lifestyle

Footy and religion. Same thing?

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It’s not easy being an atheist. It must be wonderful to have faith in something bigger than us; to believe we really are here for a purpose, that there is a bigger plan.

Sadly, I just can’t go there. As spiritual as I am in my unwavering reverence to nature, the terms and conditions of organised religion have way too much editing and fine print for me.

Friends who are religious, I know, feel an element of pity for me; as if I am missing out on a major life component, like children and marriage – their raison d’êtres.

This gnawing realisation has become more acute this week. Why? Because I now live in Melbourne.  And once again, as much as I would like too, I just can’t buy into this city’s religion either.

On my trip for coffee this morning, my dog and I felt underdressed. I wasn’t wearing team colours and my dog was bereft of a footie scarf. My favourite barista wasn’t keen to talk about the UK phone hacking scandal as normal, overlooking me to make a snide comment to a stranger in the queue in a Collingwood scarf.

A banter ensued that had the entire coffee shop engaged, causing me to skulk out like an ignored pet, past shops lined with coloured bunting and cars with flags flying, back home to my unadorned home.

Not one to miss out on a good time lightly, I emailed a gang of friends to organise a “bland final” party at mine on Saturday, guaranteeing a football free sanctuary. “We can have our own celebration, an I’m rooting for no one shindig”, I promised.

And as the hours ticked by and the replies came in, I realised pretty quickly that I would be spending my Saturday cleaning out the linen closet. Even my friends, who normally declare themselves footy phobic, would be donning scarves to cheer at TV’s in pubs, backyards or at the game itself on Saturday. Like lapsed Christians, the faith kicks in at certain times of the year it seems, that final season is Christmas and Easter.

Collingwood fans

“Just say you’ve got a team and come with us,” my friends have urged. “You need to have a team if you live here,” another warned. “The guys are hot,” another explained, “It’s all about the eye candy”. And then there’s the rationale, “AFL players aren’t like NRL players, they’re good boys.”

This last comment is the one I can never buy, my biggest obstacle to taking that leap of faith necessary for AFL devotion.

You see, when I arrived here a year ago, I moved to St Kilda, right about the time a schoolgirl called Kim Duthie appeared on the scene. The ensuing debacle was like wading in lewd sewage, each step more putrid, each revelation more gag inspiring.

I discovered characters such as Ricky Nixon, the manager/agent of some of football’s so-called finest. Then there was St Kilda player, Andrew Lovett, and his sordid rape case (he was acquitted), the persistent rumours surrounding Stephen Milne. I even saw a photo of Captain Nick Riewoldt in a naked romp with other players in a hotel room. Classy.

Kim Duthie and Ricky Nixon

With all this going on, let’s just say my local team did not charm me, nor was I inspired to start wearing the red, black and white colours of the “saints” any time soon. Or ever.

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The reason I am not into football is similar to my shunning of organised religion. It’s not the sport I’m not into, but the money, politics and power that makes up the commercial game as we know it.

I could never follow a religion that deems homosexuality a sin or refuses equal rights in the form of marriage; that calls abortion murder; that tells the poor to have more children; that aids and abets paedophiles. And as such, I can’t devote myself to an institution that covers up scandals, that promotes a pack mentality of win at all costs, that is sponsored by a betting company in a country where problem gambling is endemic.

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Yes, I see the argument that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; that there is good at the heart of all religion and the benefits of sport to community are undeniable.

But I can’t just pluck affection out of nowhere. I can’t say that because I live in a particular area, I should muster devotion for a team that has said suburb in its name, that I can overlook at people at the top to focus on the main game.

If I had a different upbringing maybe it wouldn’t be such an issue. Matches would likely be happy childhood memories of bonding with family, friends and neighbours. I would have grown up with players who were role models, enforcing a faith that it is still the case.

Akin to religion, team sport may have shaped my identity, given me common ground with others, linked the disparate tribes of my youth under one umbrella. But I hope my eyes would have remained open enough to see that teams are akin to class divisions too; a reason to feel superior, to disperse the pack, to brand them with a logo that says I think differently to you. Just like religion.

It seems to me like there is a certain element of head burying involved in football too. My most ardently feminist girlfriends find it possible to overlook a player’s rape charge; some even deeming to blame the female victims as lesser human beings; lowies who are “asking for it”.

A player may have been caught in a scandal but the big question isn’t if they are guilty or not but if they will be able to play in Saturday’s match. Indiscretions are waved off as “boys will be boys”, that the players have no ability to control themselves, to switch from search and destroy mode to mild mannered again when the final siren blows.

I have watched as players from opposing teams hated one season are embraced when swapped the next. It appears like my argument with religion that ploughing heads in sand is not about denial, but loyalty.

With that said, I’m not about to share this argument with my neighbours in a hurry – not this week, at least.

Instead, I will watch them excitedly don their coloured jerseys, wave their team flags and have a hootin’ hollering good time. And then I will finally fold those pesky towels and match sheets with their pillowcases, fully aware that my day will have nothing on theirs. And I might just pity myself a little in the process.

How do you feel about the celebration of football in Australia? Are you – or those close to you – consumed with footy fever?

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