Monday, 16 March 2015

Notes from the 2015 Worlds of Football academic conference

A combination of flawed recollections and shoddy note taking, interpolations of my own thoughts merging with the words actually said, resulting in the inevitable: a busted chronicle from an unreliable narrator.
First, I would like to apologise for putting this up so long after the conference actually happened, and for any lapses in memory resulting from both the time that has passed and the indecipherable  nature of my note taking. Corrections and additions are most welcome - I've probably especially mucked up my review of Desiree Barron's presentation, which was outstanding.

This is the third of these Victoria University conferences that I've attended, and the fifth or so academic conference I've gone to overall. In some ways then, while not being an out and out veteran of these events, I've been to enough of them to get to know different people, and also move up the scale of seniority even if I haven't presented at most of them, as I didn't here. While I was writing these reviews as a relative novice, the complex networking relationships that needed to be negotiated didn't really occur to me - but as an unofficial quasi-historian (and in this case, de facto official chronicler) of these things now, one has to by necessity tread a little more carefully, avoiding the bluntness that may have characterised some of the previous reviews of these conferences.

(for reference, you can view my reports of the 2010 Worlds of Football conference here, and the 2012 one here.

The overall theme of a conference is usually there only as a guide, and conference programs are notoriously difficult things to set up. While often times you can put together sessions where the different presenters will share much in common, often times the outliers will end up in a hodge podge session, interesting for their diversity and idiosyncrasies, but harder to build a cogent narrative out of. This year's theme, of 'football in the Asian century', only made things more difficult, especially for the often narrowly focused (when they're not suffering from self inflicted tunnel vision) Australian rules people.

The opening night panel session included Satoshi Shimizu of the University of Tsukuba; Jennifer Curtin of the University of Auckland; Matthew Klugman from Victoria University; and Seongsik Cho – Hanyang University.

Much of what Shimizu had to say was covered in his keynote the next day, and thus I've decided not to include his remarks here.

Jennifer Curtin made some strange assumptions about the audience's familiarity with the women's rugby union world cup, and by extension I think with how much Australians knew or cared about rugby union in general. This hampered her presentation somewhat. Her overarching argument that women's sport should be treated more fairly by sponsors and the media is a noble and fair one, but it failed to address the issue of quality. What if women's sport is broadly inferior to men's sport, because women can't run as fast, kick as long, or be as strong as male players? What if the highest level of a men's version of a sport is simply more aesthetically pleasing, or played to such a punishing level of professionalism where the game becomes dull, surely a sort of high watermark for sporting excellence? Framed like this, I think, it doesn't become only an issue about gender inequality - though that surely exists, in terms of support and opportunity for female athletes - but something applicable even in male sports. There are reasons more people in Singapore (for example) follow the EPL rather than their local leagues, and one of those reasons is the playing standard. It's likewise why many people from Western Australia and South Australia, rather than ignore the West Coast Eagles and Adelaide Crows and instead follow their local clubs, instead followed the newly founded de facto state teams to the detriment of long standing local sporting institutions. How women's sport overcomes these non-gender specific institutional barriers is something that also needs to be addressed when discussing the gender imbalance in support and funding of women's sport.

Matthew Klugman's point that professional sports leagues and organisations are now primarily media content providers was one of those things that I really should have already known, but had in my own way never been able to articulate; indeed, it's an issue that I've somehow avoided talking about as a specific phenomenon, rather than as a consequence of other influences. Much of Klugman's point is about the NFL as the market leader in this, going back into the 1970s, but the implications of that philosophy are both apparent for all to see, and yet also simultaneously not yet fully realised. What would happen to these leagues in the event that free to air and/or pay television - a crucial funding source of the massive salaries of the athletes and teams in these competitions - is no longer relevant? What would happen if television remained important, but to the expense of people attending matches to the point where they stopped attending in numbers? Do television audiences also implicitly demand that there be crowds and atmosphere on their screens? Do audiences of different sports react differently to uneven competition, and for those that expect a relatively even playing field, does a lopsided competition decrease interest to the detriment of the 'product? Conversely, does too much interference by the governing body to ensure a level playing field also put people off? And if the European footballing giants managed to create their own league, would their overseas fans jump off the bandwagon if an English giant (say Liverpool), got nowhere near winning the competition for a decade?

At the other end of the scale, if the top tiers are media content providers, what does that make lower tiers? While we can conceive that the lowest tiers of sport will still be mostly about social competitions, there's a middle tier - say, a place like where the NPL clubs are, or the VFL/VFA teams - where the clubs can't be sustained merely by the social aspect; nor are there enough funds to make it something more than a development league. In some ways, this can be extrapolated even to the experience of teams in top leagues who happen to be mid-table also-rans, with next to no hope of ever winning a championship.

