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Stereotypical distortion

Australia's Sporting Culture

Either as participants or as fans, team sport provides one of the best opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to come together. Fortunately, with four codes of professional football, three varieties of professional cricket, professional basketball, semi-professional baseball and semi-professional netball, Australia has arguably the most diverse professional sporting environment in the world.

It would be nice to say that Australians rejoice in their sporting multiculturalism and see it as a point of great national pride, but that would be against both the reality and human nature. Instead, Australians are prone to choose their passion and then ridicule those whose passions lay elsewhere.

From a spectator point of view, Australian Football (AFL) is the most popular national sport and is significantly more popular than any other sport in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. It is less popular in NSW and Queensland where it may be referred to as GAYAFL, Raffeties Rules, Aerial Ping Pong or contemptuously described as resembling a bunch of disorganised men chasing a chicken.

For many Rugby League fans, Australian football is not a man's sport, but not much aside from Rugby League is.

From a spectator point of view, Rugby League is the second most popular football code and it rivals AFL in national television ratings. It arrived from England in 1908 as a working class game, an image that helped it rise in popularity above Soccer, Rugby union and Australian Football in its NSW and Queensland heartlands. In recent decades; however, Australian values have changed and the working class label doesn't have the same prestige that it once had. Now Rugby League tends to be seen as a Bogan class game. This Bogan image hasn't been helped by prominent rugby league players finding themselves in strife for doing things such as defecating in hotel rooms, being photographed drinking their own urine and poking opposition players in the date during games.

When playing the Nth Queensland Cowboys, John Hopoate decided if they were named after Cowboys then they should walk like them too.

Rugby Union has professional teams in every mainland state except South Australia but it is a minority sport. In the 19th century, it had been positioned as the sport to forge links with mother England and was active in trying to suppress the growth of Australian Football and Rugby League. It largely failed and really only survived in private schools where pride in the British empire was strong. In the 1990s, it started growing beyond the private school heartland by opening itself up to professionalism.


Mr Burns

A 19th century cartoon that mocks the mayor of Melbourne for using a visit by an English Rugby Union team as an excuse to pour scorn on the Australian game

Soccer has traditionally been a sport that a great number of Australians have wanted to play but very few have wanted to watch. Ironically, it was the first sport in Australia to create a national competition. In 1977, migrants established the National Soccer League with names like Sydney Croatia to remind them of their home countries. The conflicts and racial associations of such teams soon result in it being referred to as "wogball". In 2005 a new national league was created in which racial and nationalistic identifiers were banned. This has helped soccer move beyond a supporter base that wasn't particularly keen to see violence on the field, but was keen to participate in violence in the stands.

Despite a recent move towards passivity, Soccer fans are still prone to take offence quite easily. In recent years, their biggest grip seems to be the fact that Soccer is referred to as Soccer (as it is in every English speaking country except England) rather than as football. The fans protest that Soccer deserves a monopoly on the term football as it is the code where a foot most commonly strikes the ball. It is a protest that shows ignorance of the origin of the word. Specifically, football originated as a term to distinguish games played on foot from games played on horses. If participants wanted to describe how they moved a ball forward, they would have called it feet ball or kickball.

True football

Basketball experienced so much growth in the 1990s that administrators felt it could challenge Australian Football for national supremacy. Support then went backwards, perhaps due to the introduction of pay TV, which opened up America's NBA as an alternative. Basketball doesn't seem to have much ridicule associated with it, perhaps because the type of people who play in the NBA resemble the type of people that one would be wary of ridiculing.

Until the 1970s, Cricket was the only sport that had a significant national wide following and thus the only team sport capable of making national icons. Furthermore, it had a monopoly on the summer months, which helped ensure that no derogatory comment developed about it from a jealous rival. Admittedly, it took a rare kind of fan that could watch a game that mostly consisted of men standing around in white clothes, punctuated only by walking to different points on the field during breaks of play. On the positive side, fans had drink breaks, lunch breaks and tea breaks to find something to stimulate them over the five long days it took to win or lose a game (or at least shake hands in a draw.)

