Australian Rules Football: better than Vegemite?

Some readers may be aware that a few weeks ago, nineteen-year-old Australian student Oliver Nicholls won first place in the Gordon E. Moore Award at the International Science and Engineering Fair for his invention of a window-washing drone. The device, which uses a series of pullies and propellers to levitate a small UAV fitted with wipes and detergent over the glass, beat 1,383 entries from all over the world, and bestowed upon its fortuitous inventor a handsome $75,000 in prize money. It is believed that the ingenious unmanned utility will slash the average cost of a corporate window-cleaning job by $3,000, as well as helping to reduce the eighty-eight window cleaning-related- deaths that occur each year.

 

Like many people, this achievement, combined with the recent cuts to the CSIRO courtesy of the 2018 Federal Budget, has led me to reassess the state of technology in Australia. Are we an underrated land of inventors? Do such lofty achievements as the bionic ear, the black box flight recorder, the electric drill and the dim sim show a tinkering heritage much underappreciated by both Australians and the world? If you were to Google ‘Australian invention’, your browser would shove at you lists of dozens of Aussie-born life-saving and life-changing devices and patents, ranging from the underground oven to Wifi.

 

And yet, the one product that utterly no one mentions is, I believe, the greatest Australian invention of all: our national game, Aussie Rules Football.

 

Granted, the game of ARF – Aussie Rules Football (it is NOT AFL, that is a LEAGUE! Calling it ‘AFL’ would be like calling every match of tennis, ‘Wimbledon’) – is a fairly unconventional invention. It doesn’t assist with movement or communication. It doesn’t aid in the prevention of disease, or improve productivity in factories and farms; it doesn’t come with a built-in clock, it rarely keeps your drinks cold, and it won’t help you get a nice crust on your sourdough. But in terms of the cultural, social, economic, and historical impact that Aussie Rules Football has had on the rest of the country, there is little doubt in my mind that it has done more for us than anything Edison or Da Vinci ever came up with.

 

Let’s begin with the fact that in many ways, ARF is not only our greatest invention, but one of our oldest. In reality, the game we play today is not a completely new sport unto itself, but rather, a hybrid-cum-bastardisation of a game that the Indigenous peoples of Australia have been playing for millennia: Marn Grook. Many credit this possum-skin ball game to have been played originally by the Gunditjmara people of the Western District in Victoria, although there is evidence that it may have been played by tribes everywhere from the Warlpiri in Central Australia, to the Gurnai in East Gippsland, as well as by the Wurundjeri people in modern-day Melbourne, including on the very soil where the MCG now stands. With its oval-shaped ball and drop-punting technique, it is impossible to deny that Marn Grook has either influenced or become Aussie Rules Football; when the ‘father’ of ARF, Tom Wills (who we’ll speak more of in a bit) ‘ invented’ a sport to be played in the cricket off-season, he was actively living amongst and socialising with the Gurditjmara people. The only thing that stands for debate is whether Wills took Marn Grook and Westernised it, or whether he came up with a different rugby-based sport that was then heavily influenced by Marn Grook; in either case, however, the fact still stands that very few other facets of First Australian culture have been embraced as widely by mainstream, modern white Australian society as much as Marn Grook. The original games of the Aztecs are not still played widely in Mexico; the early sports of the Romans and the Egyptians have long been lost outside museums, and yet the fact that the traditional game of the Gurditjmara has survived, in the face of such unspeakable devastation and disruption, to become our NATIONAL SPORT, watched by millions of Australians four times a week, is astounding. You will seldom find a sport in the world that can earn as awesome a tribute as that.