Seongsik Cho's discussion on the status of South Korean soccer was interesting, at the very least because despite the increasing official/top-level engagement of Australian soccer with Asia, our knowledge for the most part in terms of the common person is extremely poor. Cho's assertion that South Korean soccer still lagged behind baseball (with the exception of the national soccer team) for example would probably be news to a lot of Australian soccer fans. Cho added that despite club soccer trailing the relevance of baseball, the national soccer team evoked a sense of identity in a way that baseball did not, and that naturalisation of foreign players into the South Korean national team elicited different attitudes - in this case, much more xenophobic/nationalist -  in soccer compared to other sports; Cho's assertion being that a foreign born naturalised footballer would be far less acceptable to South Korean society than an equivalent athlete in another sport.

Day 2
Satoshi Shimizu provided the day 2 keynote address, on 'The Transformation of Asian Football Cultures in the Last Two Decades: A View from Urawa, Japan’ Shimizu is a softly spoken academic, but unlike one colleague of mine who boycotted this because he thought he wouldn't be able to understand Shimizu, all it needed was a little bit of patience. Shimizu provided a sprawling presentation, veering from the micro to the macro and back again, but never failing to be less than engaging.

Shumizu's analysis of the stagnation or plateauing of the J-League provided interesting insights not only into the state of Japanese domestic football - which like Korean football, still lags behind baseball, despite Japanese baseball's own long term problems - but also into Japanese society as a whole. In that respect, Urawa and the Urawa Red Diamonds are both an anomaly because of their status as a regional soccer hotbed prior to the establishment of the J-League; but also typical in that elements of the problems Japan is facing as a society, especially as regards to racism, xenophobia and the ageing population.

While the J-League has had occasional spikes in attendances since its establishment in the 1990s, these were mostly linked to the opening of new stadia and the occurrence of big events, the effects of which did not last long. Now the thing that I think people are having difficulty figuring out, is whether this plateauing of support is a strength, in that they are not losing fans, or a weakness, in that the halt of growth signifies the point where eventually the sport will begin to decline. This is of course not a problem unique to Japan; but where other countries may be able to ride out a whole series of peaks and troughs regardless of the short term alarm that may be on display, Japan's significantly demographically aged population offers less hope for renewal.

That the Japanese as a whole are wary of immigrants and of diluting their racial and cultural purity only adds to the problem. While hardly at the forefront of the overall problem, the way this has manifested itself at Urawa Red Diamonds is a neat example of the kinds of issues Japan is facing. Where once Urawa were at the forefront of good relations with overseas clubs - the example Shimizu gave was of an Asian Champions League match against Shanghai Shenhua, where after the match the Chinese were so impressed with the Urawa fans' support that they shared drinks with them and attempted to emulate their kind of support. A few years later though, and the Urawa fans became embroiled in controversies over xenophobic banners and chants.

That in a heavily self-controlled social polity like Japan, where displays of personal expression and deference to hierarchy are paramount (at least in daylight hours; at night things are often different), it's important to note that the football stadium is perhaps the last regular, organised democratic intermediary space in a late-capitalist society. Behaviour which would clearly not be acceptable in everyday society, especially if conducted within the guise of a large mob, all of sudden has a space allocated weekly for people to vent all sorts of frustrations.

Finally, I was intrigued and largely unaware of Japan's attempts to promote its domestic football throughout South-East Asia. In this case, it must compete against several different factors. Firstly, the popularity and reach of the EPL, La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. Secondly, disinterest from potential markets in Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore for their own leagues, let alone a Japanese league. Thirdly, not even taking into account the fact of the bitter historical prejudices which still exist, the potential influence of a more assertive or aggressive Japan in alienating potential support away from the J-League.

Hunter Fujak's presentation (with Stephen Frawley, who was absent) ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ A Longitudinal Analysis of Football Attendances and the Australian Population' was a great example of both the necessity and the pitfalls of trying to see into the future of Australians' interest in the different football codes. Readers of this blog will almost certainly know that I'm wary of statistics at the best of the times, especially as they get extrapolated from small samples towards building up a bigger picture - regardless of the mathematical models which can demonstrate how it's a perfectly legitimate way to measure things. Still, there will always be that bit of me, and I think many others who will always feel an instinctive reticence to give in to mathematics while we still trust that oh so much more reliable judge of data, the gut feeling. Fujak's presentation was completely the right kind of provocative, entirely evidence and methodology based, but still leaving enough room for people to be able to point out the possible blindspots and assumptions made. Whether Fujak has accounted for changing media landscapes I don't know, but the perceptive analysis - already being seen in the EPL for example - first, that the average age of season ticket holders is likely to get older; and second, that relative to population size, Australian football crowds are at a much smaller percentage of the population than they used to be, should be of some concern to all of football's governing bodies. The question that follows on from that is this - have we hit peak football?

