Can sport be separated from politics? It certainly doesn’t seem that way in 2020 Australia, especially under the shadow of the euphonious hashtag #sportsrorts. Even as we attempt to paint competitive play as a noble, pure pursuit, evoking images of jumpers for goalposts and schoolyard determination to triumph… the truth is that sport has always been a stand-in for war.
And now, more than ever, it’s a culture war.
Possibly the most prominent, recent example of this was the back’n’forth over the Australian Men’s Cricket Team attending the Prime Minister’s New Year’s party at Kirribilli while bushfires raged, including the release of a post-official-portrait photo that showed the players walking away from a seated Scott Morrison.
But while an image like that – which brings to mind nothing so much as a “celebrity break-up” photo they’d run in Woman’s Day – is catnip to Twitter pundits, you don’t have to capture a specific split-second moment to see how politics can affect your experience as a supporter.
Who is advising this bloke that while the country burns it would be a good look for him to take a photo with blokes who play a GAME!!!
— Liam Flanagan (@ljflannas) January 1, 2020
Spend any significant amount of time following your club on social media, and before long you’ll run into the unreconstructed outrage of lifelong fans at any attempt to deviate from what they consider to be acceptable content (the most charitable description of which is “the actual game being played, and its players” and a less charitable description of which is “anything that helps me chase the feeling I had of barracking for this team as a small child”).
This can include changing logos, having women play at a top level, or releasing a frankly terrible acoustic version of the club song. They’re also really vocal and active.
I asked my fellow St Kilda fans how they felt about the team supporting certain political causes, and one of the first responses referred to our involvement in the Pride Round match against Sydney each year: “It’s a mantle that should be rotated between the clubs. Why do we have to be associated year after year? Let Collingwood and gay Geelong do it for a while.”
There’s also a whiff of hypocrisy about some of these affiliations, according to another fan: “My issue is more that the Saints have pokies despite being sponsored by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. That’s like saying, ‘Don’t gamble unless you’re pissing your money away to us’.”
If these rusted-on fans are your “base” – the ones who are most energised and engaged with you, there has to be some benefit to alienating them. You’re essentially gambling (speaking of) that they’ll continue coming to games and buying non-rainbow-coloured merchandise despite your championship of causes.
Of course, supporting a cause isn’t always a matter of leaping onto a popular bandwagon in the hopes of attracting new members. Sometimes it’s a matter of defending your reputation, or atoning for perceived misdeeds. When I asked hardcore Collingwood fan Tim Johnson about mixing Pies with politics, his thoughts went straight to racial issues – in particular, Adam Goodes.
“I think it’s safe to say that not all of the fanbase was on board with the apology to him last season,” he says. “I didn’t think Goodes was a massive villain, but I don’t have enough certitude to say that everyone booing him was a racist.
“I’m sure I’ve read that anyone that denies the booing was racist is themselves a racist, so though I certainly don’t consider myself one, perhaps that does make me one in some people’s eyes. Regardless, apart from ‘condemning’ the actions, I’m not sure what else the league or security could have done about his treatment for the rest of the season.
“I know I’ve lustily booed my own and opposition teams on several occasions – in fact I once went to a game in Sydney expressly to boo against a Parramatta turncoat in his first appearance back there in Manly colours.
“We were certain to lose (and did) and I had to drive myself there, not drink, and drive myself back to Canberra in one day just for the privilege.”
In the end, the overwhelming impression is that in the majority of cases, unless an issue has specifically affected a player or someone close to a team, it’s a cynical ploy to bring in more members. A cynical ploy that can be ignored, as long as it isn’t taking resources away from training and actually playing the game.
In short, if you’re riding high on the ladder, support whatever trendy cause you need to in order to bring in some extra coin.
But if you’re cruising for a wooden spoon, you better ditch that campaign and focus on kicking balls.