What you won’t read in the BAO training manual

As I was grappling with the Orwellian concept of the “Behavioural Awareness Officer”, an anecdote about the late Professor Ian Turner came to mind. Turner was in equal part passionate left-wing historian and Richmond supporter. He also had a great ear for the Australian vernacular. In one of his famous lectures about the place of Australian Rules in our country’s identity, Turner recounted a memorable piece of barracking from an irate and inebriated St Kilda supporter at the old Moorabbin ground in the early 70s. As the Saints surrendered a substantial lead to lose a thriller to Turner’s Tigers, the fan was heard to berate the umpire with:


“You rotten bloody poofter commo mongrel bastard”.


These were the days when “upgrading” your viewing position at the footy meant quickly downing six steel beer cans so you could stand a few inches taller on the empties. “PC” hadn’t entered the lexicon. In that environment Turner could freely delight in this piece of vitriol, noting that in a single breath the barracker had questioned the umpire’s sexuality, politics, parentage and a few other things besides.


The point is, beyond its comic eloquence, this string of abuse would barely have raised an eyebrow on the terraces of the suburban grounds of 40 years ago. But utter this phrase today in the confines of Marvel Stadium in the presence of a vigilant BAO and see how much longer you’re allowed to watch the game!


In the torrent of the current debate about fan behaviour and official reaction, the constant trope has been “safety”. “Spectator safety” was the reason given for the heavy-handed security measures that have caused such an uproar. The fans themselves cited instances where verbal abuse and violence, threatened and actual, caused them to feel “unsafe”. One might easily conclude from all this that the overriding objective of attending the footy is to “be safe”!


The modern obsession with safety extends far beyond attending AFL matches of course. Workplaces, schools, hospitals, public transport, indeed, any form of institution or human interaction seem to place “safety” ahead of any other concern, even its very raison d’etre. But it’s as a long-term football devotee that I find this focus on safety particularly interesting and more than a tad confusing. When I started attending VFL matches as a teenager in the late 1970s, part of the allure was in the risks of venturing to unfamiliar parts of town, exploring dilapidated terraces, wandering into filthy toilets and buying food from outlets with questionable hygiene standards. And that was before one even encountered the myriad bizarre behaviours on show in the crowds or saw at close range the rough-and-tumble and occasional brutality on the playing arenas. In short, the essence of the “match day experience” was a weekly slice of living on the edge, never quite sure when one’s senses or even one’s person might be assailed. I felt a constant, invigorating sense of not being safe. And I loved it.


Now I’m not suggesting that families taking young children to the footy should be emulating my naïve adolescent thrill-seeking. But instead of blanketing their expectations in a suffocating cloak of “safety first”, should they not be asking themselves what experiences they should reasonably anticipate at a day at the footy? The very nature of the contest promises physical thrills and spills that may border on violence that wouldn’t be acceptable elsewhere. The responses from a passionate, emotionally invested audience are hardly going to be passive. Indeed, they are frequently the exact opposite.


Overlaying my early experience of the footy was the mantra, repeated ad nauseam by a commentariat that was almost universally Anglo-Saxon and male, that this was a tough man’s game that taught some tough life lessons. If you couldn’t handle that, whether as participant or spectator, you probably shouldn’t be involved. There was precious little of today’s softer more supportive structures and attitudes that help us to cope with the injuries, physical or mental, or to deal in a measured way with the exhilaration of victory or the pain and angst of defeat. Neither the old school nor the modern way is intrinsically right or wrong. The old way doubtless left some considerable scars, but the new way risks confusing and dumbing-down the important lessons that sport provides. But one blunt message from the old school, unstated but clear, was that we each had to deal with our experiences and work it out for ourselves.


As a footy fan, this is basically what I did. I enthusiastically joined in the profane barracking of the rusted-on Tiger fans until a polite but stern warning from the coppers brought me up with a start and caused me to rapidly modify my behaviour. After years of frequenting the Richmond stronghold behind the Punt Road end goals during the disastrous 1980s and 1990s, I found the fans’ once playful banter had developed a hateful edge. I chose to move to less turbulent parts of the ground. As I’ve introduced my own kids to the game, I’ve learned to exercise judgement about where to sit and how to behave according to the crowd around me and the company I’m with. Sometimes that’s involved telling others to pipe down. Sometimes it’s involved moving elsewhere. It’s not that hard.


In recent years we’ve seen some interesting examples in which fan behaviour has altered as a result of official and organic influences. Consider racial vilification at the footy. The strong stance taken by the AFL in the 1990s, driven by individuals such as Michael Long and Nicky Winmar, provided (belatedly) an unambivalent signal that racial abuse was not OK. The fans themselves have largely responded in kind in the years since. A couple of years ago I was slightly shocked but pleased to be called out by one of my mates when he mis-heard my calling a player of Italian heritage a “flog”. We clarified pretty quickly that I had not used the racist term he originally thought I had, but the significance of the moment was not lost on me. Racial abuse, once commonplace, is rarely heard any more. It’s been an interesting mix of official dictat and fan self-regulation that has brought this about. Yet in spite of these positive steps, the issue of racial vilification is neither simple nor solved, as the Adam Goodes saga has proven. When it’s evident that racism itself is still alarmingly prevalent, especially when its perpetrators can utter their filth, protected by the anonymity of social media, one wonders to what extent football’s efforts in eliminating racial abuse have merely addressed the symptom rather than the cause of the problem.


