Essendon Football Club CEO Xavier Campbell and Chairman Lindsay Tanner address the media

Before the Essendon football club became the Bombers, they were the Same Olds. Thanks to the RAAF being stationed at Essendon airport, they later became the Bombers — a rare example of an improvement in the naming. Local and distinctive, from the great age of the VFL, which ran from the post-World War I reconstitution (and the disgraceful exclusion of University Reds) to the creation of the AFL and the transformation of the game into raw material for television markets. Twelve teams playing each other twice over a season, at the same time, on the same day every week.

That’s what that sort of team sport is for: a series of symmetrical divisions and difference, which gives people a chance to express a fierce identity, irrationally held. Tribes divide into moieties — halves — and then divide again, with different totems for each group, and that’s all that’s going on with football. It’s a place to put the need for a defined identity, for concrete symbols of collective self that also affirm the individual. The geographical rule anchored that — the idea that being born one or other side of Smith Street, Fitzroy or Collingwood, determined who you might support, try out for, or have a glorious career with.

That couldn’t continue of course, but the the disaster that has befallen Essendon, the AFL, Aussie rules and Australian sport shows what happens when you throw everything away and presume that a social and grounded activity like football can be turned into a set of brands first and foremost, decanted across a vast country, trading players like kids trade trading cards of players, corporatising the teams themselves, and then allowing them to make their own media deals.

Sooner or later one team will do what Essendon did, and then the architecture of the whole sport — individual support expressing a collective solidarity bounded by the code — collapses. There are a lot of people, and not just Dons supporters, for whom something big died yesterday. The tragedy is that it didn’t need to. If the transition from the VFL to the AFL had been handled more reflectively, if people had understood that the strength of football lay in the parts of it that couldn’t be abstracted, rebranded, mulched, etc, then this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened.

What the Essendon disaster reveals is the hidden nature of this sort of process of cultural moneymaking and abstracting. The base assumption it works on is that value can be made from things like footy loyalty, the pleasure of the game, the solidarity of a code, and that that process won’t eat back into the thing itself and destroy it. But of course it does. Everyone is corrupted, literally or figuratively by a process like the megalisation of Victorian football. Management becomes corporate, players become traded and self-trading commodities, and fans are supporting a team that has the label “Collingwood” or “Port Adelaide”, etc, but is staffed by a floating collection of players from anywhere. Local roots remain, of course, but they vary and are continually worn away. Half the teams in the league are mere ciphers.

That has led to the corrosion of character among many staff and players, which is why so many footballers, once perhaps hardish men, but with a degree of self-government, now seem like so many hysterics lacking the self-discipline of your average member of Motley Crue. It leads to the transformation of following footy to taking in the spectacle of it, quite a different thing, and a shortchanging of the deep and noble urges that sport should serve to focus in society. Eventually, the whole thing just caves into squalor, as it has now.

Sport is just one of the most visible ways in which this is happening in Australian life. It seems to me that we are now reaping the whirlwind of 25 years of marketisation, spivisation, and undermining of what was once, and remains to a degree, a society with a great deal of solidarity in it. Solidarity, yes. But what post-1788 non-indigenous Australia has long had is a shortage of rituals, myths, symbols to live by. That’s inevitable in a young country. But it means that it is all the more important to tend for what we do have. Perhaps this disaster will be the opportunity for some in the AFL to think, really hard, about what it is they run, and the degree to which it is a sacred trust — and to modify the way they do things accordingly. The Dons have bombed. They may recover, but you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Same old, same old …

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey