The Ethics Of… Footy

Me and football have always had a bit of an odd relationship. Footy – that’s Australian Rules Football for those joining us from literally any other country – is a pretty big deal for most of Australia and it’s never a bigger deal than it is right now, one day before the 2017 Grand Final match.

Normally that would be enough to ensure that you couldn’t escape hearing about the game, but since one of the two teams fighting it out this Saturday also happens to be a perennial underdog that hasn’t won a Premiership since DATE, and the two finalists are from different states, and things have been pretty friggin’ football-focused for the last few weeks.

Image result for richmond fans

Though Richmond supporters have been doing their best to annihilate that good-will, I must say.

And sure, being smothered in something like that is a good way of turning a person off virtually anything, regardless of quality (looking at you Holy Grail, Summer of ‘69 or literally anything on commercial radio), but truth be told my relationship on football was never that stellar to begin with.

Why? Well the fact that I suck at it probably has something to do with it, but it’s bigger than that – the simple fact is that football has always kinda freaked me out a bit. Not so much the game itself, which is just a fun activity, but rather the juggernaut of a culture that surrounds it.

I have never in my entire long and rather bizarrely diverse life, even seen so many people get so passionate about anything as they do over football. I’ve seen political rallies, religious ceremonies, debates, fist-fights, drunken bar-room arguments, and full-blown ‘domestic disturbances’, and not a single one of those even comes close to either the scale or intensity of the passion I’ve seen on display at a decent football match. And that is true despite every single one of those other moments objectively holding VASTLY more real-world consequence than a football match could ever do, for anyone outside club owners and hard-core gamblers at least.

Even as a kid I remember watching my friends getting into loud arguments over whose team was best, why other teams sucked, and flat-out personally insulting each other, and quietly wondering what the hell was going on here. And when I hit my angsty teen years and got political, it was an endless source of frustration that the same friends who could spent literal hours debating the merits of a certain player’s 3rd quarter statistics, would rolls their eyes in boredom whenever I brought up actually important topics like climate change.

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Thought in fairness, a lot of that eye-rolling was probably directed more at me than the topic.

That isn’t me, incidentally, but pretty damn close at the time.

Even these days with a more comprehensive understanding of the way people work, the culture of football fascinates me far more than the sport ever could. It really does manage to capture just about everything good and bad about society in one tidy little package;

Tomorrow 110,000 people are going to shell out upwards of $180 to cram themselves into a concrete stadium, with an estimated additional 3 million people tuning in via TV and radio, scream themselves hoarse and jump around like mad people, all for the sake of a game. That single game alone will earn the League roughly $19 million dollars. Just imagine if that amount of passion, energy and cash were focussed behind a real, serious and harmful problem. Climate change, homelessness, economic development, infrastructure upgrades, Indigenous disadvantage, friggin’ North Korea – the things you could sort out with that sort of tidal wave of passion are beyond my ability to imagine.

And we’re focussing that all into watching someone else kick a ball through some goals.

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This was accomplished by 100 people over a weekend, and I doubt they were quite as into it as we are with footy.

Not only are we watching sport happen, we’re competing with each other over that sport happening in the most naked display of tribalism I think I’ve ever seen in person. That school-yard arguing that I mentioned earlier? My friends may have grown out of it, but plenty do not – there are people out there that quite literally judge other people based on which football team they go for, and while it may not be a serious enough hatred to cause violence, there is no question is has social repercussions. And then of course there’s the ultimate hated team; those that don’t like football at all. Try announcing that at the moment and see how popular you become. So not only is our passion for football wildly misplaced, it also does its best to divide society over arbitrary qualities on the regular.

And that’s just the crowd. Don’t even get me started about the players and the massive corporation build around them. I’m hardly the first to be annoyed by the fact that a guy who’s really good at a sport gets paid a six-figure salary while people doing actually important work scrape by. And whattayaknow, turns out recruiting a talented player right out of high school, celebrating him in front of a national audience, and throwing $100G at him annually leads to the occasional shitty attitude, drug binge or rape charge. Whoever could have guessed that might happen?

Hello Mr Sportsperson, we’d like to offer you national coverage for your opinion on a topic you hold neither qualification for, nor experience in. Can’t see that going wrong, no sir.

