To commemorate the Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous round in the AFL this year, three teams – Melbourne, Fremantle and Port Adelaide – will change their names to an aboriginal “in-language” name, with Port Adelaide announcing that their “new” name will be a permanent feature of the round. But what maybe undertaken as an enhancement to a wider purview – in this case the AFL’s reconciliation process – in no way assures an improvement to the odds of a team win this week or any other, and after all, wins and losses is what really matters at this level of sport.
At the outset of his term at the helm of the Sydney Swans, Tom Hafey, the legendary Australian rules coach, was asked for an anecdote about the funny side of football. Hafey replied tersely – “there’s nothing funny about football”. To this tenet of professional sporting doctrine may be added that validly the apex of all professional sport is to win; everything else is surplusage.
But football teams may not turn winning into a habit if they lack a strong and loyal support base, for the two tend to go hand in hand. And for those clubs whose success is neither sustained nor celebrated widely in the form of a robust fan base, fate, aka the AFL bean counters, have been known to organise a relocation elsewhere. So the binding of the one to the other – of fan to club – is of real importance. But how to do that; how does the fan stay tethered to his/her footy side regardless of the on-field performance?
Like any knitting together of a people, one must look to that group’s cultural artefacts to understand their loyalty. In football, it is adherence to a team’s colours, song, and name, that both inspire the triumph of success and equally compensate for a fruitless season. Though the team song maybe rarely sung, the banners seldom held high and only muted barracking from the terraces be heard during a lean season, the fans still know that they and their team exist and one day renown will return. These are the things, of which the name and colours are paramount, that binds the fan to the team.
Over the last decade or so, some major Australian sites have been given the name change treatment as the acknowledgement of aboriginal culture is being encouraged. Places like Ayres Rock – Uluru -and more recently Fraser Island – K’gari – are two examples. A few months ago I saw Kel Richards – the wordsmith – on Peta Credlin’s Sky News show discussing this phenomenon. Richards pointed out that these choreographed names changes are not entirely necessary. All over the country there are thousands and thousands of aboriginal place names, which despite European settlement have remained in place and are still in use. Consequently, the recognition of aboriginal presence in Australia has been accepted from the beginning of settlement. One more name change is neither necessary or certain to inspire further acknowledgement of the reality.
But this policy to acknowledge the aboriginal presence in Australia pre-settlement is today everywhere. The AFL’s significant support of this position mirrors other organisations such as the ABC and SBS. But playing guernseys and WtC/AoC ceremonies are one thing, team name changes, even their temporary use, hold an entirely different point of tension. So while the former has been given prominence during the round, apart from the initial announcements by the clubs of their changes of name, there has been little if any further reference to the latter.
In irony of ironies the names are as lost now as they were at the time of European settlement. There are no listings in the TV guides, nor are they heard from in the match commentaries and no voice carries their vocalisations in the barracking crowds, which shows that the AFL and the Clubs know the entire thing is a bridge too far for the fans and is nothing more than a shallow gimmick. Were the names to have been taken up with the same gusto that the ABC and SBS have similarly embedded in their programming, then it could be asked legitimately whether the Melbourne, Fremantle and Port Adelaide football clubs still exist as actual AFL teams; the result of which would be what ties their supporters to these clubs?
Today in Australia all political, cultural and social roads lead to the voice and the AFL is a vocal part of this massive band wagon. But as Paul Keating famously acknowledged when he took on Bob Hawke the first time for the leadership of the ALP and hence the prime-ministership, he only had one shot in the locker. The voice is in similar territory. If it goes down the country would have dealt with it both democratically and in finito. Yes, in some quarters there will be tears. The country will survive. But unlike politics and constitutional change, a nation’s cultural heritage and artefacts, of which national sports are a major feature, are entirely something else. Consequently, using a team’s members, supporters and their artefacts of identification as cultural appropriation for a political ends is too cute by half.