Competitive sport is often represented as analogous to war. Two sides meet to face off in conflicting colours. There is aggression, appeals to attack and defence, advancement, violence, victory and defeat. Some go as far as to suggest it a substitute for military action. Further still, structured sporting engagement is said to be the new opiate of the masses; an outlet for pride and aggression that displaces more serious combatant desires.
I have always seen this as an extremely shallow comparison. The institution of spectator sport is far too reflexive an industry to simulate war. Yes there’s passion, at times verging on violence, but there’s always an acute awareness of the process as a game. Players shake hands after the match, and supporters of different teams typically show mutual respect, and co-exist peacefully. There’s a communal appreciation of the game itself, of the rules and of the conduct of sportsmanship. Structured sport could not hope to distract from or replace a lust for primal, oppositional war (if that lust does exist inherently), due to its core reliance on regulation.
Sport as a religion is a more apt metaphor. You can see it in the rhetoric. Athletes make sacrifices. Fans give thanks and praise, and wear ceremonial colours during and out of season. Their pitch is hallowed ground, and they come to worship their team regularly. Listen to David Foster Wallace on Wimbledon: “Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis ….the walls, along nearly every significant corridor and passage, are lined with posters and signs featuring shots of past champions, historic lore…” There is a temple, there is history. There is passion, attention, and faith. There is rule, process, and importantly there is a clear acknowledgment of the performative ritual.
Above all there is idolatry. The practice of sports fandom is a form of mythology. Ali isn’t explained in bare terms of win/loss: he floated over the ring like Jesus over water. Jordan did the same, summoning a second or two more than was scientifically possible when he hung before the net. Naitanui comes close to doing the same, sometimes. The secular fan might be hesitant to call their praise ‘religious’, but even after reality has been embellished for effect, the comparison holds. Religion has integrated humanism more and more since the Renaissance, and competitive sports could well be taken as the resultant form of humanistic worship.
In Melbourne, Scots’ Church gathers every year the Sunday before the Grand Final to bless a premiership cup. The reverend David Curry invites supporters of any team to come and pray: “I think everyone needs something to believe in, and if that is sports, it is better than ice or alcohol or a whole lot of other things,” he says. “Things like winning and losing, the joys of success and the sorrows of defeat, life and death, social issues that people get involved in, there are lots of good connections between sport and life, generally.” Connections so clearly identified are hard to refute.
Isn’t it somewhat amusing then, to see a banner denouncing Muslims at an AFL game? The reference here is of course to the Collingwood vs Richmond match on Friday, where during the second quarter a flag was unfurled bearing the astounding anti-Islamist declaration: “GO PIES! // STOP THE MOSQUES.” The United Patriots Front, an Australian-based splinter movement of Reclaim Australia, have proudly taken credit. They seem spectacularly unaware of the internal contradiction of their actions. Choosing a temple which welcomes many differing forces of worship as the venue in which to denounce another is an almost perfect mix of oxymoronic and moronic. The act of condemning so broadly such a large community of differing individuals as Islam is painfully ironic in the very presence of such a nebulous and varied crowd of supporters. What makes this banner feel all the more like a smug, ideologically flipped New Yorker cartoon is that the message of hatred was put underneath an edict of idolatrous worship. ‘Go Pies’, reads the initial prayer. It’s as if they’re mounting their team’s success on the back of hate; yet the success of their team depends upon hate’s opposite. The first statement logically contradicts the second.
When paying closer attention to the grammar of their message, further problems arise. Let’s put aside for the moment the unacceptable nature of the second statement. The UPF banner began with the right sense of rhetorical directness in ‘Go pies!’ Here is an earnest promulgation, fair and passionate if slightly unimaginative. They should have kept on underneath with something similarly coherent such as ‘Down with Islam’ or ‘Export Muslims.’ What they fell upon instead was ‘Stop the Mosques’, which is a rhetorical disaster.
Do they mean to stop the activity of Mosque buildings themselves, as if they had agency as architectural structures? Or do they mean stop the activity surrounding mosque worship? If so, can Muslims still be allowed to express their devotion in thought and prayer, independent of any temple? Can one tolerate the playing of AFL but vehemently seek to destroy all stadiums? Do the UPF even have a problem with Islam, or is it only their choice of structure? If we stop constructing Mosques now, can we allow those already established to continue to exist and operate? Perhaps they were so aroused by Abbot’s refrain to “stop the boats” that they adopted his terms. Intentional or not, it comes at a detriment to their message.
Going further, why was there an exclamation mark behind the first appeal, but not the second? Does it show a lack of confidence in their own racist ideals, or was it simply a change from an ecstatic to a franker tone? Perhaps it was a simple issue of typographical arrangement or technical design considerations. Whatever the case, the phrasing is ambiguous, not at all pellucid, and a mess of semiotic communication. It doesn’t seem at all well thought out.
Most will be hesitant to chuckle, and those that do may feel it choke in their throat. And perhaps that’s only right. Islamophobia shouldn’t be taken lightly, and should of course be roundly condemned. But it also shouldn’t be treated with gravitas – it doesn’t deserve it. There’s nothing wrong with seeing the comedy in such a confused sentiment from such a misguided group of human beings. Imagine the inner turmoil aroused in your bigoted New South Welshman at seeing Adam Goodes powering Sydney to their premiership in 2012, a two-time Brownlow Medalist. To the anti-indigenous Swans supporter, the lap of victory must have been a complicated spectacle. Goodes has been “the object of racism so many times that you lose count,” as he wrote in a 2008 essay, and in September retired from the game following the so-called ‘booing scandal’ and the astonishing level of abuse he was subject to in its wake. But after the disappointment, after the anger, and most importantly after the action to improve the status of Indigenous players, isn’t it worth a wry grimace to realise the fundamental contradiction in those who despise a people who create the spectacle to which they are so devoted?
Whilst currently Muslims have less representation on the field as players, the same principal applies. Bachar Houli is an outspoken leader of the Muslim community, and is currently a midfielder for Richmond. What would the UPF do if he were drafted to Collingwood? Would raw, passionate fandom overcome blind Islamophobia? The dumbfounded dismay of the UPF supporters section would surely be a spectacle to behold.
At the same time we can remember the obvious and the important: those who don’t view Muslims or the Indigenous or any other group as welcome to the AFL aren’t part of the game at all. They contradict its core philosophy, which values ability and passion indiscriminately. The game would be far less entertaining were it not so inclusive, just as Australia at large thrives on multiculturalism in all areas of community and commerce.
The situation surrounding the banner isn’t all dire; mainstream media rushed to condemn those responsible, and McGuire has called for life bans as penalty. Yet the incident is perhaps emblematic of our island’s persistent hostility towards outsiders – an attitude galvanised post 9/11, which swelled in membership during the Abbott years.
We can see clearly the illogical elements that are tied to cultural hatred. We can see the inconsistencies in reasoning and communication represented today on one loathsome canvas. Perhaps most significantly, the incident should provoke us into re-evaluating ourselves; to realise Islamophobia isn’t only for the gun-toting Drumpf supporter or the uneducated, vindictive European. Sometimes it’s for the pie-eating AFL supporter who sits two rows behind you in the members’ area. It’s important to recognise the ludicrousness of the party responsible, while treating the ideological threat itself with the upmost reverence. Condemn, surely and always. But while you do so, in my opinion, there’s no harm in enjoying a small chuckle at the desperate, thick-witted manner in which these people express themselves.
Words by Harry Peter Sanderson