 

And, while we’re on the subject of Indigenous Australia, I would contend that nothing has brought as much unity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia than Aussie Rules Football. From its conception in 1857, the game has been embraced and dominated by Aboriginal people, a phenomena which remains as true to this day as ever, as we examine a sport with over 6,500 registered Indigenous footy players in Australia, and an AFL that is made up of nearly ten percent Indigenous players[1]. Early VFA stars like Polly Farmer, Sir Doug Nichols, Nicky Winmar and Michael Long gave Aboriginal people a voice in modern Australia, effectively becoming ambassadors to a white society that treated them with hostility, then suspicion, and finally, sycophantic adulation. These extraordinary men and women forced Anglo Australia to see them as equals, even heroes, perhaps for the first time in our colonial history. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention all the instances of discrimination and xenophobia that are the ugly by-product of anything as mainstream as a national sport – the fact that most VFL clubs outright banned Aboriginal players until well into the Twentieth Century, and the fact that there have been a litany of cases where spectators have hurled racist slurs or spouted atrocious rhetoric, including many that are sickeningly recent. Nevertheless, though, relatively speaking, never do the two cultures of Indigenous and non-Indigenous society converge more often than when it comes to footy; as a non-Indigenous person myself I can’t speak personally, but as an Anglo Victorian who vehemently believes in the galvanising powers of multiculturalism, it is such a great joy to see something that is genuinely shared by all Australians.

 

This is all proof of why footy is great;  however, now let me explain why it is our greatest invention. I use that word specifically because so many people overlook Aussie Rule’s practical impact on Australia, including how it has helped us develop economically. Let’s start not with the city, but with the country. Think of any small rural town across the nation, and ask yourself what they almost always contain: a bakery, a church, a few houses. Some of the larger boroughs may host a post office, a newsagents, or an old pub, from the time of Ned Kelly (with bullet holes to match), while others may be little more than seas of overgrown grass punctuated by derelict homesteads, rusty barbed wire, and a drinking fountain that doesn’t work. And yet, the one thing that all these towns will have, almost without exception, is a football field. Statistically, there are 13,873 registered AFL clubs in Australia, spread across less than 16,000 small towns. In many cases, a majority of the town, in terms of both funding and physical space will be dedicated to the football club, and the amount of people it takes to field a twenty-one person side constituting a large proportion of the town’s tiny population.

 

Can you imagine, then, where these tiny rural communities would be economically if it weren’t for Aussie Rules football? Without those 1,400,000 registered players across the country paying membership fees, visiting other towns, and wearing  guernseys that allow for embroidered advertising of local businesses? If the supporters of those terrific grass-roots, Thursday-night-training-under-frosty-lights clubs didn’t all drive to neighbouring hamlets and splash their disposable income around? If there weren’t the same opportunities for employment in the football industry, as coaches, professional trainers, sports journalists, physios, or even players?  There’s a reason why these small towns, already exposed to melodramatically fragile nature of rural industries like agriculture and mining, still stretch themselves to provide and oval and clubhouse, besides just being fun: it’s of paramount financial advantage. And that’s before we even mention the much-touted benefits local footy has to a town’s identity and culture.

 

And I do hate to talk about the corporatisation of Aussie Rules, because I think it does drastically sour many aspects of the game (cough, no Tasmanian or Darwin AFL team, cough) but for the purpose of viewing it as an invention, there are some interesting aspects. A 2017 La Trobe University study found that every dollar invested in football clubs across Australia saw a $4.40 return, while that same year the AFL reported a record profit of $48.8 million dollars (out of $650 million in total revenue), $20 million of which it has promised to set aside for ‘capital reserve’[2] . And it’s no wonder the league is so flushed, with a average weekly attendance of 32,163 patrons, and an average weekly TV viewership of 520,000[3], both of which directly lead to a veritable goldmine of ticket sales, merchandise, and sponsorship, that subsequently boosts other sectors. The Grand Final alone is estimated to bring in $42 million for the city of Melbourne, enough to fund a few hospitals and schools – and that’s one match in one city. Yes, the AFL is a private company, and yes, they don’t pay tax, but the only reason for that latter incongruity is because they already spread so much wealth around the country.