When the title of your paper is 'The Demise of the Australian National Soccer League, 2000-2004', you've by necessity set up a powder keg just waiting to go off; but even by that hyperbolic assertion, I don't think young researcher Goce Risteski could have quite anticipated the response that his presentation would receive. First things first - you have to admire the chutzpah of Ristevski in trying to cover such a huge topic in the 20 minutes allotted to most of the presenters. Unfortunately, Ristevski's relatively shallow analysis of the financial mess waiting to happen that was Carlton (and its ripple effect across the league), or the Despotosvki incident - in other words money, ethnicity and violence - was met with incredulity by certain members of the audience. Chief among these was Roy Hay, who delivered a brutal assessment of the presentation: 'You've set the course of Australian soccer research back 20 years'. Thankfully another soccer academic, Mike Pierce, came to Ristevski's defence, telling him to ignore Hay and his pet theory about the issue of the governance structure in Australian soccer being the key impediment to the long term success of the sport, and to keep pursuing the angles he wanted to. Later on, I was informed that Hay had apologised to Ristevski for the blunt manner of his criticism. My problem with Ristevski's paper was more straightforward - I simply felt that it offered almost nothing new to a topic that has been raked over countless times by journalists, academics and public servants alike. That's not to say there aren't new angles worth pursuing - the individual histories of the clubs and major parties involved in the transitional period; comparisons to the way that suburban NSL teams often had similar problems to suburban rugby league, Australian Rules and basketball teams, similarities often obscured by the obsession with Australian soccer's ethnic question; and the effects on those supporter groups who have stayed loyal to their former NSL clubs, while their then fellow supporters moved on. These are questions which seek to tackle specific cultural, sociological and historical issues, rather than a broad and generic overview of history that has more or less been settled.

Matt Harvey's 'Rebels with a Cause: The Melbourne Rebels – Rugby in the Heartland of the AFL', while entertaining due to Harvey's half serious, half parodic presentation style, in the guise of the boorishly insular and ignorant Victorian sports fan for whom little other than footy exists, was not even borderline academic, and there's really no way of getting around that fact. Harvey's assorted musings on why the Rebels even came to exist, jokes about nomenclature and the kinds of people that the team attracts in Melbourne, were all undone not only by the lack of evidence and academic rigour on show, but even by the simple fact that Harvey had not even been to a single Rebels game. On the plus side, it did a good job of alleviating the tension in the room.

Jorge Knijnik's 'They Will Never Understand Us: An Ethnographic Study of the Western Sydney Ultras Fandom Culture' is the kind of paper I would naturally be suspicious of, it being about ultras, the A-League and people who I perceive to have an incredible sense of self-regard. For better or worse, I wasn't won over by Knijnik's method; maybe I have an innate distrust of the kind of immersive anthropology he's involved in, especially as he is also a supporter of the Wanderers and someone who stands within the RBB not only as an academic, but also as a fan; and I say this as someone who covers similar territory in terms of writing about South Melbourne and the behaviour of certain supporters, albeit not with the same official academic lens. Not having much of a background in anthropology - a few years ago I did one semester's worth of an honours unit looking at a range of theoretical problems; I was forced into a PhD unit looking at ethics in research; and I've seen all of Star Trek: Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, which deal substantially with the problems of anthropology - makes my judgement less than useful here.

At times I was concerned with the way Knijnik seemed to portray the RBB as a far more homogenous group than it probably is; while his emphasis on the way a group like the RBB, as part of the broader Wanderers' philosophy (or marketing strategy) promoted inclusiveness, improved socialisation and harmony between different ethnic groups, I wanted more on what the different groups within the RBB were, and how they related to each other; who's the boss, and how are cases of violent incidents both within and outside of the ground dealt with? How and via who are relations with police, the club, the FFA and the media organised? Is everyone who stands with the RBB equal, or are some supporters more equal than others? Does the group dynamic of the RBB imply a sense of obligation rather than one of spontaneous chanting?

On a more positive front, considering my persistent criticism of the way that various presenters at this conference have often (whether intentionally or not) conflated the experience of one city or state as being equivalent to a national experience, it was good to get a perspective on Sydney that acknowledged the fact it's at the very least two different cities, if not three or four. Of course a topic on the Wanderers makes this so much easier, the Wanderers and their supporters perennially reinforcing their otherness or apartness from what they perceive Sydney proper and by extension Sydney FC to be, by emphasising real and/or imagined differences and fissures. Loyal vs fickle; multicultural vs cosmopolitan; workers vs the upper class; born of the people as opposed to being funded and operated as a rich man's plaything; standing for something specific and tangible, both communally and geographically, as opposed to something far less tangible. How valid any of these binaries are is something certainly worthy of discussion, even if it in some ways falls outside the what Knijnik is looking at.

