Footy as Religion: A Myth for All Seasons

By Phil Dimitriadis

Man has built in himself images as a sense of security – religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, and beliefs. The burden of these dominates man’s thinking, relationships and his daily life. (J. Krishnamurti)

 

Corporate, religious and political rhetoric often sits comfortably with Australian Rules expression and its desire to inspire, demean, expose and highlight the strengths and deficiencies of a human being in the throes of action. The language and mythology of the game is designed to uphold notions of hard work, courage, selflessness and initiative while subverting ostentatious individuality at one level and lionizing it at another, most notably in literature that describes the games characters. In this sense, Australian Rules football can be seen as a symbolic religion for their devotee, which sits parallel, or perhaps has even replaced traditional forms of religious devotion and duty.

Generally, the non-fiction literature of football rhetorically supplants and codes escapist mythology that may have previously been searched for in cathedrals or temples. The time and energy given by fans to the rhetoric of the game could also be a symptom of the lack of faith or interest in previously idealised and institutionalised religious or political tenets. According to the Australian bureau of statistics:

Attending sports events (such as club matches and international competitions) is a popular pastime of many Australians. The 2002 ABS Sports Attendance Survey indicated seven million people, or 48% of all people aged 18 years and over, attended a sporting event (excluding junior and school sport) at least once in the previous 12 months. The overall attendance rate was virtually unchanged from the rates recorded in similar surveys conducted in 1995 and 1999. Men (56%) were more likely to have attended a sporting event than women (41%). For both men and women, attendance rates were highest for the 18-24 year age group (70% and 59% respectively) and steadily declined with age. Among men aged 65 years and over, the attendance rate was 27%, while for women in this age group it was 16%.

The sport with the highest attendance was Australian Rules football – 2.5 million people attended this sport on at least one occasion during the year (table 12.39). Horse racing (1.9 million), motor sports (1.5 million) and Rugby League (1.5 million) were also among the most attended sports. (www.abs.gov.au, accessed 18/02/2008)

If we were to compare this to religious identifications we can see how sport and Australian Rules competes favourably in the psychic imagination of many Australians:

A question on religious affiliation has been asked in every census taken in Australia, with the voluntary nature of this question having been specifically stated since 1933. In1971 the instruction ‘if no religion, write none’ was introduced. This saw a seven-fold increase from the previous census year in the percentage of persons stating they had no religion. Since 1971 this percentage has progressively increased to about 16% in 1996 and 2001. (www.abs.gov.au, accessed 18/02/2008)

Fans find their engagement with petty morality and life affirming sensationalized text through the game itself and the texts that follow. This takes the form of print media or the burgeoning world of football books, particularly since the mid-1960s.

Hagiography: In strict definitive terms, hagiography refers to writing about saints’ lives. In this context, it means placing football and footballers as ideological saints who are worthy of praise. Hagiography is a word used to magnify the heroic deeds of footballers and the cultural influence of the game of AFL as a type of communal religion. It is also a narrative device that attempts to convince readers and viewers that the players and the game have a special place in Australian culture. Hagiography tries to persuade the reader that football has unique mythical and spiritual significance.

Myths: This entails the virtues and vices that football culture craves and attempts to avoid. The myth of the premiership cup as a symbol of the ‘Holy Grail’ would be a recognizable example . Until 1959, pennants were presented to the winners, not grail-like silver chalices. However, ‘the cup’ is more symbolically meaningful to many footy fans than any biblical or classical mythological artifacts. It appears as a tangible, imaginary, yet paradoxically real and emotive symbol of identity, success, joy, and victory, even though it is ephemeral in nature.

This is also what makes football intriguing and exciting as a comparable metaphor for ancient mythology. It is a lived experience but it also contains a romantic distance for those who are never likely to play the game at the highest level. Priests and clergymen break bread and re-enact the Eucharist, but are not Christ, yet they somehow take on the role of simulacrum figurehead, regardless of the known and unknown skeleton in their own closets.

Religious leaders and politicians were once vaunted as guiding lights for the masses, but most live past the age of 33 and lose their archetypal vigour. Footballers generally retire at 33 (often well before this age) and the great ones, like Haydn Bunton perpetuate the memory of the hero and would be messiah with the potential to make magic happen. It is easier to trust a footballer because his performance entertains one’s fantasy. Football as text, language and image still confronts us with the issues we wish it could momentarily take us far away from.

There is politics in football clubs that have ruined many a coaching and playing career. And it is not always the just who prevail. The religious fervour of fans and critics dramatises the political aspects of football clubs because political incompetence interferes with the archetypal fantasies of those who invest their emotions and occupations in the game.

Ironically, in wanting players to be “bigger, stronger, faster”, the media and fans perpetuate the same process that has dislodged religious leaders and politicians from their ivory towers. Football is in danger of falling into the same chasm because fans have turned their attention to the medium in a more acutely critical manner as it symbolically competes and occasionally colludes with the status afforded to religion and politics. The balance between healthy fantasy and reality becomes too blurred by overt commodification and ceaseless analysis.

 

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Andrew Starkie says:

    Too many big words, Philo.

