Why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club?
August 10, 2014 10:38 AM   Subscribe

The true origins of Australian rules football, first codified in 1859 following a famous letter by Tom Wills, have been the subject of sometimes bitter disputes that have been referred to as football's history war. Although the earliest formal football clubs were founded in 1858 (and the earliest known women's clubs in the 1910s), informal football games were widely played in the early 1850s. Scholarly and public discussions about the origins of the game centre on Marn Grook, a collection of indigenous games played with possum skin game balls. Although the lack of documentary evidence makes definitive answers hard to come by, the link between Marn Grook and Aussie rules in modern culture is very prominent, showing up in documentaries (clips: 1 2 3), TV shows, and even children's books.


The documentary links in particular may display names and images of deceased persons. (see here if you don't know why this disclaimer is necessary).

For those unfamiliar with Australian rules, here is a very brief primer put together by the US Australian rules football association, a summary of the relationship to Gaelic football, and a comparison with rubgy and American football. A non geoblocked game can be found here.
posted by langtonsant (16 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Neat! Thanks for putting together such a comprehensive post.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:14 PM on August 10, 2014

Oh excellent!
Australian rules football is an amazing game to watch. It is fast moving and very athletic with players jumping high into the air to 'mark' and running the equivalent of a half-marathon every game.

I am looking forward to reading these links.
posted by Kerasia at 2:34 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Great post. Thanks, langtonsant.

It's too bad they don't show the AFL games on ESPN anymore. (Also Irish Hurling, but that's for another time.) I only just recently found the Fox Soccer Plus channel, where you can see AFL games, but it's an additional subscription and I can't justify it to myself for a few games a week.
posted by ob1quixote at 2:48 PM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

A few additional details that might be of interest.

A lot of those essays date from 2008, because some of the most aggressive disputes about the role of Marngrook occurred in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the codification of Australian rules. The gaping hole in the post, which I haven't been able to find online, is Adam Goodes' essay The Indigenous Game: A Matter of Choice. Goodes, in addition to being a dual Brownlow medallist, the current record holder for the most games by an indigenous player and the 2014 Australian of the Year, has been a prominent voice for indigenous Australians inside and outside of football. It was that 2008 essay in which Goodes made the claim that
"I know the historians disagree, but I believe Marngrook played a role in the development of Australian football. I do know we were playing a similar game for the joy and excitement of it, before the said founders of the game, Tom Wills and James Thompson and William Hammersley and Thomas Smith (or James Cook for that matter) came along. People argue that we didn’t have goals, but we did: kick it higher or longer; goals in and of themselves."
This article mentions Goodes' 2008 essay briefly, and how it relates to his now-famous response to an incident of racial abuse directed at him in 2013 (discussed more here). I wish I could find a copy of the essay, but so far I've not had any luck. Either my Google skills aren't up to the task, or it's not actually on the web.
posted by langtonsant at 3:19 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

AFL is a pretty amazing game to watch... except I find it to be a lousy television sport. I mean, you've got 18 men a side on a giant oval (same ovals on which cricket is played), and on TV a poorly played match can look a lot like (that children's playground game with the really awful non-trans-friendly name) as there doesn't seem to be heaps of logic around the game other than "get rid of the ball quickly" and "tackle anyone who has the ball wearing the other colours."

I'm an expat in Australia and my joke used to be, "No, I've never played AFL, but I did chase a very slippery potato around my kitchen floor for a few minutes one time."

That being said, it's a game that makes a lot more sense from inside the stadium. The positional flow runs in waves both offensively and defensively, and the midfield (?) play of some of the truly talented players (Gary Ablett Jr, for one) is as entertaining as good point guard play in basketball or deep lying playmaker stuff in soccer.

The thing I find most amazing about AFL, coming from an American sports perspective, is how passionate Victorians are about their sport. The AFL grew from a Victorian league into a national contest, but to this day Melbourne alone has enough of a fan base to support NINE* different clubs. This is in addition to two A-League soccer clubs and a smattering of rugby league/union pro teams as well (rugby doesn't get the love in Victoria it does in NSW or Queensland).

For a city roughly the size of Los Angeles (4M to LA's 3.8M, says a quick Google search), it says a lot about Victorian passion for sport to turn up for the 125+ home matches combined between nine AFL, two soccer and four or more rugby clubs.

*The nine I counted are Hawthorn, Geelong, St. Kilda, Melbourne, North Melbourne, Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond, Carlton. I think that's right, but I don't know Melbourne well enough to be fully confident I'm 100% right that these would all count. Most of them, certainly.
posted by GamblingBlues at 3:51 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of Australian Rules Football. It looks like a fast, fun sport.

It turns out that just as there is American Football played in Australia (Gridiron Football), there is Australian Football played in the US: USAFL.
posted by eye of newt at 4:09 PM on August 10, 2014

The nine I counted are Hawthorn, Geelong, St. Kilda, Melbourne, North Melbourne, Collingwood, Essendon, Richmond, Carlton.

You forgot the Western Bulldogs. This is only fair because (a) they have a stupid name and (b) they haven't won a Premiership since 1954.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:26 PM on August 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you for posting this the day the Lions suffered a 105-point shellacking by the Crows. My team isn't even the best in Queensland.