To hear Knijnik in his own words, visit Brogan Renshaw's Behind the Game podcast series, where Renshaw interviews Knijnik about this and other topics, including Brazilian football.

I was keen to see the presentation by Andy Fuller (with the absent Fajar Junaedi) 'Supporter Groups in Indonesia: Trajectories in Fandom, Politics and Soccer Activism', principally because of my interest in the Jakarta Casual blog, which tries to make sense of South-East Asian football for an English speaking audience. Fuller's interest in the topic differs from Jakarta Casual's though, in that the emphasis was on the members of PSIM, a club from Yogyakarta, and their attempts to negotiate the perilous world of Indonesian football fandom, and doing it by getting close to the locals speaking in their own language. In some ways, this presentation is related to Brian Moroney's look at the ultras scene at Lazio, which was covered at the previous conference.

Indonesian football, to put it bluntly, is a mess. The league structures are erratic at best; interest from anyone other than the lowest classes is more or less non-existent, with the possible exception of the national team, and those who can leverage the sport for political purposes; most of the stadiums are well past their use by date; the clubs are run exceedingly poorly; referees treated appallingly, the players somehow worse (some have died for lack of wages and medical care); the police routinely prevent games from taking place in a club's host city; and yet despite this, there are still often good crowds for games, and diehard supporter groups will travel across the country any way they can to cheer on their team - though as Fuller noted, not always the heads of the supporter groups, who have bounties on their head from other supporter groups.

The interesting part of the research was the attempt by some members of PSIM to start detailing the history of the club. Media coverage of the sport has been poor, but the internet age allows for the possibility of fans taking matters into their own hands. In a country where local football seems to exist outside the bounds of polite bourgeois society (who are more interested in the fortunes of foreign leagues, especially nowadays the EPL) -  the government itself has little to no interest in fixing the endemic corruption in the game, and occasional national team success in the ASEAN tournaments is viewed as the pinnacle for Indonesian soccer - it's almost inevitable that a grassroots effort in recording the history is the only way it's going to happen. Whether this will translate to something will move across to other clubs, I'm not sure, as the supporters of Indonesian clubs often have fierce and violent rivalries with each other.

You can see an unrelated post of Fuller's on Shoot Farken on match tickets as memorabilia, and in this case as mnemonic artefact of the 2015 Asian Cup.

Tony Ward's paper - whose title escapes me, as like nearly everything else, the conference programme booklet is packed away in some box as I prepare to move houses - focused on the long term (20 years or so I think) analysis of the popularity of various football codes as conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The data seems to show that the AFL does a good job of maintaining fans throughout the years/various age groups; the NRL not so much, losing fans over time (whether this is terminal, and not part of a cycle, was not clear). One crucial point of difference between the two codes is that in the AFL, women continue to patronise the competition at every age, while in the NRL women's attendance drops away significantly after their early 20s. Likewise, when looking at the two competitions, and their principle cities, Melburnians were more likely to attend other sports in addition to Australian Rules, whereas for Sydneysiders, Ward's analysis seemed to suggest that they tended to exchange sports and sporting allegiances rather than add to their collection. Sadly, due to government cutbacks, this kind of data will no longer be collected.

Ian Syson's 'Losing Contact: Soccer's Place in Post-World War I Melbourne', continued on with his recent efforts in researching the effects of World War I on Victorian soccer culture. This paper focused on the relationship between soccer and Australian Rules in the 1920s through to the 1930s, which starts off well but soon deteriorates as the Victorian Football League in particular becomes more insular and xenophobic. Syson demonstrated that in some cases in the early 1920s, Australian Rules bodies and journalists were more sympathetic, even cooperative, with regards to soccer. By the late 1920s however, the VFL had turned the other way, belittling soccer and pressuring its clubs (and the relevant venue managers) to no longer allow soccer to use their facilities. While the downturn in soccer's fortune's in Melbourne in the late 1920s and early 1930s were partly self-inflicted - a disastrous split destroyed the growth of the game at the time it should have been solidifying its recent growth - the onset of the Depression, and the fact that few enclosed grounds were available to them for big games also took its toll. How much soccer was hurt by its inability to secure its own enclosed ground and some sort of headquarters, was perhaps only properly realised in the 1950s, when the code managed to secure Olympic Park as its premier venue.

