First up, apologies to any female readers, but this article is all about male perceptions, and their effect on what sports we associate with.
Like it or not, the best male athletes in the country are drawn to participate in the rugby and AFL codes, not football.
The “Australia’s Greatest Athlete” series, shown on commercial TV a few years ago, amply demonstrated that football players in Australia are some distance behind the overall athleticism of players from other sports.
While it is certainly true that the skills and attributes required for football are different, equally, I don’t think anyone can disagree that people like Billy Slater would be champions at football, if it was their chosen sport.
Why then are these men predominantly choosing other sports?
I believe it is because of the underlying, sub-conscious belief in the general community that physical strength equates to manliness, and that the other codes obviously fit this model better than football.
Football relies not only physical prowess but also on delicate skills and touch, plus a certain amount of agility, attributes that are not in line with Australia’s vision of the rugged pioneer or ANZAC warrior.
As the home of all codes of football, England, through whatever quirk of history, embraced football more than rugby. James Bond may be tough, but he is stylish while doing it. The same sort of ethos prevails through continental Europe and is well represented by football.
In South America, the rhythms of the samba and tango are things that also lend themselves to the natural skills of Football.
In Australia and the USA, both places were, until relatively recently, frontier communities separated by vast distances, that still required conquering, and needed tough, strong men who had little time for the finer things in life.
My family literally lived only a few miles from the property made famous in the “Dad and Dave” stories. In my childhood, I knew men who grew up at the time depicted by Steele Rudd, men who travelled by bullock dray and on Cobb and co coaches. It is not as far in our past as some might think.
These men were my father’s role models through youth. They influenced his view of manhood, and he, in turn, influenced mine.
Continuing the movie analogy, James Bond might be an English and European idea of manliness, but it was John Wayne and his numerous cowboy flicks, that struck a stronger chord in both the USA and Australia. I enjoy James Bond movies, but it has always been John Wayne that my idea of being a “real” man is modelled after.
It is why, for so long, many people in this country have written off football as a game for “fairies”. It doesn’t fit in with their sense of what being a man is all about. It is why immigrant communities embrace the sport more easily, but longer term Australians do not.
Times are changing though. “Man-scaping” (shudder) is one symptom of a change in perception. Australian men are developing more of an appreciation that manliness is not tied just to sheer physical prowess.
It may take a couple more generations, but I believe football will become more and more recognised as reflecting the traits of “manliness” and more accepted as a real part of the Australian sporting landscape. Once that happens, more of the better athletes will come to the sport.
Only then will football in Australia start to realise its true potential, both nationally and on the world stage.