With Martin Flanagan, Peter Schwab, Amanda Smith and Francis Leach, and MC Paul Bateman, of the State Library of Victoria
A summary of the panel discussion National obsessions, part of the program of events that complemented the touring exhibition 'National Treasures from Australia's Great Libraries' hosted by the State Library of Victoria in 2006.
It's said that the first game of Australian Rules football was played between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College on the gravelly slope above the Melbourne Cricket Ground in August 1858. Among the players that day was a man named Thomas W Wills. Martin Flanagan once likened Wills to an Australian Icarus: 'as a man who leapt from the earth and almost caught the sun'.
Flanagan began by discussing that first game, the historic and contemporary significance of Wills, and how the Australian game evolved as a late 19th-century form of free entertainment in the parks.
He noted how by any traditional measure of television, cinema, books, music or theatre, Australian culture is in retreat. But Australians still want Australian stories with Australian characters, values and humour - and Australian football provides them. That, he figures, is why we talk footy a lot of the time.
The discussion moved to the subject of Aboriginal players. Martin said he knew Aboriginal people who consider Australian football an Aboriginal game. He also spoke briefly about his time in 1993 - as an author - at the Footscray Football Club. Clubs, he said, were vital but vulnerable institutions.
Football legend Allan Jeans once noted that 'there are two types of coaches: those who get sacked and those who will get sacked'.
Former player and coach Peter Schwab said he understood! Peter arrived at Hawthorn FC in 1977 to play under-19s football. The association lasted until 2004.
Peter talked about his first game in the Bennettswood under-11s: he played on the wing. He remembered, even then, the strong and positive feeling for football that the game inspired in him.
Peter spoke about being young, playing AFL footy, and being the subject of extreme adulation – for better and worse.
Paul Bateman referred to the terrorism attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York's World Trade Centre. One Hawthorn player – Daniel Chick – lost his brother-in-law in the attack. At the MCG the next day, the team gathered in the changing rooms and spoke openly about what had happened. Peter said – with great emotion – that he regards that day as his most memorable moment as coach of the Hawks: that in the context of global terrorism, footy was, that day, one thing that made sense among a larger, darker senselessness.
The panel looked at football as a national obsession, as a cultural reality as much as a sporting reality. Amanda Smith's 'Sports Factor' program took that idea - the intersection of sport with other social institutions – as its starting point.
Paul Bateman asked Amanda to consider how central sport is to our culture, and why some games are truly 'more than a game'. Amanda offered a view on the mass devotion - in Melbourne especially – that the AFL code inspires.
Amanda talked about the most illuminating interview she ever conducted on the subject of sport – about ordinary people playing sport and, as a consequence, strengthening social ties.
Amanda also considered why Australian Rules football attracts considerable numbers of female followers – and about what it means for our ideas about women and aggression.
Francis Leach talked both about his experiences in journalism and about being a St Kilda Football Club supporter (and an obsessive one at that!).
His program, When Saturday comes, really was compulsory listening and, like Martin, he saw no real distinction between traditional, 'higher-brow' cultural experiences and more 'bread-and-butter' cultural experiences.
Francis said that football fans were always his focus: 'it's our game – the players only turn up and play it!'.
His approach to the game was to not just interview coaches for scores, results and analysis – but to talk seriously (albeit with great humour) to the fans in the outer.
Francis talked about being a Saints supporter, and about tradition: he cautioned against traditions being 'reworked into a palace of self-congratulation and corporate respectability that sits uncomfortably with what the Clubs perceive themselves to be'.
Questions from the audience
The questions covered issues ranging from the history of the game, to aspects of playing and coaching, to what drives changes to the rules of the game – the 'good' of the game or the commercial dictates of television.
Summary of National obsessions, State Library of Victoria, Wednesday 12 April 2006.