Despite its unwieldy title: -'Annual General Meetings Newspaper Narratives Showing How Different Victorian Football Association/Victorian Football League Football was in the 1890s' - Abdel Halabi's presentation was one of the more surprising (for me at least) papers of the conference, looking at how Australian Rules football club AGMs of the 1890s were more than merely formulaic procedural sessions, but also events which brought communities together. Apart from the specific issues relating to the club, which saw the club's performance and finances discussed, the AGMs were a social event unto themselves. This could mean that town halls would be hired to accommodate the huge numbers of people seeking to attend, prizes would be awarded, songs would be sung, entertainment provided etc. What I suppose astonished me about this was not only the large attendances,. but also the depth in which the media of the time covered these events. The difference with AGMs these days couldn't be more different - relatively low key, and in the case of a club like South, attended by only a very small percentage of the membership base. Usually I frame attendance at a South AGM as both a moral duty of sorts for our members, but also as a means of making use of and reiterating one of the key differences between our ownership model and those of the privately owned franchise system. In many ways, while this approach is well intentioned, it also shows how limited the AGM has become as an event in itself compared to what it used to be; and that would equally go for the AGMs of AFL clubs. In these days of the increasing commercialisation and privatisation of sport, with the ordinary fan increasingly relegated to the role of faceless wallet, the AGMs of the past show how a more democratic, inclusive and plain old fun event could perhaps lead to a revival of people power in sporting clubs. Something to ponder, no doubt.

Day 3
Jennifer Curtin's keynote address kicked off day 3, looking at the complicated history of women's involvement with rugby union in New Zealand, including anti-apartheid protests, their involvement as players, and as supporters of men's rugby. It seemed to be the case that while rugby union in New Zealand is clearly the dominant sport, it also contains an element in its make up that elevates it above the station of other sports that may have an equivalent level of dedication - and that element is that rugby union has been at the centre of key moments of New Zealand civic history.

Rugby in New Zealand is an essential element of Pakeha (white European) identity, male identity and national identity. Women's participation in this culture though has often been sidelined by patriarchal imperatives, whereby women becomes invisible participants in the culture. Because of this, women were discouraged from playing rugby, and instead funnelled towards netball. Thus women choosing to play rugby despite the cultural and structural impediments is unavoidably a political act. Women were accepted as supporters of men's rugby - as spectators and someone to do the laundry, but discouraged from playing. What was interesting about this is that Curtin seemed to suggest that gender stereotypes were more prevalent in the Pakeha culture than in the Maori culture.

The net effect of all this though is that many women in New Zealand who have an interest in rugby have a love-hate relationship with the game. This perhaps reached its peak during the controversial Springbok tours of the 1980s. Feminist groups who were involved with anti-Springbok tour protests were often described as being anti-rugby, and by extension anti-male and anti-New Zealand. For those involved with the protests, it was a difficult tag to shake off. Any attempt at contravening the conservative 'invisible' roles allocated to them makes visible, shocking the patriarchal rugby world.

That these kinds of issues are manifest across the world when it comes to women's participation in sport is not surprising in the slightest - what this keynote showed however is how much more clearly the obstacles facing women in sport are via the example of New Zealand, a country with a small population and particular focus on this one game, with all that extra cultural and imperial baggage attached.

Tim Hogan's presentation, 'Reading the Game: Documenting the Text and Art of Australian Rules Football', saw Hogan discussing his continuing work of cataloguing Australian Rules football material, including various literature, and even songs, but also looking onwards to choosing websites to preserve. Quite how the selection process works for that, should a website exist outside the parameters of the Wayback Machine project, I don't know. While I'm aware of some efforts in Australia to preserve different websites of note, their publicity departments could do with a bit of a kick in the pants.

Trevor Ruddell's 'A Future for Footy Books?' looked at the history of Australian Rules books, especially the increase in production, and what the future may hold for that genre. Prior to the 1980s, there were few books looking at Australian Rules. Since then there has been substantial growth in that market, but there are also potential problems related to both the status of the book industry but also the status of Australian Rules. Australian Rules, having probably already reached its peak spectator/audience/interest level, has basically nowhere else to go; thus it relies a lot more than say soccer or cricket on being able to exploit the audience it has. With the larger and wealthier clubs (especially in Melbourne) also looking to cash in on this area, often with elaborate and expensive coffee books, what are the chances that eventually the target markets will suffer from merchandise fatigue? I also wonder how many of these kinds of books are bought and treated more as an ornament than actually read? And how much of these histories are an attempt to mask the fact that the clubs are largely bland copies of each other nowadays?