    But seriously, you’re right. Professional sport, especially tv sport, has become the new opium of the masses. It entertains us; inspires us; keeps us occupied; distracted. London 2012 is a fine example (as is the Olympics as a whole). A country enduring its worst ever triple dip recession spent $12bn on the Games and this was considered worthwhile by a population needing respite from its woes and to think about something else for a while. And governments like it when we aren’t thinking about them. And they also like bathing in the reflective glow.

    The media elevates the importance of sport and sportspeople. That is its job. A football game is discussed in religious or military terms. Teams go to war; this is the year of retribution and so on. Malthouse said once his Pies had let the ANZACS down when they lost to the Bombers. I’m sure the old diggers didn’t agree.

    Nothing is healthy when we take it too seriously. The beauty of sport lies in its escapism. For three hours a game of footy means everything and nothing else encroaches. When it’s over, you go home and worry about it next week. Well, in theory.

    Go Roos!

  2. John Harms says:

    No doubt we find meaning in many things. I’m also interested in why we need things to be meaningful. There is so much in football – in a moment, in an incident, in a passage of play, in a quarter, in a match, in a season, in a career, and so on.

  3. Lord Bogan says:

    Andy, I have a predilection for big words. Our communication has dumbed down enough and I’m on a mission to bring a few back. In reference to what you and Harmsy are saying, I agree that the meaning now lies in the moments that are not under the control of ultra ritualisation, which is the trap religion has fallen into. When we were kids there was more room for imagination as the game was not covered like it is now. Maybe too much of anything dilutes the meaning and thwarts the creative imaginings that players in the pre-TV era inspired in many of us. It will be interesting to observe what today’s youngsters will be writing about the game in the next decade or so.

  4. Lord Bogan says:

    Looking forward to tomorrow night’s debate. Should be interesting.

  5. Mr Bogan – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why football is not a religion. Football has meaning in those parts that “are not under the control of ultra ritualisation” – spot on. However this is not the trap that religion has fallen into. Religion has lost its ability to attract people because these days it has NO ritual. It is trying to be all things to all people, and ultimately failing, becoming nothing to anyone.

    I was at a religious ceremony recently and, sadly, it had the same atmosphere (ritual) as an under 12s game.

  6. Great yarn, Phil.

    Include me as a +1 to what Dips said… spot on (although there are a number of broader societal reasons as to why religion has lost its ability to attract people – in the West, anyway).

  7. sean gorman says:

    JH, what about meaning in a player that wears white boots, a mullet cut or full sleeve tatts – and cant play! Why do teh Eagles persist with Tom Swift? And that age old question ( an old Harms chestnut) how does one play Centre Half Forward? Heaveho ho ho!

  8. Faith is belief in the absence of proof, so there are many Saints, Dogs and Tigers who qualify as “the faithful”.
    But a religion – dunno – what defines a religion as distinct from a faith; a teaching; a belief or a philosophy???
    As a member of the ‘footy faithful’ there is a commonality between AFL and organised religion (Catholicism is the most obvious example but most others qualify). The Pope; Archbishop of Canterbury; ADemetriou; Club Presidents; paid journos (the AFL clergy??) get in the way of my belief more than they inspire it.
    I believe in the inspirational and transcendent uplifting power of sport DESPITE the organisational structure with their rules, power and ego trips. Not because of it.
    I guess I answered my own question – the AFL has more trappings of power, influence, control and fear than 16th century Catholicism.
    Now I understand JTHarms links to Lutheranism – he is Martin Luther hammering his digital demands on the AFL portal.

  9. DBalassone says:

    “If God did not exist, man would find it necessary to invent him” – Voltaire

    Thought-provoking as ever Phil. Regarding the age of 33, Lethal Leigh and Alexander the Great are two more names you can add to that list.

  10. And on the eight day, God made a sherrin.

    And I agree: sport is usurping religion. As religion looses its relevance (which it is fast doing), sport seems to be filling the chasm. Basking in premiership success is now the new heaven.

  11. Lord Bogan says:

    Thanks for your comments everybody. I attended the Great Debate the other night and it was the first time I’d been in a church with people decked in footy gear. Harms, Damousi and the priest from Geelong blitzed the non-believers, even though they were preaching to the converted. Football is not a religion: Its more important than that.

  12. Mark Doyle says:

    I like the Krishnamurti quote. His philosophy and spiritualism was popular on the ANU campus 40 odd years back; he was a god to some people. I presume the great debate was mostly about satire and humour and entertainment.
    Notwithstanding that some football supporters worship their favourite players as gods and football is their only form of religion or spiritualism, I think most of us acknowledge football as nothing more than light entertainment that has little meaning for our spirit and existence.

  13. Lord Bogan says:

    You’re right Mark. Footy has as much meaning as we invest in it. But isn’t that the case with most things, including organised religion? I value Krishnamurti’s philosophies because he questions the supposed truths that humanity has been conditioned with, including religion and false spirituality.

  14. Andrew Fithall says:

    Phil,

    When our children were born, we said they could choose their own religion once they had the opportunity to experience life and make a rational decision, but we allocated them to football teams (Geelong for the girls and Collingwood for boys) because some things are too important to leave to chance.

    Actually that bit about the religion is a bare-faced lie, but it works better for the story.

    AF

Leave a Comment

*