Several months ago I joined 100,000 people at the MCG and saw my beloved Hawthorn win the 2014 AFL premiership. I was anxious because my health's not standard, and we had standing room tickets, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to last the distance. (I sat down in-between quarters and went home not too long after the game finished). And I was anxious because it was, well, exciting. The Grand Final is a big occasion here in Melbourne, and you could feel the anticipation flooding through the MCG.
And I was anxious too because you never know how things are going to be. The Swans were hard, hard favourites. It's funny how consensus swells, like the ocean, like a crowd. In the previous weeks favouritism for the Swans had hardened, and the more people who jumped on the bandwagon, the more that jumped on the bandwagon, until it seemed almost bizarre to think that Hawthorn had any way of winning.
Still, nobody expected what happened. Sydney weren't switched on for that unfathomable reason that is unable to be measured. And while from a football watcher’s perspective it was possibly a bit of a fizzer (that fruckin' Hawthorn, we're sick of them) really, from my perspective I got to watch the brown and gold perform poetry.
The next day, Erin Riley shared in The Sunday Age how her Grand Final experience as a Swans supporter was made intolerable, not because of her team’s on-field shellacking but because of racist, homophobic and abusive Hawthorn supporters off-field. As a member and a football-goer, I think about this sort of thing a lot. Wouldn't it be cool if people had more empathy, cared how much their aggressive and repulsive actions upset and disrupt other people? How do you stop offensive behaviour from happening in public places? Can you?
What can we expect the AFL/MCC to do when supporters are obnoxious beyond the pale? Do they get one of their security minions to throw them out of the ground? That's an option. Although in Erin’s case, it quite simply didn’t work. We’ve had other instances this year where people have been thrown out of the ground and had their memberships cancelled. I would be quite happy to see nasty dickheads thrown out. Might help them learn to handle their own shit enough so they can stop projecting it onto other people. But cancelling their membership? That's a ridiculous over-reaction, surely. If you punish someone's love because of their hate, where does that get you? Most likely a hardening of the sort of thoughts and ideas that fuelled the behaviour in the first place.
But even throwing people out of the ground doesn’t work out so great for the vibe for the rest of us if the cops and security guys required for such actions get to roam the aisles inspecting us for naughtiness week in, week out, even during the times when nothing bad is happening. It makes for a rather intimidating and unfriendly atmosphere. Add to that the directives, shown several times a game on the scoreboard, to SMS the seat position of those indulging in bad behaviour. A hostile environment surely breeds more hostility. Or at the least, alienation, which is encouraged even further by the promo stuff going on in-between quarters, which drowns out the possiblity of conversation with the person next to you. Gillon McLachlan has made some good, people-focussed changes to the fixture for 2015. The AFL needs to take a look at this kind of thing as well.
So what else could the AFL do to keep unruly elements in line? Seeing so much of this cruddy behaviour comes from people who’ve had six too many, how about not serving alcohol at the ground? Ooh, there's a controversial idea. That would go massively towards stopping the grosser end of the abuse spectrum. But can you imagine how worked up people would be if they couldn't get smashed at the footy? I mean, what are ya, mate? And anyway, I do wonder if the AFL/MCC wouldn't blanch at enacting those kind of measures in a society where alcohol is such an embedded facet in its perceived ability to function, quite aside from considerations of revenue loss.
More alcohol-free zones at the footy would be a start, though. Then us overly sensitive ones could band together and enjoy the footy (whatever the result) without feeling intimidated by people who've lost the ability to keep it nice – and by being annoyed by bands of people getting up and down throughout the game to go stand in line for the next round, disrupting others trying to watch the game in the process.
Some may say that abusing the opposition is part of the game, and though I don't like it myself I am a lily-livered wussbag, who empathises with every losing team my beloved Hawks has had the pleasure of beating this year, and who cries at the killing of mice. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if more of those people whose disenfranchisement with their lives bubbles over with their beer on the weekend possessed a modicum of intelligence and humour to go with it? Those who can hassle the opposition with a touch of finesse, rather than a bunch of VB and under 8s style? Delivery is everything, folks.
But the other side, though, in the quest to make football more friendly, is us. We're just not really all that good at being with each other in a nice Buddhist kind of way, are we? We can't see this in ourselves, but we can sure see it in every other bastard getting in our way. So if the actual environment of the MCG is the nature element that needs changing, we're the nurture part. We need changing too. We hate each other.
The footy is all about the story. Part of the reason we watch sport is to see teams and individuals rising against the odds and coming through. We want to see them believe in themselves. We need those sort of stories. They’re as old as time ~ so old in fact that they've become cliche. The hero's quest. Overcoming your inner demons to land the prize you've been aiming for but missing. The stories that remind us that we are bigger than cogs in an economic wheel, or fodder in wars, are reflected on the footy ground, and on our screens when we watch LOTR or Game of Thrones. The same kind of story goes on off-field in every person. Many of us have been born into a murky, rather nasty cultural soup. The world is a cold one, and our shared social experiences are nowhere near as much as we need to keep us glued together, both personally or collectively. Indeed, I think we have forgotten why a culture needs glue, even while we see evidence of its lack everywhere. And then, when we do have shared social experiences, they're not innocent, because they're surveilled and scrutinised. Guilty before being presumed innocent. It's as though everyone assumes the Gollum in us, but what about the Aragorn, the Geladriel, the Ent?
If we people had emotional smarts, combined with an MCG that made us feel like we belonged, we would find ways to gently and creatively rectify disruption amongst ourselves. We wouldn't find the need to demonise the opposition. But unfortunately, being brittle and not liking each other much, this makes it somewhat difficult. We don't display much understanding of why being kind and gentle to people we don't know is a little bit of awesomeness. Instead, we have the kind of environment where everyone in your crowd is your enemy except the person on the end of your phone. In this environment, you feel so alienated that you really do feel a massive urge to get a new pair of silicone breasts. And it doesn't take much to set off fires. Because man, we all hate each other's guts so. It's freakin' scary. And we're so angry. We need to find a way of tolerating the intolerable. Inside as well as out.
Crowds are a reflection of the people who make them up. Each of us is facing a larger hero’s journey too, the little Davids against the entire society. The thirsty frog confronting its own water. We are told by our rather shitty water that we are small. Our quest is to redevelop the belief that humanity as a whole and people individually have inherent dignity, and are worthwhile, despite the dross elements constantly on display. They are dross partly because that is what they have grown up in. And so have you. But transformation is always possible. We go deeper and wider than we think.