Having gone through parts of the Victoria University PhD system with Julian Ross, I was looking forward to seeing what stage he'd reached with his work via his presentation. 'Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer and John Newman: A Content Analysis of Football Life, 1967-1976'. Ross overall project is looking into a biography of Sam Newman, putting forward the interesting notion that the Sam Newman persona has little to do with the private John Newman, and another persona which Ross claims to exist alongside those two. I'm interested to see how this comes about, in part because I come from a literary background, including having done some work on the auto-biography - inherently relevant here as Newman has carefully gone about cultivating two very different characters, keeping them as separate as possible - while Ross comes from outside the literary tradition. The relationship of Graham 'Polly' Farmer then, Newman's footballing mentor and immediate predecessor as number one ruckman at Geelong, seems to be a pivotal part of the picture that Ross will have to cover. Unfortunately, Ross' presentation covered little of what the title suggested it would, instead becoming mostly a digression into some of the specialist football newspapers and magazines of the time, that existed outside of the mainstream newspapers media, and very little on the relationship between Farmer and Newman. A missed opportunity.

An example from the marketing campaign seeking to put pressure on the
Washington Redskins to change their name and logo.
Desiree Barron's 'Playing Against the Chief: American Indian Representation and American Football in the Twenty-First Century' was perhaps the must see presentation of the conference, one of those events where woe betide the person who happens to be presenting in a parallel session. Barron discussed the not just the issue of the Washington Redskins, and the increasing pressure from activists and the general public for them to change their name and logo, but what the wider implications are of this debate. Barron discussed the history of Indian related names became a part of the culture of American sports (and by extension, the military) from the top level to the grassroots. One theory is that it was a way of European immigrants to 'Americanise' themselves, as part of their efforts to disassociate themselves from their British and European histories.

Barron also highlighted a crucial element that has been overlooked. Yes, the logos and names are racist, and would be completely unacceptable if it depicted other ethnic groups in such a way. But the issue is also one of sovereignty. These images challenge the right of Native Americans to control their own imagery and cultural property, a problem which extends into all areas of their lives. Barron discussed how American high schools have begun to gradually change their logos and names where they cause offence, but the big money in the big leagues - and the supporters of these teams - are resisting hard. The solution Barron argues, especially in cases where Native American groups and their non-Native counterparts seek to work out a middle path, need to be seen as authentic and meaningful to both groups. In a later discussion after her presentation, I asked Barron about what the situation was in Canada, where some similar names and logos exist (though not nearly to the extent of the US), and the fact that some native groups have residents on both sides of the border, and the answer she provided was interesting - that it was less of a problem in Canada, not only because of the smaller prevalence of these kinds of names and logos, but also because the Canadian Aboriginal population was far more socially and politically advanced than their US brethren; thus the former come from a position of relative strength that the latter are yet to achieve.

Matthew Klugman's presentation ‘We Already Hear the Sneerers Talking About the “Football Mania”’: Using the Emergence of a New Phrase as a Historical Window into the Emerging Mania for Football in Britain' was a brilliantly entertaining look into the way that religious and secular institutions attempted to deal with the emergence of mass footballing culture in late 19th century England. While football was played socially and relatively informally for centuries, the emergence of the codified, organised form of football caused a great deal of distress among certain elements of British society. A useful context I think for understanding those concerns is the fear of crowds that governments and religious authorities had at the time, especially if they were not able to control them for their own ends. Manias, too, - not an exact psychological term by any stretch of the imagination, but for an example of the kinds of phenomenon relevant to the discussion, see this link - were never far from the forefront of the Victorian consciousness. Perhaps what troubled the governments and religious authorities most was that the football mania actually endured, and thus the fervour, emotion and sheer waste of time on something so trivial and outright common. Even while football as a spectator sport, despite several peaks and troughs, has become subsumed into the capitalist framework - and after all, wasn't that inevitable as soon as players became professionals, and the spectacle leveraged for profit? - one can see still see the distrust from the authorities for the game, as it relates to the point from Shimizu's keynote address: that in a late-capitalist society where the individual has been socio-physically cleft from his fellow members of society, the football stadium may be the last point of mass democratic dissent; dissent not in a necessarily violent or political manner, but as simple as a contained moment of joyous anarchy.

You can read a version of Klugman's presentation on the Shoot Farken site, which is much better than my ad hoc summary.