I agree about the television experience. No matter what the sport, producers always want to zoom in to individual players. For a true team game like footie you need to see the broader picture. At a live match you can understand the pressures and constraints on players, you can see the space they are kicking into and watch as their target races to mark.

Also, the atmosphere at a match is awesome. It's a true family event*.

*modulo the usual deeply vile words used as casual insults, but it's all** good-natured

**almost all
posted by Combat Wombat at 8:44 PM on August 10, 2014

I don't watch it much these days, but footy has it's moments. Watch the whole video linked below, but pay particular attention at 4:09, when Jonathon Brown runs with and looking up at the flight of the ball to mark while crashing into an opponent running the opposite direction.


That's the type of courage that lead to his retirement this year due to repeated concussions placing him at risk of serious brain damage. Brown is respected as one of the most courageous to play the game.

Some more amazing marks.
posted by bigZLiLk at 3:20 AM on August 11, 2014

ob1quixote: It's too bad they don't show the AFL games on ESPN anymore. (Also Irish Hurling, but that's for another time.)

I used to love watching AFL games on The Deuce when I had insomnia. One of those games I'd still put in the Top Ten of Exciting Sports Matches I've Even Seen: The 2010 Grand Final which ended in a draw, resulting in (to the apparent surprise of most of the players) a replay a week later rather than Extra Time.

I used to think I had invented Hurling in a fever dream, but that appears to be not the case.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:29 AM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

modulo the usual deeply vile words used as casual insults

Yeah, I still think this is one of the more depressing parts of the game. The fact that we tolerate crowd members hurling abuse at footballers is more than a little shameful. Somehow I get the impression that people feel that because this is football, it's okay. A crowd member hurling racial abuse at Cathy Freeman during a 200m wouldn't get a lot of defenders. But we tacitly accept the fact that the crowd does exactly that to Adam Goodes on a weekly basis. I'm still horrified at the sheer number of people who seem to think that Goodes was overreacting in that Swans-Pies game last year. On the opening game of Indigenous Round, of all occasions, he's supposed to silently accept the abuse? And as awesome as it was, examples like that Essendon supporter reporting another Essendon supporter for racial abuse a few months ago are still extremely rare. Tolerance of racial vilification in particular and other forms of verbal harassment of players more generally is still pretty much the norm.

At a live match you can understand the pressures and constraints on players, you can see the space they are kicking into and watch as their target races to mark.

Ugh. Yeah, watching on TV is hard because you always have to guess what's happening around the rest of the ground by looking at what the players around the ball are doing. Not kicking clear when you break away from the stoppage? Probably nothing on down the ground. And the bloody commentators, they keep wasting my time with useless banter rather than actually telling me what's going on off camera. In conclusion... Brian Taylor is history's greatest monster.
posted by langtonsant at 8:00 AM on August 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

AFL on TV is about the same as soccer on TV, in my opinion. Both of them would do better with a nice wide-angle view of the pitch as the main screen and an inset close-up of the ball (all on a nice 50+ inch tv, of course), but are still worth watching with the lousy coverage you get today.

I'm surprised at the description of historical discussions 'centering' on Marn Grook - I've never heard of it before, and until a couple of years ago I would have said that I read most newspaper/popular material on the subject. Is this a very recent focus, or was I never as in touch as I thought?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:57 PM on August 11, 2014

also, here's a copy of Goodes' essay on archive.org.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:11 PM on August 11, 2014

Thanks for finding the Goodes essay!

Possibly I phrased the "centring" bit badly. All I meant was that the thing that seemed to be getting people so fired up in regards to the otherwise dry topic of sporting history was the possibility of links between Aussie rules and Marn Grook. It's not like I've ever read lengthy discussions on this in the Herald Sun or on The Roar. All the articles that I did find were in places like Meanjin or The Monthly. And from what I can tell, the lack of documentary evidence makes Marn Grook a much harder thing to study (and talk about) than, say, the establishment of the Melbourne Football Club, so I kind of get the impression that it doesn't feature too prominently in books about the history of Aussie rules either. I probably should have said that the "point of contention" in discussions about the origin of the game was Marn Grook.
posted by langtonsant at 5:08 PM on August 11, 2014

After reading those articles my impression is that
  1. The traditional form and style of Australian Rules football, like that of other sports, is affected by the form and style of the best and most interesting players;
  2. The original Australian Rules football players (including Tom Wills) had probably participated in "football" games with Aboriginal Australians;
  3. The dexterity and agility emphasised in some Australian Aboriginal ball games excited the interest of Colonial Australian onlookers;
  4. It is therefore probable that Aboriginal Australian ball games had some influence over the form and style of Australian Rules football;
  5. Besides this indirect influence, Aborigines have been participating at the top levels of formal Australian Rules football for well over a century;
  6. It's an Australian game, and we should honour this influence even as we acknowledge that it is largely undocumented.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:50 PM on August 11, 2014

A wealth of information here - thanks so much for posting it!
posted by harriet vane at 5:21 AM on August 12, 2014

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