 

Finally, ARF (yep, I’m still calling it that; I’m determined to make it catch on) is, ergonomically, a terrifically healthy invention. Very few other sports in the world demand quite such a wide range of skills, nor the necessity to be strong in all of them to be a half decent player (some people claim basketball is similarly versatile, but come on – they play INDOORS on wooden floors; they may as well be doing a sudoku). For cardio and fitness, you have the large playing surface; for reflexes, timing and upper body strength, you have marking; for poise and lower body strength, you have kicking; for resilience and muscle mass, you have tackling and contested possessions. The lack an offside rule means that players can freely develop any personal skill they like; yet, the fact that there are seventeen other players running around also imbues a need for strategy and teamwork. People admonish Aussie Rules for its brutality, and while it is certainly a rough contact game, it’s not so fierce that it becomes dangerous; unlike in sports such as rugby or boxing, the chances of acquiring serious or permanent injury from playing ARF are very slim. I may not be a physiologist (nor am I an economist or an anthropologist, but that hasn’t stopped me so far), but it doesn’t take an idiot to see how beneficial playing Aussie Rules can be for the human body. I mean, even from the very beginning, Tom Wills originally created the modern game specifically as a way of keeping cricketers fit during the off season!

 

And what a serendipitous moment that was. The purpose of this article was not just to act as a slobbering tribute to our terrific game, but to prove its worth as an invention; one that wasn’t discovered instantly in a lab, but cultivated over thousands of years into the modern powerhouse it is today. One shudders to think of how Australia would be today if it weren’t for ARF, a parallel universe where we play rugby or soccer or cricket like everyone else in the world, where small towns would have to join the cog in the machine that is international competition, and where the ‘Melbourne Cricket Ground’ is nothing more than its namesake. We are a minute country by world standards – if the entire population of Australia was a city, it wouldn’t even be in the top five largest – and yet, we have devised one of Earth’s oldest, fastest, and most attended sports. Like every good invention, Aussie Rules football has countered the deficiencies and aided the development of our society; in short, it has done for Australia what the steam train did for England, what gunpowder did for China, and what metal currency did for Ancient Babylon.

 

So, regardless of whether you call it ‘Marn Grook’, ‘Aussie Rules’, ‘ARF’, ‘football’, ‘footy’, ‘AFL’, or ‘aerial ping-pong’, almost every person in Australia has, in some way, benefited tremendously from our wonderful game. And to me, that’s a far better invention than Vegemite.

 

[1] Creative Spirits – https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/sport/

2 The Age, March 23rd 2018 – https://www.theage.com.au/sport/afl/afl-reports-bumper-profit-for-2017-financial-year-20180323-p4z5zd.html

[3] The Guardian, April 15th, 2014 – https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/interactive/2014/apr/15/australia-football-interactive-statistics

 

Comments

  1. Jarrod_L says:

    Phew, took me a while to get through it, Andrew (I may or may not have been waylaid by the mention of dim sims and crusty sourdough piquing my hunger for breakfast) but glad I did. It was mentioned that we should take the invention of Australian Football to UNESCO for world heritage listing – if not as far as Paris, it deserves some recognition, at least at a national level.

  2. I agree ARF it is a great invention.
    (P.S. I prefer the name “Aussie Rules”; “ARF” can be made to sound like the noise a dog makes. How about the even shorter “Rules”?).
    I disagree that it is not good for your health. I spend my dotage jogging around from the healthy habits I acquired as a youth and young man.

  3. Rocket Singers says:

    “From its conception in 1857, the game has been embraced and dominated by Aboriginal people…”

    This statement is simply not true. Certainly not in the early stages of the game which has been clearly demonstrated was mainly played by men of means. It was much much later that the indigenous folk were able to really get involved in the game. Marn Grook aside…..

    While Sir Doug Nichols played in the VFA with Northcote, and later Fitzroy, it was in the VFL…
    Polly Farmer et al all played in the VFL

  4. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Comprehensive Andrew! Hello and welcome. I really enjoyed this tracking of the game as an invention, a new prism through which to think about it. Thank you.

