Almanac Books: ‘Not Playing The Game’ – Xavier Fowler: Edited extract







Xavier Fowler’s book Not Playing the Game on sport during The Great War is out this week. Here is an extract:




Divisions within the Australian sporting community reached their apex during World War I. The emotional intensity of the period saw disputes break out on the sporting field, in the grandstands, the committee rooms, and the press. Spiteful verbal attacks were common, and often ended in violence.


The war, however, was not the originator of this turmoil, but rather its exacerbator. In the two decades preceding 1914, sport both revealed and instigated various social tensions that simmered beneath the proud declarations of its contribution to a unified national consciousness.


Organised sport played a critical role in the development of Australian society and culture long before 1914. Often described as religion of sorts, sport’s popularity resided in its hundred years of practice by settlers in a foreign land, not to mention its British antecedents. From the inner-city streets and suburban backyards of Australia’s major metropolitan hubs to its rural farms and central deserts, people were enamoured with organised games. Men and women; Anglo, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Indigenous; Catholic and Protestant; poor and wealthy; sport dominated the lives of millions, regardless of social affiliation. Sport obtained the love and affection that other cultural pursuits could only envy.


Class division was a powerful force in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australia, even if commitment to class war was less so. An economic crash and subsequent depression in the 1890s prompted employers to force salaries down, instigating unrest among wage earning workers (skilled artisans, unskilled labourers, and unemployed). As the financial gap widened the physical distance between employer and employee also increased.


There was an ethnic and cultural dimension to the socio-economic divide. The establishment and marginalised groups understood the purpose of sport in vastly different ways. For the middle-class, sport was primarily a means of preparing adolescent boys for life, an ideology inherited from the English upper-classes, and cultivated in Australia’s elite public schools. Athletic contests were believed to impart qualities commonly associated with idealised masculinity: courage, determination, self-reliance, resilience, loyalty, stoicism, chivalry or fair play, as well as physical prowess, all considered attributes necessary to confront the male exclusive trials of public life. Sport was thus an ennobling pursuit that went beyond mere leisure.


Sport held less moral value for the working-classes. Games were generally played for enjoyment and recreation, a distraction from the working week. Where amateurism maintained the need for young men to participate in order to assist their moral and physical development, working-class games became synonymous with attracting large crowds of passionate spectators looking for entertainment.


Yet, before 1914, some shared concerns over sport’s degenerative impact on society, albeit under the more pressing external threats. Military organisations and xenophobic politicians, fearing Asian encroachment, called on all citizens to accept national defence as a personal responsibility. To their dismay, the threat of foreign incursion appeared lost on a population more concerned with how their local sporting teams fared each weekend. At the 1907 meeting of the New South Wales National Defence League, one speaker lamented ‘A couple of dozen people attend a meeting like this, and 50,000 people go to a football match! I say, when we see this state of things, “heaven help Australia”. Preparation for any coming war was to be achieved with rifle and bayonet, they argued, not bat and ball. In a time when nationhood was closely intertwined with martial prowess, critics viewed sport as antithetical to Australian security and maturity.


The issue soon garnered the attention of those responsible for national defence. In 1907, an emerging Labor Senator, George Foster Pearce, raised concerns in federal parliament of the alien threat lingering to the north. Watching from his office window in Melbourne, Pearce noticed a large crowd, many of whom were males aged 14 to 25, heading in the direction of a football match. Amidst the stream of the ‘flower of our young manhood’ walked in the opposite direction ‘one solitary youth in Khaki’, struggling to make his way to the station for afternoon drill. The young man was ‘buffeted from side to side’ by the crowd before giving up and moving to the road to complete his journey. Lamenting the disgraceful way the population had treated one of its future defenders, Pearce called for the introduction of compulsory military training to refocus the priorities of the nation’s youth. ‘The man who first said that the battles of England were won on the cricket fields of England,’ observed Pearce, ‘never meant that they were won by the cricket “barrackers of England”.’


The campaign proved a successful one, with the Universal Service Scheme coming into effect in early 1911. Overseen by the Defence Department, it established compulsory cadet training for teenagers and registration of 18 to 26-year-olds for home defence militia.


