Having a better public debate on the AFL

Posted on September 20, 2011


Originally published in the August-September Edition of the Catalyst RMIT University magazine.

By Mehroz Siraj

Over the course of the last decade, Australian football has become an integral and important part of the overall public debate with regards to the importance that the game enjoys in Australian social life.

Every week, newspapers such as the Herald Sun and The Age publish reports about different aspects of the game, its players and managers.

However, because of the incessant amounts of coverage given to the AFL in our print, electronic and online media, it is now essential that the media’s role in catalysing public debate on the AFL, its clubs and players be analysed.

A detailed study of Melbourne’s newspapers over the last few years provides definitive evidence to prove that the media’s coverage of the AFL has been focusing more on the players’ personal conducts off the field and  on the game itself, at the expense of the important things that the clubs and the AFL are doing in the communities.

For example, while scandals of gambling, drunk driving,  drugs and sex assaults levelled against Collingwood and St Kilda players in the past received front-page coverage, the massive community development programmes that some football clubs and the AFL have taken up over the years escape notice.

In the best interests of the Australian people and for the purpose of maintaining high standards of journalism, the media should have highlighted and covered the massive community projects that have been taken up by clubs such as Essendon, Hawthorn and the West Coast Eagles.

Over the last few years, Australia has been attracting more than half a million international students annually from all parts of the world and their insecurities regarding jobs, permanent residence and general isolation from mainstream Australian culture and society is widespread and has been well documented.

In 2009, the Essendon football club started an ambitious project named GloBALL, with the collaboration of the City of Melbourne, RMIT and the Australian Federation of International Students, AFIS.  The project is aimed at addressing these issues of international students and newly arrived migrants by bringing them to them to the club’s home games, free of cost.

The main idea behind this, is to foster friendships and partnerships between overseas students (and migrants) and the local Australian community, through football.

By 2010, the number of participants who benefitted from  this programme, increased from 500 to 3500. Other than this, the club has been working hard to promote Australian football in the Northern Territory and amongst other migrant communities in Melbourne through a number of community initiatives, yet their efforts and endeavours have not been reported in any meaningful way by Melbourne’s main stream news media.

Where Essendon has taken the lead on community development programmes, other football clubs are not far behind.

The community development initiatives of the Hawthorn and West Coast football clubs are of particular importance.

On its part, Hawthorn’s involvement with school children in Melbourne, its mentoring of international students at Deakin and Swinburne universities and its activities in Tasmania have been conveniently ignored by the mainstream Australian media.

Similarly, in Western Australia, the West Coast footy club’s ‘Kicking Goals’ programme that was launched with the aim of engaging with indigenous and migrant communities  in the state’s Pilibara region, has also been absent from newspaper pages, television and talk back radio.

A one-sided coverage of the AFL that seeks to hype sex and drug scandals out of proportion is not doing any good to the game or its passionate followers across the country.

While the media has certainly played an important and a positive role in rightfully influencing public opinion by establishing a unanimous consensus on the issues of attitude towards women, racial equality and multiculturalism within the game, the important community development programmes mentioned above have been completely missing from the public debate.

Amidst other things, this important fact is having an impact on the overall standards of journalism that are at practice across metropolitan newspapers and television in Australia.

As the time-span of the readers becomes shorter, the shorter reports and sensational headlines has been felt more strongly by newspaper editors.

While issues such as gambling, sex assaults and drugs are certainly important issues that should be investigated, there are other equally important issues and happenings within the AFL that should not be ignored.


The in-house codes of ethics that papers such as the Herald Sun  and The Age have in practice, make it mandatory upon journalists working on those papers to ensure that news reporting is rigorous and diverse in terms of the views and perspectives that are published.

However, while these newspapers and other media outlets have generally engaged in excellent journalism while covering other issues of social importance, the same high levels of reporting and most importantly, news value judgements, have not been seen in the coverage of the AFL.

Football’s history in Australia and its multicultural fan following is proof of the fact that for Australians, football is not just about watching the games of their favourite teams in the stadiums or on television.

Football is more about working towards community development and social integration within the Australian society.

For the purpose of further improving the scope of public debates on the game, it is important that newspapers and the electronic media do report in detail, the community development initiatives that the AFL and its various football clubs are involved in, on a regional and national basis.

The Writer is the Editor of The Burning Issue, mehroz.siraj@gmail.com