Football, what have you done to us?
Or is it a case of what have we done to you?
Because you’re an ugly game right now.
Not just the players, coaches and officials. It’s also the media and the fans.
We’ve become a belligerent, arrogant and at times scary mob. We taunt one another, threaten violence, spew forth racism and bigotry and revel in the misfortune of others.
We behave with impunity and disregard in pursuit of success on the field and carry on like pathetic, cartoon rock stars off it.
We harass coaches in the street with despicable stupidity. They then respond with the sort of impulse which tells us that violence is the answer to conflict resolution despite preaching the opposite at every opportunity.
What have we become when a player can’t enjoy the simple pleasure of a meal in a public place without being menaced by morons?
AFL football is an industry that attracts the very finest people who create a world-class product in a tough and unique market. Most of its athletes are enriched by their experience within the game. It’s a social and cultural asset that delivers enormous benefits across the community.
That is now being challenged by the game’s other traits. It’s becoming about power, money, ego and the cult of personality.
In the game’s capital, Melbourne, AFL footy has always been a defining characteristic of what is best about the place. Mostly it still is. Increasingly, it has become a window on our lesser selves.
It’s been drawn into sharper focus this year by the contrast offered by other events that preceded the opening bounce of the season.
In summer, Melbourne was a pulsating international city. With the Australian Open, the Asian Cup and the Cricket World Cup the city was a vibrant, diverse, confident and charming host. It was everything we tell ourselves we are.
As autumn sets in and winter approaches you can hear the drawbridge cranking closed and the barricades being slammed shut. AFL footy arrives and we turn our back on the world and are left to our own devices.
We become an insular, petty, vindictive tribe. What once brought out the best in us now often conjures the worst.
How did our coaches become so wrapped up in this caper that they behave like imperial warlords?
In Mick Malthouse we’ve endured the snarling, contemptuous old coach in post-match press conferences acting as though it’s his game and he resents sharing it.
And now we have the new breed of coach who treats every game as though he is directing the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach.
Adelaide coach Phil Walsh may indeed set a new world record for the fastest man to become a self-parody in sport.
The sense of self-importance in all of it would be laughable if it weren’t also pathetic and sad.
The enjoyment of professional sport is a marker of our affluence.
That we have the time and means to worry about Cyril’s hamstrings or whether Stevie J gets the green vest again this week displays our good fortune.
It was legendary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly who told us football wasn’t about life and death, that it was much more important than that. Shankly, a survivor of the depression and world wars, understood the power and importance of the game to his community on Merseyside.
He was also a man with a sharp sense of humour, an advocate for social justice and the sort of perspective born out of suffering and deprivation that we have luckily never had to endure.
He understood both the passion for the game and also the absurdity of how we indulge it. His famous quote is as true as it is an act of self-depreciation born of experience.
Passion and perspective.
At the moment, AFL footy has one but has completely lost the other.