Instead of correcting the issue, the implementation of compulsory service only highlighted youthful preference for leisure over duty. In the first three years of the scheme, 27,749 prosecutions and 5,732 incarcerations were imposed on those who failed to complete the required time of drill practice. Exemptions were made for those who lived more than eight kilometres from their nearest training site, the medically unfit, resident aliens, and theological students. The playing and watching of sport failed to qualify as a legitimate excuse.


With military training often scheduled on Saturdays to avoid clashing with education and employment, young men were confronted with having to abandon their games. Some spoke out against compulsory training, while others openly defied it, even with the threat of incarceration hanging over their heads.


However, instead of undermining support, the danger posed to amateur sport paradoxically accelerated proclamations of loyalism through the familiar prism of the games ethic. Public school and amateur advocates, sincere in their patriotism, sought permission to control Universal Service-organised sport through emphasising the martial utility of their specific ideological outlook. As the Victorian Amateur Athletics Association (VAAA) explained to military officials in 1912,‘properly organised sports will be of advantage in developing many of the qualities desired in a competent military force e.g. intelligence, initiative, self-control, obedience, physical fitness’. The VAAA continued, ‘Esprit de corps is a direct step towards patriotism of the highest kind. Our public schools evince this plainly and in them it has been brought about mainly through sports.’ Self-interest in preserving amateur sport and altruistic commitment to enhancing martial duty were indivisible in the eyes of the middle-class.


In contrast, working-class sporting enthusiasts, hampered by their own marginalised ideology, struggled to bridge the gap between their private interests and patriotic expectations. In 1912 several boys, and one of their fathers, from Melbourne’s Catholic, working- class-populated suburb of Richmond, expressed dissatisfaction with compulsory training to Frank Tudor, the ALP Minister of Customs. They argued military training interfered with their recreational enjoyment of football, ‘after working up time all the week, then to be deprived of it, we feel is very unfair’. They went further, calling into question the necessity of compulsory service at all, reasoning international disputes should be resolved by arbitration, not war. Tudor, hoping for some leniency but expecting none, passed the letter onto Pearce, now Minister of Defence, who dismissed their case.


The boys’ preference for arbitration over warfare indicates they held little interest in upholding British prestige no matter the cost. They were far more focused on the way military training was interfering with their own personal interests, particularly their leisure time. It was this failure to exude respectable public values that consequently led Pearce to dismiss their concerns. While a labour man, Pearce occupied a ministry designed to safeguard national interests, and thus imparted the ideals of duty, loyalty, and patriotism to all Australians.


Rather than a tool to enhance the patriotism of the young, to the politicians and military officials charged with safeguarding Australian sovereignty sport was nothing more than a nuisance to the survival of Australia and the British Empire. They saw in their mind’s eye a time when all citizens, regardless of class or ideology, would need to accept the primacy of duty over leisure. Wider public support for oppressive measures against sport was of course limited in times of security and stability. Yet Australia’s slide into national crisis after 1914 would prompt many moderate citizens to reflect on the social utility of sport, adopting a position once unthinkable. The fracturing of peace that upheld the centre in Australian life consequently pushed many into these opposing camps, largely, though not exclusively, along pre-ordained lines of social identification.


Despite appearances, organised sport was riven by the same divisions that plagued wider society in the pre-war period. While the working-classes assigned a pragmatic value to games, the nation’s middle-class viewed things in a far more philosophical manner. Sport, they argued, was not just a leisurely pursuit, but a preparation for higher things, namely life itself. The sudden insecurity surrounding national security from 1900 heightened this understanding of sport. As the country prepared itself for war, public school educators and those committed to amateur sport began to articulate the role of sport in defence of the nation and the Empire. Such comparisons emerged under the dual pretence of upholding respectable public values and securing their own sporting interests, which they considered one and the same. Sport was felt to have prepared young men for the greatest test of their individual manhood.



This is an edited extract from Not Playing the Game: Sport and Australia’s Great War by Xavier Fowler, available 2 November (MUP).



To purchase the book click HERE.



You can read the media release for the book  HERE.



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  1. Kevin Densley says

    I liked reading this, Xavier. While your approach, as demonstrated in this extract, has an academic feel to it, the material is nevertheless interesting and thought-provoking. The overall book would be the same, I expect.

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