With the AFL grandfinal on tomorrow, an ‘off the cuff’ remark by John Faine (ABC radio Melbourne) got me thinking about the role AFL plays in helping new Australians assimilate.
John noted the variety of nationalities represented at Federation Square, supporting a range of AFL clubs. Why?
The AFL has had a mixed history of race relations on the field, but AFL plays a unique role off the field. First, it is an odd game that has a range of rules that regularly change in confusing ways. It is not played outside Australia and someone arriving from Mumbai or Shanghai can get to the level of knowledge of the average Sydney league supporter in about half an hour. This means that ‘outsiders’ can pretty quickly get to a level of knowledge where they can enjoy watching the game (it is a great live spectator sport) and ‘ignorance’ of the intricacies of the rules is the norm.
Secondly, at least in Victoria, AFL dominates ‘water cooler discussion’. But following on from the first point, a recent arrival to Australia can quickly get to a level of knowledge where they can participate in the discussion. A few weeks perusing the back pages of the local papers is enough to get the relevant education. Indeed, a lack of intimate knowledge can help discussion. There are always rabid supporters willing to educate a listener into the brilliance of their own club and the inadequacy of all the others (along with the latest injuries, umpiring mistakes etc).
Third, the discussion referred to in point two is amazingly light hearted. There is a sort of unwritten code in AFL that debate is good tempered. Unlike other sporting codes in other countries, supporters of different clubs rarely take the banter too seriously. So a new arrival can safely adopt pretty much any AFL club as their own without causing offense or reflecting their ethnic origins.
Finally, AFL support is ethnically and religiously blind. You can go to an AFL match in a burqa or a bikini, and so long as you show your team’s colors, no-one will turn an eye (OK – in Melbourne winter the bikini will turn an eye – but only because the person wearing it is violently shivering and turning blue).
So AFL makes it easy for new arrivals to our shores to fit in. And in many ways, that is all they have to do to ‘fit in’. They do not have to give up anything of their existing culture, and can easily adopt this rather odd game as their own – and be welcomed in doing so.
So why are so many nationalities represented among supporters? Because AFL is a unique tool of multiculturalism, and one we should be thankful for and be proud of.
By the way, the exception to the above are Collingwood supporters who are feral. But then I am a Carlton supporter so tomorrow I am supporting Geelong!