The 2022 AFL season has hardly completed its first season-forming act but already there seem to be a few issues that are shaping it. This is hardly surprising given that the many issues that football deals with simply mirror the broader society where sport is couched. What sport does – and why we are in many ways so transfixed by it – is magnify the banal and often unspoken through a confected ecosystem of celebrity and hyper-reality which relies on an incessant, ongoing loop of noise desperately wanting our attention. And nothing does this more than racism and football.
A couple of months ago, we saw the return of the Crows ex-captain Tex Walker. Having been suspended for 6 weeks and fined AUD20,000 for his racist remarks as a spectator in a SANFL game in 2021, his return saw him kick three goals. He received from the crowd, what can only be described as low-range booing. What was perhaps more intriguing was a tweet by the Adelaide Football Club on the eve of his return. It had a smiling Tex, looking like he had gone straight to footy training from a Myers catalogue shoot. The tweet stated, ‘He’s back.’ This was accompanied by an emoji with sunglasses and #weflyasone. Despite the gratingly insensitive oversight this effort was blamed on an unknown temp working in the social media department at the Crows. The hash tag should have said #wefuckedup!
This situation was accompanied by the revelation that Cyril Rioli and his wife Shannyn had left the Hawthorn football club due to insensitive comments made by Hawks President Jeff Kennett regarding her ripped jeans. Kennett apparently offered money to Shannyn to improve her wardrobe. In Jeff’s parallel universe this was a perfectly reasonable thought because he was being funny as the quasi-arbiter of what is (and is not) good fashion sense. Then there was the revelation that a senior player at Hawthorn enjoying an end of season trip made a disparaging remark about Shannyn Rioli to a team-mate, asking if, ‘She was also a b###g?’ These and other incidents apparently added to the decision by the Riolis to exit the club and for Cyril to exit the game, having endured this type of racial faux pas for too long.
It may appear remarkable that these seemingly inconsequential issues like a ripped pair of jeans and an emoji with sunglasses become the vectors for discussion on race. However, they’re not inconsequential because they’re loaded with a host of inferences which can be, and are, contestable. And that contestation is indicative of bigger issues at play: mainly the way power is used and deployed.
Many would be happy to simply engage in the issue of ripped jeans and sunglass emojis through a simple filter, known as signification. A chair is a chair, yeah? Sometimes. A chair can be seen as an inanimate object, sure, but also as an apparatus for social control and compliance. Think of a classroom. The students sit and the teacher stands. These roles are imbued with a full range of social conventions that are specific to the space and the behavioural codes that underpin the actions of the institution (read: government/civil society/settled Australia).
Doubtful? Think back again to school. The ‘bad boys’ sit up the back of the classroom and lean up against the wall, acting cool and trying to subvert the power dynamic, while the nerds in the front comply with the classroom and the school’s expectations. In this way the chair represents different things, for different people. It is contested.
So why is an emoji and a ripped pair of jeans so loaded with meaning? In order to understand this, maybe we need to shift things up a bit to see how meaning can be made and how it is dependent on context. Imagine if the emoji with the sunglasses miraculously accompanied Cyril Rioli’s return to play, as he ran onto the field with the emoji hovering above his head. Now that would be cool. Conversely, Taylor Walker coming back from six weeks after calling someone a racially repugnant name is at best insensitive, at worst it’s an unfeeling, ignorant imbroglio and the emoji used reflected this, as did the photo and the hashtag.
A president of an AFL football club – and the ex-premier of the state, no less – making comments to an Indigenous woman, and offering to buy her new jeans is so loaded, it makes your toes clench. But it’s in the simple binary that allows this matter to be better understood, Male:Female, Old:Young, White:Black, Rich:Poor, and so on. With each binary comes the understanding of how each thing works as it relates to itself and its opposite. Couple this with who is speaking and what they are saying, and you can see how it changes all manner of things.
Your meaning might be different to mine, and that’s okay. Where it gets tricky is when people who have only ever known the privilege of being in the white majority try to tell others – those who have experienced the hardships that come from being within a minority – that they should get over it. Until we flip the script more, Cyril Riolis will walk away from the game, or not turn up at all.