AFL is unavoidable in Melbourne. The state’s pastime, it’s a sport that transcends class and social boundaries, weaving its way into almost every community. Anyone from the shit-kicker to the CEO, from the tradie to the poet, can apparently get behind it. Everyone’s got a team, and if you don’t, you better choose one quick.
Since moving to Melbourne in 2020, I’ve felt accosted by AFL culture. Unlike country NSW, where I moved from, footy-talk is everywhere. My first week in Melbourne a woman in a café remarked ‘you bloody tigers’ fan’; carelessly, I’d worn a black and yellow scarf out of the house that morning. In arts circles, I’ve had acquaintances seamlessly transition from the poetry of Omar Sakr to a breakdown of such and such player’s form.
What people don’t understand when they start these conversations with me, when they insist I ‘choose a team’, is that I’ve spent the better half of my adult life trying to avoid anything footy related. This was out of necessity, not choice.
Footy triggers me.
In the house I grew up in, NRL was the beating epicentre of life. I spent my weekends with my dad screaming ‘get up ‘em’ and ‘hold the line’ as six-foot-something men barrelled into each other on the flatscreen, seemingly unaware of the phrase brain damage.
On Thursday nights, we’d clutch out bellies cackling as Reg Reagan on the NRL’s footy-show. Matty John’s alter-ego, Reg would sing ‘bring back the biff’; a larrikin spoof of The Angels’ classic ‘Am I ever going to see your face again’, the song harks back to a time when NRL was more violent.
When my pa was in town, I’d listen to him and dad argue for hours about how the game was changing. Stories of my pa’s footy prowess were passed down to us all like a proficiency. He was supposed to go pro but wasn’t able to afford the train ticket across town. In those days footy players were paid peanuts. Footy was always hard yakka.
I was never going to go pro like I suspect the men of my family hoped. The same bullies who punched me on Friday were on the field on the weekend ready to grab me by the collar. I was slow and pudgy and couldn’t make a tackle for shit. I didn’t have the ball skills, the agility or reflexes, and often cried when some bigger player knocked me to the ground. Sook became my second name.
I pretended to enjoy the game mostly so that I could spend time with my dad.
The first time anyone told me ‘to be a man’, I was eight years old. Some kids had high-jacked a tackle bag while me and my pa waited sideline for my brother to finish footy practice. Pa was reading a newspaper and I wanted to play with the kids, so went over to introduce myself. All they knew was that my brother was a bit shit at footy; coined the BFG, he was a forward who got gifted the easy balls because ‘the coach felt sorry for him’.
The kids started calling me homophobic slurs. Armed with the only ammunition a country kid had, I parroted them. This pissed them off. They took turns slamming me to the ground with the tackle bag. When I screamed for my pa to help me, he didn’t even look over the horizon of the newspaper.
‘Why didn’t you help?’ I said, running to him several minutes later, tears falling down my face, my body aching all over.
‘What do you expect me to do?’ he said, ruffling his paper. ‘Be a man, Timmie—stick up for yourself.’
As a late teenager, I figured my aversion to footy was just rebellion—I didn’t want to be like my dad. Maybe, one day, I’d get back into it. But as I’ve gotten older, and now living in Melbourne, the heart of AFL, I’ve realised this aversion is trauma informed.
Like a lot of men, regardless of code, footy is the outlet for my father’s fury. When it doesn’t give him what he wants he takes that fury out on my family, mostly my mum. It is normal for him to scream obscenities at the TV, and when the game is over and his team has lost, for him to scream obscenities at us. Countless times I’ve prayed for his team to win.
It’s never, as many commentators claim, ‘just a game’. Last year, there was an estimated 20% increase in domestic violence over the Victorian AFL grand final long weekend. In 2019, the NRL State of Origin saw an increase of 40% in domestic violence reports.
The ‘show’ violence in the stadium was echoed through our home. For so many troubled and disenfranchised men like my father, footy is the home of patriarchal masculinity, an opportunity to live vicariously through a sporting industry that seems to encapsulate everything we’re told is essential to being a man. It rewards brute acts of violence with money, fame, success and adoring women. It reinforces a dominator complex, a systemic adherence to physical power at all costs. It is, as American psychologist Terrence Real would say, about ‘power over, rather than power with’. And footy codes across this country do very little to stem the social repercussions of this violent exhibitionism.
No doubt, my father would have found violence with or without the game. But it is impossible for me to untangle the threads, impossible to stop the bile rising in my throat when someone invites me to watch a game. Impossible for me not to fear for my mother when I know a big weekend of footy is coming up. That’s why this weekend, like all weekends, I’ll try my best to avoid the footy.