Unintensive care: waiting for the day footy regains its importance

One afternoon this week, the only figure to be seen in the vicinity of North Melbourne’s sunlit and gleaming but utterly deserted Arden St HQ was a man with a 12-pack of toilet rolls under his arm. It summed up the times.

It’s hard to care much about footy at the moment. Set against the enormity of the planet-wide crisis, it feels irrelevant. That is not to say I don’t miss footy, just that it can’t and doesn’t matter as much as it did last year. In normal times, it’s natural and good to care about footy, because if that’s all we’ve got to care about, we know we’re blessed, and if we don’t feel quite so blessed, there’s always footy.

The difference now is that there’s no footy, and no sign of it, no training, not much media of the usual kind, none of the familiar sense of anticipation that courses through all veins at this time of year. There’s not much prospect of it in the near future, either.

It’s off-season again, but for every sport. It’s off-season all over the world. Humanity is in off-season.

The media default right now is to compare this time to others when footy was disrupted. The most obvious is the two world wars. Both times, the competition was played in a limited form, and both times, some asked if footy should be played at all. If it was a welcome distraction, there was also an awareness that it should not be held up as anything more than that. Between, there was the Great Depression, when footy filled the proletarian emptiness. It was the making of Collingwood.

There have been other upheavals: the relocation of one club, the evisceration of another, the national expansion that took the game closer to some who deserved it, but away from others no less deserving. There were cataclysmic world events – 9/11, for instance – that made footy feel trivial by comparison.

But what sets all those times apart from this is that there was always some footy on which to dwell. There was an us, a them, a narrative. Sometimes you might have gone to the footy wondering if it was too frivolous for the times. Martin Flanagan did in September, 2001, four days after the terrorist attacks in the US. It was Richmond and Carlton in a semi-final.

“Walking towards the MCG with a head like a bass drum that's been beaten for four days and four nights,” he wrote. “Within, a sense of emptiness and foreboding: something has begun – where and how will it end? I don't feel like going to the game. Why? Because it is – so transparently – a game.”

Now, there’s not even a game, however transparent. Footy is not only not important, it’s not anything at all. The playing of a round behind closed doors was well-meant, but only managed to make the game seem more remote. Like the tree falling in the forest, footy needs to be seen to make a noise.

Since, there has been a communal effort to keep the game alive in our consciousness through old replays, new “teams” – the best long-sleeved 22, for instance! – and hardy annual topics. Not yet tried, but sure to come are simulated games on computers.

These substitutes and placebos are diverting, a way to make a presence of an absence, but they’re already beginning to tire. Besides, they keep paling against the backdrop of the escalating pandemic.

Rather than wartime, this period feels as you imagine lock-outs felt in basketball and baseball in America, sometimes wiping out whole seasons. Even then, fans could establish blame and exact punishment. Generally, it was by taking their time to return. Here and now, there’s no-one to blame, which adds to the bewilderment.

But it also means that when footy does reappear – sadly, it will be later rather than sooner – the fans will rush back. Apart from anything else, it will be a sign of the beginning of recovery. In that sense, it is important that footy regains its importance.

In truth, it never really recedes, but sometimes is momentously overshadowed. In 2001, near the end of what was a rip-roaring final, Flanagan thought to himself: “In 10 minutes, this will all be over. I'll be on a train bumping through the suburbs, being reacquainted with the real world and its epic uncertainties I'll know what I saw was only a game, one that recedes in my mind's eye by the moment.”

Then he surprised himself. “Here’s the funny thing: when I get onto the train, it’s not quite like that,” he wrote. “I still feel empty in my core, but with this difference: every particle around that central emptiness is vibrating. Like a didj that’s just been played.”

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