The news that the AFL is poised to trial players’ surnames on the back of jumpers this season should have surprised nobody.
The concept has been floating around for years, once described as a “no brainer” by North Melbourne veteran Brent Harvey and feverishly supported by the likes of Kevin Sheedy (though to be fair, if you lined up a handful of Sheedy’s last club’s players in casual clothes, most football fans couldn’t tell the difference between them and kids at a year-12 dance).
But while the league has stressed the trial – to take place over Easter in Round 5 – is just that, it’s still a disappointing move for traditionalists.
Aussie Rules has always been a different beast to other sports. It’s a place where a meat pie in one hand and the AFL Record in the other remain as ubiquitous as they did decades ago. It’s a sport where primary school kids can get up close with their heroes at regular opening training sessions, and where 90,000 Collingwood and Carlton supporters can passionately cheer at the MCG without the need for fan segregation.
It’s steeped in history, traditional and romance – and part of that romance is in the nameless jumpers. When Nathan Buckley passed his #5 jumper over to Nick Maxwell and Brent Stanton inherited James Hird’s number, they were genuinely important moments for the players and supporters in question. When Tom Scully jumped ship from Melbourne to GWS, part of the fans’ angst was because the former number one draft pick had been awarded Ron Barassi’s iconic #31 jumper. And if you squint while watching Geelong’s Cameron Guthrie – a young player with a blonde mop of hair – run around in the #29, he almost looks like a young Gary Ablett Jr. Life goes on when a player leaves, as it’s the numbers – not the names – that we follow.
Supporters of the concept will claim it is a way for casual fans to easily identify players. But really, ‘easy’ is not a word to be associated with spotting tiny letters on the back of a jumper from the outer at the ‘G.
Things won’t be too different for TV viewers. AFL is a 360-degree sport full of end-to-end action, where it can be difficult enough to spy a player’s number as they’re contesting a mark or caught in a tackle, let alone the letters above it.
And let’s not get started on how the AFL will fit surnames like Roberts-Thompson, Giansiracusa, Schoenmakers and Kolodjashnij into the limited space available.
It’s true that players in many other leagues – from the English Premier League to the NBA and NFL – wear their surnames on their backs. They even have fun with them. Last month, NBA teams Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets wore custom jerseys with their nicknames on them – and among the obvious choices (Miami’s Chris Bosh chose ‘CB’), Heat guard Ray Allen became ‘J. Shuttlesworth,’ a reference to Denzel Washington’s character in the Spike Lee film He Got Game.
Those sports have other customs we should stay well away from – like the Premier League’s ticketing structure (prices vary depending on the quality of the teams, as opposed to the AFL’s blanket prices) and the razzle-dazzle and cheerleaders that dominate American sports.
Names on jumpers won’t be the only Americanism creeping into our sport. Anybody that has attended a game in recent years – particularly at Etihad Stadium – would have been blasted by top-40 music pre-match and at half time. This season, the AFL has scheduled three Sunday night matches for the first time. You can bet that reasonable crowds and big ratings will see the timeslot grow in coming years.
In many ways, us footy romantics are slowly fighting a losing battle, and nameless jumpers are one of the links we have to footy’s suburban roots. Long may they continue.