Change for the sake of change may be sold as progressive reform, but in sport – or politics – is it really necessary? By Nick Dyrenfurth.

Nick Dyrenfurth
The AFL is shifting the goal posts

“I lost my father this past year, and the word feels right because I keep looking for him. As if he were misplaced. As if he could just turn up, like a sock or a set of keys.” The opening lines of Mark Slouka’s beautiful essay in the January New Yorker hit like a bolt of lightning. I wasn’t thinking of my father; he’s alive and well. Rather, I cast my mind back to September 1, 1996. Along with thousands of other Melburnians, I lost a football club that day. 

After 113 years, the Fitzroy Football Club played its 1928th and last VFA/VFL/AFL match. We were belted by newcomers Fremantle to the tune of 86 points. Even worse was the sickly sentimentality: the bizarre rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” and faux compassion of television commentators. Granted, it was an improvement on the previous week. In their final Melbourne appearance, the “Roys” lost by a smidge over 25 goals. 

Nomadic, mired in debt, bereft of quality players, and unloved by the AFL, Fitzroy’s demise as a stand-alone Melbourne-based club was probably inevitable. But I kept looking for Fitzroy over the coming months and years. When the fixture for the next season was released, our absence provoked shock and anger. I subsequently threw my lot in with the “merged” entity in Brisbane. If it was good enough for club great Kevin “Bulldog” Murray, I reasoned, it was good enough for me. Despite three flags in a row during the early noughties, I ached for Fitzroy. Often still ache. When fellow battler South Sydney was readmitted to the National Rugby League in 2002, I allowed myself to dream of the resurrection. Perhaps the past could be overturned after all. Except, you see, I’m not an AFL commissioner.  

Which brings us to the AFL’s tentative proposal to rewrite the early history of Australian football as reported a few weeks ago. If the commission accepts the recommendations of a mysterious working party review, the VFL/AFL’s birth will be backdated from 1897 to 1870. Instead of sitting equal with Essendon on 16 premierships, Carlton would jump to a clear lead with 22 flags. Although the VFL was officially renamed the AFL in 1990, the AFL will begin in 1987 – the year the Brisbane Bears and West Coast Eagles joined the competition.

The proposals are, of course, bonkers. You don’t need to be Collingwood president Eddie McGuire, a vociferous critic, to think as much. Not even the prospect of an extra Fitzroy premiership can win me over. Yes, Australian football’s history extends back to the colonial era and further, if you recognise the influence of the indigenous Marn Grook game. But the VFL was formed in 1897. Full stop. It was a breakaway competition from the Victorian Football Association. It changed the very rules by which a game of Australian football was conducted.

That the proposal is being countenanced speaks volumes of the AFL’s malaise. Barely a season passes without some inane rule change. There is a mechanical, joyless character to many home-and-away matches. The footballers are gone, replaced by lemming-like athletes. American lingo has infected the way we talk about our game. Young men are being injected with all manner of substances. The cost of watching a game in the flesh is prohibitive and Australians are corralled into buying Foxtel subscriptions. One suspects that the real reason the AFL wants to revisit its foundation year is the monetary bonanza of staging a 150th birthday celebration in 2020 rather than 2047. Yet I won’t hold my breath waiting for the AFL to review one aspect of its history, namely the shameful manner in which Fitzroy players and supporters were treated nearly two decades ago. An apology is long overdue, particularly as today’s clubs are financially propped up during tough times.

The AFL’s Orwellian desire to rewrite footy history and oversee a game in perpetual flux must not be seen in some kind of vacuum. This is 21st-century Australia writ large. Change for the sake of change, or “reform” as some call it, is the watchword of much of our political class. Budget deficit scare campaigns are concocted to satiate ideological obsessions. The market is allowed to permeate aspects of our society that should be off limits. 

Like our new football lingo, there is more than a whiff of unAustralianism. Trade unions, which have done more than most to preserve the Australian way of life, are under assault by the federal government and sections of the media. A politically motivated royal commission will inexorably spur a new round of workplace deregulation.   

In sport, as with politics, it doesn’t need to be this way. We should not forget that Germany boasts one of the world’s most highly regulated labour markets, but is also one of its most competitive and efficient economies. In Britain, there is talk of a “post-liberal” politics that seeks to challenge the rule of the two liberalisms – social and economic – that have transformed its way of life since the 1960s. Post-liberalism recognises that globalisation cannot be undone but insists upon the primacy of the local and the familiar. 

Ironically, then, the “world game” is instructive. Despite the manifest flaws of FIFA and the greed of some clubs and players, the marvellous spectacle of the World Cup in Brazil requires no smoke-and-mirror changes or projections of manifest destiny. The game is the same as the first World Cup I witnessed in 1990. That years’s champion, (West) Germany, is again a chance to reclaim the trophy, albeit playing a more attractive and dynamic brand of football, and boasting a multicultural line-up vastly different from that which took to the field 24 years ago. But it’s still a recognisably German team playing in a recognisably great sporting competition. 

It’s an object lesson for Australia’s political and sporting elite.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 12, 2014 as "Shifting the goal posts".

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Nick Dyrenfurth is an adjunct research fellow at Monash University’s national centre for Australian studies, and has worked as a Labor adviser and speechwriter.

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