The act of booing is another interesting example. Though long a relatively good-natured part of the barracker’s repertoire, booing has recently come under fire for being disrespectfully directed at champion players, and worse, seemingly racially targeted in the case of Adam Goodes. Fortunately, before booing became another target of the BAOs, the most recent example, aimed by Richmond supporters at Gary Ablett, was drowned out by loud cheering from his own fans. A fine example of self-regulation! My point here is that it’s the motivations behind the act rather than the act itself that need to be called out. This is hardly the job of a BAO.


So what to make of the current brouhaha about fan behaviour and responses to it? To some extent I think what we’re witnessing is the inevitable consequence of engaging with a big business whose overriding priority is to deliver a consistent, reliable (safe) product and which will go to extreme lengths to practice quality control. But I also think we as fans share some responsibility here. We have the capacity for self-regulation of our own and others’ behaviour. And, for the couple of hours a week that we spend immersed in this escapist form of entertainment, can we not at least temper our ever increasing desire for our lives to be secure and controlled?


To return to the obsession of “fan safety”, the ultimate irony in the current situation is that the reaction by many regular fans to the patrolling security staff and BAOs has been to claim they no longer felt “safe” in understanding what now constitutes acceptable fan behaviour. In a world in which the goalposts of acceptable values and attitudes seem to be constantly shifting, this probably comes as  no great surprise.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!


  1. Good stuff, Stainless. The perpetrator in Turner’s example would be hung, drawn and quartered these days. Three comments: I remember the first (and only) time I attended a match at Alberton Oval in 1970, Sturt (reigning premiers) v Port Adelaide (at home). As a Sturt supporter it was an intimidating experience. Unsafe? Perhaps a bit, but it was all part of appreciating tribal loyalties which were more fierce in some places. Fortunately, I was in the company of two bigger blokes. We lost the game, got out safely and the car wasn’t damaged – a mixed trifecta! Secondly, we’ve all let fly at players, umpires or opposing fans at times over the years and have come to regret some of the things we’ve said, regardless of the era in which we might have said them. As you say, it’s all part of the individual’s personal responsibility and growing as a person. Thirdly, we live in the era of potential litigation and perpetually offended snowflakes, a pathetically dangerous combination. But when does attempting to ensure ‘safety for all’ become overkill which spoils the whole fission of going to the footy?

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Terrific piece Stainless.
    Is safety an issue because the AFL care or because they are afraid of litigation ? The unfortunately, yet somewhat aptly named ‘Flogman’ is testing the waters as we correspond !

    Turner’s example is one of one-off exasperation. A lot of that gets let go. It’s the constant barrage with an alcohol-fueled edge that makes people uneasy.

    It seems like more hinges on the result now. Gambling ? Fantasy Leagues ? Tipping Comps may be tipping some over the edge as they put their bragging rights on the line for more than just celebrating their team winning.
    Mobile phones have made reporting instant and immediate. Social media pours petrol and you have an ‘unsavoury incident’ with ‘more to come’.
    Who would you have called at Vic Park in 1980 unless you had a Batphone?

    Enjoyed the article. Cheers.

  3. Stainless says

    Thanks Ian and Phil.
    Worth reading Waleed Aly in the Age today on much the same subject but with an interesting racial angle.
    Ian’s account of visiting Alberton and Phil’s query about how I coped with visiting Victoria Park in 1980 brings to mind my mum’s reaction when I told her (in 1980) that Richmond was playing Collingwood away, and that I was going.
    “Don’t get killed” was her casual advice.
    If I needed any further incentive to go, that was it!
    BTW we won that day by 9 goals.

  4. Good read Stainless.

    I’m a tad older than you but my memories of footy from the 70’s is not dissimilar. Fights, abuse, the suburban grounds, they were ‘normal’ in that time. Not pleasant, but it’s what it was. I can’t compare it to the current situation having only been to 2 games since 1999.

    Football as we know it has changed enormously. It’s no longer about a game of sport, it’s a very profitable part of the entertainment industry. We’ve had this dialogue quite a few times, so i won’t labour the point but it is so different to our formative years. The ‘outer’ has gone, sides are more ‘brands’ than teams, it’s about a package. This has resulted in so many aspects of it being cleaned up, sanitised,much for the better. But there’s still challenges; obviously.

    Like others have mentioned alcohol is a player in the majority of unpleasant episodes. What role does the excessive, inane drivel from the ground announcers play? How does gambling contribute ? I don’t have an answer but they are factors involved in the mix.

    Yep Waleed Aly raised some insightful points yesterday. It added a valuable window to view spectator behaviour. To follow on from some of the points he’s raised there has been recent mention of segregated areas for supporters. F F S, how does any one consider this as a nuanced approach?

    Oh for a Yabba to add some wit to barracking. How would a character like him fit/feel within the confines of the entertainment industry?

    It’s a vexed issue, that doesn’t have an easy solution, despite so many of us asking.

    So many questions, so many reports.


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