Cover of book: Not Playing the Game

Xavier Fowler
Not Playing the Game

“If you go back to World War I … all elite sportsmen used to volunteer because they thought it was their duty.” So said Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith in 2011, when the NRL employed him to promote its Anzac Cup.

In Not Playing the Game: Sport and Australia’s Great War, Xavier Fowler reveals that in fact wartime patriots often regarded elite sportsmen with a suspicion bordering on contempt.

Public schools traditionally used amateurism to inculcate Empire loyalism. For instance, in 1908 a guest speaker at Wesley College assured the assembled boys that “as they strove on the football field or on the river, so it might be that in the near future they would have to fight for the motherland, their King and Commonwealth”.

When a football match between Wesley and Melbourne Grammar descended into an out-and-out public brawl, many respectable papers applauded the violence. “It will be a poor look-out for the British Empire when its younger school boys do not behave roughly and even rudely at times,” said one commentator. “Nations are not made or sustained by milk-sops.”

Yet the patriots who lauded amateur hooliganism feared that professional sport distracted the working class from fighting for Britain. “A couple of dozen people attend a meeting like this,” fretted an organiser after a poorly patronised event for the New South Wales National Defence League in 1907, “and 50,000 people go to a football match! I say, when we see this state of things, heaven help Australia.”

The outbreak of global war in 1914 consequently set two different conceptions of sport in conflict. Early propaganda attributed German depravity to an absence of the morally uplifting games associated with public-school amateurism, while the sporting journal Winner explained: “British stamina conquers on the sporting grounds and courses / And the sportsmen make all good soldiers and good soldiers all make sports.”

The falsity of that became apparent when the Australian Imperial Force initially rejected Carlton star George Challis on medical grounds. Though Challis eventually made it to France, he did not, despite the boasts of the Football Record, prove a “great asset for the Australian army”. Athleticism made no difference on the Somme, where a witness described how an incoming artillery shell blew “Cheerful Challis” into little pieces during his first day of action.

The sporting ethos certainly contributed to the prominence of former public schoolboys on the casualty lists. After his brother died at the front, former Wesley student Brian Lewis bitterly considered himself lucky “not to have been at school assembly when the Head announced that it had scored another death”.

Sport proved much less potent in galvanising the working class to fight. In early 1915, about 2500 people attended a meeting to establish the Victorian Sportsmen’s Battalion. The event proved a fizzer, with fewer than 50 men enlisting. A subsequent attempt to organise a Sportsmen’s Thousand – under the slogan “Join Together, Train Together, Embark Together, Fight Together” – fell equally flat.

Again and again, recruiters complained that sporting crowds booed or mocked them. “They absolutely refused to let me speak,” lamented a certain Sergeant Kilpatrick after attending a South Melbourne game, “and pushed me, and jostled me all over the place. They said I had no right to go there and spoil their sport, and I had to leave the ground, as they threatened to deal with me. I have no desire to go to any more of these meetings unless I have some sort of protection.” When the NSW premier William Holman urged fans at a Les Darcy fight to enlist, “hooting started from the back benches … [rising] to a roar, and then the dissenters started to count the Premier out.”

Today, Roberts-Smith isn’t alone in presenting a Great War narrative almost entirely untethered from historical fact. Fowler quotes Essendon’s James Hird explaining how the Anzacs “fought for Australia, and what it stood for and for the right of Australians to make decisions about how their country would develop”.

The wartime sporting crisis can only be understood if you recognise Hird’s description is entirely untrue. The Gallipoli landing didn’t centre on Australia’s defence, but rather the invasion of Turkey, in a campaign fought to hand the Dardanelles to the Russians through the secret Constantinople Agreement.

Not surprisingly, in Australia, working-class Irish Catholics – the backbone of most sporting codes – felt no inclination to defend a British Empire that had suppressed Dublin’s Easter Rising.

Instead of empowering Australians to make decisions about their country, the Great War led to bans on protests, intense censorship and the arrests of activists. It was in that context that the government introduced the control of sports regulations to limit events that might distract the public from the war effort, with The Sydney Morning Herald explaining approvingly that sport and luxury were “sapping the national character”.

The thematic presentation in Not Playing the Game – Fowler examines recruitment, fundraising, government bans, racism, gender and other subjects – makes its narrative somewhat repetitive. Yet as the major sporting codes drape themselves in Anzackery, the book provides a crucial corrective, describing how the intense social conflicts of the war manifested on the playing fields as well as off them.

Certainly the NRL – and, for that matter, Ben Roberts-Smith – might do well to consider a 1915 critique of those who glorified war by an association with sport. “Is the slaughter of thousands of human beings,” asked a justifiably angry writer for People, “the dismemberment of thousands of bodies, the shattering of bones, the blowing out of eyes, the reduction of unrecognisable masses of festering corruption, is all this a ‘game’?

Jeff Sparrow

Melbourne University Press, 288pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Not Playing the Game, Xavier Fowler".

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