I'm sorry to say that Sarah Oxford's presentation, 'The Gender Paradox: Young Women’s Inclusion in the Sport for Development and Peace Movement', is one that has suffered greatly from my delay in reporting back. The presentation was about using sport in developing and/or third world nations, in this case Kenya, to achieve a number of positive humanitarian and development outcomes. Using the example of a project in Kenya promoted at women and girls, Oxford discussed how the stabilising effect of sport, and the routine it can provide, can lead to other positive outcomes, especially for NGOs working in these areas. Thus via such programs, NGOs can provide better access to health and education services, as well as breaking down conservative gender roles. But this is where it gets tricky, because there are all the usual issue of cultural sensitivities that need to be dealt with as well - when does the quest for improving gender equality turn into cultural imperialism?

Final thoughts
I think I must have a mind that's set towards trying to force together narratives out of disparate voices and stories, but I think I got a few things out of this that may point to a few trends.

Firstly, that the way fans react to change is often largely based on their mistaken ideas of the history of their sport - specifically, that the way they've grown up following their sport is the same as it has always been, and that even the fact that following a sporting team at all in organised competitions has a longer history than it actually does (aside from examples like Byzantine chariot racing).

The reaction to those changes then, at least among a certain section of the population, is to go back. When the lay person does this, either by retreating from over commercialised sporting experiences or by wholesale escape into the fantasy of reminiscence, it is often done without remembering all the bad things that existed during those eras. The academic sports historian is also not immune to those tendencies. Indeed, I believe there is a tendency (and I'm certainly not immune to it), to if not create a hagiographic view of the past, than to at least insert a sort of wistful tone to it, smoothing off the rough edges, and creating the sense that much of what was done back then was actually planned, adding a sense of historical prescience via our values to what those people were trying to achieve back then,

Moving from the past towards the future, I'm innately wary of those attempting to future proof their sports, especially from a commercial standpoint. Looking 10, 20 or even 50 years into the future, and trying to plan accordingly seems to those folk to be necessary - and I can understand why - but it also seems incredibly hubristic. Seeing as how often times these projections and plans are based around the success of the top level, one wonders what the consequences are for those groups who fall outside of those commercial imperatives - and what will happen if or when the television funding model, the integral source of funds for most important leagues, changes or collapses?

Within that, the health and well being of athletes has often taken a back seat. In the future, will our treatment of the professional athlete class be seen as an equivalent to slavery and the base gladiatorial contests of Rome? There's also the undercurrent, which is seldom openly acknowledged but always there, that at some point having turned top-flight sport into a commodity primarily about entertainment, that audiences will get bored. And if that should ever come to pass, what happens then? Is the resurgence of the football stadium as a means of collective identity, as opposed to a setting for an individualised and predominantly televised product, a way of saving football from itself?

In that sense, the conference danced around the theme of mediated spaces. The control of space is fundamental to sport - the mastery of a designated environment, and especially in the football codes, is where codified sport starts from. Outside of the field itself, there are the arenas around the fields themselves, where we see the competing demands of economics, capacity, comfort, ownership and expression negotiate some sort of middle ground; then there's the media space, struggling with the consequences of the digital age, as leagues, clubs, players, established media, new media and the man and woman  on the street all fight to sway the still developing format one way or another - some of out of fear of losing control, others because they see an opportunity long denied to them of being able to speak back to the machine; the competition between sports for attention in an increasingly crowded and competitive market, as once isolated markets becomes opportunities for bigger and wealthier organisation to expand their colonies.

In many ways, that kind of questioning harks back to essays that I would write as an undergraduate. They would manifest themselves as expressions of doubt and uncertainty, even in the conclusions, where our western argumentative tradition demanded finality and resolution, and a firm position taken within the bounds of academic style. It's been a constant struggle for me to overcome those rhetorical tendencies, and yet this issue of mediated space in sport seems to me to be something that's so fluid at this point in time, that I'm voluntarily drawn back to this old trope of mine.

To finish, a quick thought on the conference topic. Quite how Australians deal with Asia, both within and of sporting contexts is still something that we clearly don't have a good grasp of, except to say perhaps that we don't do it very well. Natural demographic change may mean that this will change naturally of its own volition, but in the mean time one of the things brought up in the opening night's discussion may be worth considering - that by re-framing what we see as our distance from Asia - socially, culturally, even geographically -  into something more like proximity; the fact that we are economically and geographically closer to each other than any place else, and that this relative shortness of distance will in time be able to overcome our tendency to be both Euro-centric and stuck in the Anglophone world, despite the historical processes which created our sense of place and culture.

7 comments:

  1. Can you elaborate more on what this Goce Risteski lad was outlining in regards to the Despotovski incident?

    I'm surprised that Roy Hay had such an angry outburst to be honest. I remember interviewing him for a Uni project a decade ago, really nice and friendly guy. Fallen prey to grumpy old man syndrome perhaps, probably now yells at kids to get off his lawn.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Regarding the Despotovski commentary, as best as I can recall it was a very generic retelling of what happened, and the kinds of preordained responses it would elicit from the general public and media.

