, and a thousand people drowned or some such. Were we to favour only order, regularity and good sense, we would not be a society. We would be Germany.
crashed a limo into Crown Casino while trying to freebase with a tiki lighter which set fire to the gorilla mask he was wearing
Footballers fulfil this function for us on our behalf. Beyond a certain point in life we are too busy to screw up: too many responsibilities, costs too much, lower back pain, a new season of Silicon Valley has just been uploaded. Like everything else in our world, absolute inability to get one’s shit together is subcontracted to expert consultants. That’s footballers. AFL footballers, it has to be; League players are just fridges on legs. Everything they do is ugly and squalid. AFL players are light and lithe — their game demands judgement, skill and grace. They are dashing, or to use the technical League term, homos. When they fall — a la the great moment when Sam Newman was hospitalised with a broken leg after an angry blonde ran over him with his own car — they fall from high, like Icarus, burning up as they go.
Rock stars used to perform this vital function – in that long-distant era when Aussie Rules TV rights were sold for millions (only millions in those days), while its players got eight bucks a game, a job in the chairman’s office, and all the pies they wanted (“Mmm, those are good pies,” they said). Rock stars were gormless kids who could play a guitar or kinda sing. The record companies came along, they were sucked up by the tractor beam of fame, sucked off in 747s, and spat out of the exhaust. Not anymore. Now music stars have no sooner had a hit than they’ve bought a mansion — that they don’t trash — a clothing label, a restaurant chain, and are eagerly seeking branding opportunities. They buy into all that is deadened and crushing about contemporary existence, and throw it back at us, for the sin of liking what they do.
Not footballers. They get a bit of money for doing not much, and they piss it all against the wall — usually one at a nightclub at the north end of Chapel Street in Melbourne. To judge by the stories, reports, court cases, text messages and sentencing documents, they have no real idea what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, and a lot of the time it doesn’t seem to make them particularly happy. That’s the spirit. That’s what we need. Now especially, as football — once a sport with deep roots in local communities, a genuine space for social life — has become a corporate feeder for screen content, a hollowed-out ruin of its once-proud heritage. If we’re going to rip it all up, then we should be led by a ruck rover riding an on-fire stolen motorbike, with a crack-pipe up his arse, a real dog’s head in his lap, and a screaming Sunrise presenter in the nurse’s uniform from the cover of the Ratcat album clutching him from the pillion, as they both go into the Yarra. Long may the big men fly.
When asked who his AFL team is, Guy Rundle always replies “University Reds”, which no-one finds annoying.