    My French father (who has been in Australia 50 years now) took on cricket but resisted Aussie Rules for so many years. ‘It’s not a world game,’ he claimed. As if ‘real’ sport needed to be contested internationally to be worthy. But as his patience with Rugby Union has faded and his passion for (Round ball) football has diminished by distance from ‘les bleus’ and infrequency with the Socceroos, and thanks to the gentle but persistent persuasion of his youngest daughter, he has come to admire the national game. He has come to see that it is something uniquely Australian and 50 years on, it’s now a very small part of his ongoing devotion to his country of choice. And he still hates Vegemite.

  5. Thanks for this first piece Andrew. And welcome.

    The invented game has a massive place in the life of the nation continent. And in autumn/winter/spring culture here.

  6. Stainless says:

    Andrew
    I think this is a very timely piece given that the FIFA World Cup is dominating the airwaves. The universal appeal of soccer is largely an accident of history in which the code developed at the same time as European nations were colonising large tracts of the world. Soccer’s simplicity is undoubtedly a huge part of its appeal (it’s easily played and easily understood) but I’ve no doubt that if Australian Rules had had a similar opportunity to ride the colonial wave, it would have left soccer for dead. No doubt I’m biased but the contrast of even last weekend’s mundane round of AFL matches with the best of the “world game” from Russia dramatically highlighted soccer’s limitations as a physical pursuit and as a spectacle. We can take great pride in the place Australian Rules has in our sporting and cultural landscape but I for one rate it as the best sport in the world by a country mile.

  7. Mike Punch says:

    Vive la difference and les avis des Australiens pour les sports de l’hiver! (Pardonnez-moi for the school boy French/Franglais)
    Chers Andrew, Stainless, and all, I seek permission to digress from AFL to the World Game (I think Les Murray said this? I don’t think he’ll be resting in peace for the next 5 weeks!) I’d like to believe that the World Cup is collectively our greatest celebration of sport, bringing out a huge amount of international passion and hope that we need in this world. The fact that it only occurs once every four years is a blessing but also pretty sad. A blessing as it gives us a 6 week snapshot of joy, tears and heroes. Sad – because it only happens once every 4 years – but I reckon less is more.
    A simple game – yes – easily played – yes – out in the backyard – but not so simple in a crowded World Cup stadium with the weight of an impoverished nation, or the weight of a nation at war with itself or simply the weight of your nation’s expectation to hopefully draw or win one game? That’s pressure. Hang on – take a step back – who was the famous Aussie cricketer who said pressure is a Messerschmidt on your tail?
    Yep AFL’s a great invention, great game and there’s nothing like being at the G when it’s packed and the crowd’s going nuts – a great privilege to have experienced it. But I’d also love to go the World Cup and watch an Aussie game – yep – whack it on the bucket list!

  8. Welcome Andrew. Good article to start the ball rolling.

    Australian Rules Football, or as you say ARF. The game i played, the game i followed was called football, footy for convenience. How spot on are you saying it’s not AFL, the latter is a league. It was never called VFL or SANFL.

    Regardless of you hating to talk about corporatisation of Australian Rules Football, it’s a reality. A corporation making a profit of $48.8 M out of $650 M in revenue is a very successful mechanism in producing goods that re profitable and consumable. Being a commodity it has the two values , use value and exchange value. The exchange value is doing very well, as the AFL’s finance show.

    The key to retaining and improving our indigenous game, is supporting our grass roots football. Andrew you mention have 1,400 registered players,across 13,783 clubs, that’s a great show of participation. Participation in all forms at all levels is pivotal. AFLW is a great way of keeping the game developing , but we have to resource and support the suburban and rural clubs to have a future for the game.

    Keep up the writing Andrew, it’s a good thought provoking article.

    Glen!

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