And then there’s the League behind all this, turning players into celebrities under fanatic praise and constant scrutiny, advertising the game as literally “More than a game”, equating playing sport to ‘heroics’, lobbying for public money to be spent on facilities for their sport, and quietly jacking up ticket prices while also expanding their ad revenue (the recent boom in sports gambling is going to be a whole other article on here, maybe several). Yet for all of its gratuitous self-promotion, at the end of the day the AFL is a corporation, and like all corporations it exists for one simple purpose – to profit.

So between the last four paragraphs you might be getting the vibe that I have a problem with football, maybe even consider it unethical? But while I’m obviously not short on criticisms, the funny thing is that I don’t actually have a problem with footy as a whole, or even the grand and bizarre culture that surrounds it. In fact, I absolutely love it.

Why? Well consider the nature of my various whines up there;

  • Massive passion, focussed on the wrong things
  • Promotion of division within the community over arbitrary concepts
  • People getting really obnoxious about things they care about
  • Massively disproportionate financial rewards for relatively unimportant work
  • Corporate entities that put their own interests ahead of both their employees and their clients

You know what really stands out about those complaints to me? None of this is really about football, is it? That’s just a description of how people are.

Consider football culture in the context of all the other economic, political and psychological bullshit going on in society at any given time and it all starts to make sense – footy isn’t the cause of all these evils, it’s just a focal point for all of the crap that was going on anyway.

And truth be told, it performs a hell of a lot more ethically in dealing with those problems than most other institutions.

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Looking at you, literally any form of government.

Sure, it can be frustrating to see fans throw so much passion and commitment behind a sport rather than something that matters, but is that passion despite the sport not mattering, or because it doesn’t matter? If there’s been on grand theme to this blog for the last four years, and my ethics work in general, it’s been that life in complicated, certainty is impossible, and none of us have a clue if we’re doing the right thing. As such, throwing yourself behind any sort of creed that could have an impact on other people isn’t just foolhardy – it’s flat-out dangerous.

I might bitch and moan about what we could accomplish if the passion for football was directed towards ‘something that mattered’, but can you imagine how badly that could go wrong? 100,000 rabid zealots pointed at a political goal has got to be the quickest way of finding out if your goal is flawed, I’ll give you that, because that flaw is about to result in massive suffering for anyone on the receiving end of it.

No, the reason we can go to the footy and scream obscenities at the opposition is precisely because we know it doesn’t matter – it’s one of the few things in life that you can just choose a side on, throw you complete and total passion behind without fear of the consequences that might result.

Sure you get quite a bit of division within society as a result of this, with no shortage of name-calling and dickish behaviour between supporters of various teams, but contrast the divisions footy causes with some of the other ways we choose to divide ourselves and it’s positively utopian by contrast. Partly this is due to that same lack of consequences – yeah you might talk some shit about opposing teams during the game, but once it’s all done both sides shake hands, everyone goes home and that’s pretty much the end of it.

Image result for afl players shaking hands

This is kinda impressive given these two were trying to flatten each other 5 minutes ago

And while there may indeed be some division between teams, the general love for the sport overrides that by a fair margin. Put a group of footy fans from a variety of teams in the same room and they might give each other a bit of shit about it, but more times than not they’ll end up bonding over the sport as a whole. Contrast that against other divisive issues like gay marriage, religion, race or gender and it’s practically a best-practice model – if only the smaller divisions were ignored for our greater collective interests more often, right?

And then there’s the whole economic factor of athletes being paid absurd amounts for unimportant work, and huge corporations screwing everyone over for their own benefit. Well hopefully that wasn’t too shocking to you, because that describes the entire economy in general. Why are we surprised to find it also true in footy? Maybe we focus on it because sport is particularly unimportant in terms of function, but is that actually true? Sure it doesn’t produce anything practically (apart from a shitload of money and employment) but isn’t its overwhelming popularity proof enough of its value? Footy fans don’t just go for the entertainment, they go for the experience, the comradery, the emotional highs and lows, and when you get down to it, that’s pretty much what every human pursuit beyond survival is about – purpose and experience. Funny how travelling overseas is considered a high pursuit of culture and self-development when that doesn’t produce anything either.

Ultimately football offers us a nice tight sample of what our society is like, both good and bad. It isn’t the source of those problems, but rather a reflection of them, and all things considered it tends to deal with those problems better than we do on average. Does that get the game off the hook from criticism? Hell no, and it’s been interesting to see the role the AFL has taken recently in promoting progressive causes, often to criticism from some fans. But ultimately institutions like this are a product of the society they service. You want to change the institution? Best you focus on why it is the way it is.

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