Things changed in 1977 when media mogul Kerry Packer made an offer to broadcast cricket on commercial television but was rebuffed by administrators. Packer reacted by launching World Series Cricket, a format where a result was achieved in only one day, games continued into night, and players wore coloured clothing. Cricket purists were outraged and referred to one-day cricket as hit-and-giggle or a stupid pyjama game. Finally cricket, or at least a version of it, was being ridiculed.

The new format brought with it a new audience, the yobo. These were fans that didn’t really care that much about what happened on the field, but they liked to drink lots of beer, make a lot of noise, create a lot of banners and have a lot of fun. Unfortunately, they also had a tendency to embarrass commentators who were trying to pretend a game was really exciting only for the loudest cheer of the day being reserved for someone running onto the field without wearing any trousers.

In the later naughties, an even shorter version of cricket, 20/20, was introduced as format that has allowed a 6-week domestic competition to be established. Purists saw it as an abomination, and another sign that the younger generation didn’t have the attention span to discuss the finer points of Cricket strategy that involved a bowler bowling the same ball over and over again and a batsmen leaving the same ball over and over again in a battle of wits and temperament.

World Series Cricket not only changed the type of people who watched cricket, but also those who played it.

Baseball was introduced to Australia in the 1850s by American gold miners. To avoid competition with Cricket, it was played in Australia's winter months, which was not ideal considering that, like Cricket, standing around was the main component of the game.

In the 1980s, Baseball made an assertive move by becoming a summertime sport and creating a national league. The new league filled a gap in the summer market, which lacked a tribal based domestic competition. In the 93/94 season, the Australian Baseball League seemed on the verge of over-taking cricket. Average attendance was nearly 4,000, total attendance reached 500,000 and more than one million persons watched baseball on television. From a spectator point of view, these figures showed that domestic baseball was more popular than domestic cricket.  For a variety of reasons, its popularity then crashed and Cricket reasserted dominance.

Netball is arguably the most successfully women’s sporting competition, or at the very least, the only one that doesn’t fade into obscurity behind the men’s versions.  Although men’s netball does exist, it is self-funded and therefore has relatively little scope to increase participation and following. Institutional approval only exists for men to play in mixed teams where there is no pathway to an elite level. Perhaps the men who play in the mixed teams are motivated to prove themselves against the best, or perhaps they just want to get close to athletic women who are often in very alluring positions.

Just as some Australians ridicule those who have different sporting passions, there are some Australians who ridicule the whole notion of following sport. In the late 19th century, commentators inspired by the British notion of civility were offended by the way that sport brought out the emotion of the animal. As one doctor noted in 1896:

"The cheer, the jeer, the howl, the bawl, the yell, the scream, the boo-haa-haa are as unavoidable as the notes of an octave. To demonstrate the savage in our blood we need only look at the barracker- the most offensive parasite that has ever battened on a manly game'.

Likewise, a journalist noted:

"If an intelligent foreigner had been present, watching these young men clad in parti-coloured garments, kicking and wrestling, receiving and giving hard blows and falls, he must have thought it was the amusement of madman. The spectators, who howled, and shrieked, and applauded, he would have thought equally mad."

Such criticisms fell out of favour as artists of the 20th century made it seem cool to act like animals and liberate their feelings.

In more recent times, there have been complaints that sport distracts attention from other pursuits where applause should be directed. For example, when receiving an Australian legend honour at the 2002 Australia Day Awards, a relatively unknown medical researcher named Donald Metcalf said,

"I could name 11 colleagues whose accomplishments would exceed those of our cricket 11. They haven't been entertaining people. They have been saving lives."

It has to be said, Metcalf's whinge was not particularly logically. The discussion of an opening batsmen's technique or a fast bowler's fiery temperament is a far more accessible conversation for the average family than is a discussion about how glycoprotein stimulates the bone marrow to produce granulocytes. Even if medical research could be made more accessible so that it took over the family room discussions, then perhaps astronomers would voice complaints such as:

"I could name 11 colleagues whose accomplishments would exceed those of our medical researchers. They haven't been contributing to an overly populated world. They have been opening our eyes to the universe! "



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