AFL backs itself into a corner

Mistakes were made, some acknowledged by AFL chief Gillon McLachlan. The fact that fans felt intimidated by security was a mistake. The Behavioural Awareness Officers in their vests were a mistake, not to mention a visual and linguistic affront. The security guard who ran onto the ground to break up a spat between two players in Hobart last Saturday was a mistake.

In the growing tumult, Jeff Kennett’s characterisation of security staff as AFL-illiterate aliens was a mistake. You could say it was at least clumsily worded, but this is a man who has always meant what he said.

The AFL made mistakes, firstly to distance itself from the clampdown by saying it was the business of stadiums and police, then to disown it altogether by saying nothing else. The longer McLachlan said nothing, the louder his silence became. Meantime, the cats ran around like headless chooks. Getting messy, this farmyard.

The AFL was caught between a rock and a hard place (this farmyard is landscaped). Crowds are inherently anti-authoritarian. The AFL is the authority. If the AFL said nothing, the howling would continue. If it said something, it would redouble.

So it said nothing.

Five years ago, the AFL stayed mum about the booing of Adam Goodes, for fear of inflaming the tensions. Two weeks ago, it finally apologised for that. But it is still an open question what would have transpired if the AFL had called for a ceasefire at the time. Crowds, like cats, don’t do what they’re told, just because they’re told.

But there comes a point. Smoked out at last, McLachlan said the AFL wanted only for fans to strike the right balance between ardent barracking and safety. He used the word ‘‘safe’’ 20 times, a dog whistle for cats.

But what is that balance? One fan’s free expression is to another ugly and threatening. One fan’s bad language is to another merely robust. One fan’s “right” to barrack as he pleases can make for an unpleasant afternoon for another. The giving and taking of offence is filtered through the lens of club partisanship, also whether you’re winning or losing on the day. Only umpires can’t win.
To date, we’ve heard only loud voices raised in defence of loud voices. Is there, if not a silent majority, a less loud one, drowned out?

Street rules don’t apply, that much is certain. Everyone accepts some licence. I’ve yelled out stuff that makes me blush to remember. But it can’t be Rafferty’s rules either. It can’t be animal rule. It can’t be any sort of hard and fast rule.

It’s easy enough to say what is beyond the pale, but it is impossible to come up with a supporters’ manifesto, as some have demanded. But here’s a starting point: don’t be a dickhead.

That’s an individual responsibility. It’s too convenient to blame McLachlan entirely. When he said nothing, he was flogged for it. When he said something, he was flogged for it.

I think McLachlan should have spoken up sooner, because that’s what leadership means, but I’m not convinced it would have changed anything in this case.



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