      Regarding Hay's outburst, it was indeed very uncharacteristic of him, as I have only ever known him to be very supportive of young academics. I think he was probably as surprised by by what he did as anyone.

      Delete
  2. The woman who assumed the rest of Australia was aware of Rugby (Union). What else do you expect from a sport supported by the type of person that is hiding on the North Shore of Sydney, and has no idea what is going on in the rest of the country? :)

    You made a comment about TV, in the future, not being the cash cow it currently is. I think that is a HUGE statement to make, and requires some explanation. Such as, under what circumstances do you perceive this could happen? When?

    In relation to this, you made a statement about a world where there are virtually no crowds and only tv viewers. You mean, like in Greece? :)

    BTW .... when is the next conference? And what do you think will be the overriding subject matter?

    Savvas Tzionis

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jennifer Curtin is actually a Kiwi academic. In that sense, her optimistic assumptions about what Australians may be expected to know about rugby union would fall into the same category of Victorians who think people care about Australian Rules north of a certain imagined line.

      With regards to TV. In Australia at least, while over the past 20 years we have moved to a more hybrid model of sports broadcasting rights (free to air and pay TV) - the rise of the internet, individualised devices, audience fragmentation and the decline of people watching television (especially younger people) presents an interesting challenge to free to air broadcasters, advertisers, sporting leagues and futurologists.

      It's a bit of a catch 22 situation. Sporting bodies have become used to this current model of revenue raising and broadcasting - especially the assumption that the worth of their rights will increase at a steady rate - and yet also acknowledge that the media landscape is changing, and that perhaps the most drastic changes are yet to happen. At what point and how does a league decide to take a punt on what the future will look like?

      With regards to the crowds thing, I think it depends on certain cultural affinities as well. in some cultures, it's the game itself that's of importance, and not so much the cultural appendages, such as crowd, or atmosphere. But in Australia, or at least in parts of Australia, there is still an element of the TV audience which while enjoying the game from the comfort of their own homes, still desires a sense of occasion and interest as provided by those in attendance at the game. There was an element of the poor crowds situation in the AFL last year that made note of this - that while ratings for Sunday night games may have been good, the fact that the crowds were poor for those games could possibly diminish the look and feel of the product.

      (and as an aside, I remember the 3AW/Rex Hunt footy calling era of the 1990s, where if a game had a particularly good finish and excited crowd, they would open the commentary booth window to get more ambient noise onto the airwaves)

      I'm not sure when next the conference will be (or what its theme will be), but it's been a biennial event thus far, with this one pushed back a few months to coincide with the Asian Cup. So I'm guessing late 2016 or early 2017.

      Delete
  3. Would also like to add my appreciation for both MelbCro and Savvas who take the time to read so much if not all of what I write on here - including the more esoteric stuff like this - and especially for leaving comments.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Some interesting, sorta related pieces on mediated spaces

    Cigarettes vs smartphones
    https://t.co/t5ELaUh25h

    David Goldblatt article about reforming the British soccer experience, especially in England
    http://t.co/WH1NecmcDu

    ReplyDelete
  5. ignore the following, it's just me messing about with some note making

    I've been wondering if "mediated spaces" is the right term or turn of phrase for what I'm trying to say; in academia and cultural studies, it seems to apply much more if not exclusively to the effects of digital media on public space and its encroachment even into private realms, reducing the amount of personal space available to people.

    The analogy I suppose I wanted to get across was one about the negotiation or contest for control of public spaces. That mediated spaces (ie, the digital realm) has encroached on this is not in question, but mediated spaces seems like only one element of the battle for public space.

    Football is at its heart not just about scoring more points than the opposition, but a contest to control a limited space of turf. Tactics, formations, the rules, they're all set out to set the parameters, the limitations upon which the opposing sides, the different players seek to transform and reinvent the possibilities of meaning within that space.

    It is like a living, breathing zoological/scientific experiment, with gawkers (the fans) watching for both entertainment and bizarre reasons of personal emotional investment. The inclusion or exclusion of different groups (including culturally, as participants, as vocalists, whatever) both in the game and in among those watching the game and among those deliberately not watching the game is of critical importance to understanding the complexity of how sporting space (both on field and off) impacts on our understanding of the relevant codes and wider culture.

    ReplyDelete

While I like people commenting on the blog, it would be useful if different posters could at least leave some sort of nickname to make it easier to sort through all the different 'anonymous' posters. If your post doesn't get approved straight away, it's probably because I haven't seen it yet. Lastly, just because I approve a comment for publication does not mean that I endorse its content.