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Stereotypes of Australian Football Clubs

"It is a blind, unreasoning hatred, but not really difficult to understand" Jack Dyer

"Who do you support?" ... It is a common question and the answer inevitably leads to the application of a stereotype. Give an answer of Collingwood and people immediately reach to cover their wallet or purse. Give an answer of Richmond and people immediately hope there aren't sharp knives in the house. Give an answer of Canterbury and you probably aren't going to be set up with anyone sisters or daughters. Give an answer of Carlton, and people wonder whether you would notice the rat poison that they want to slip into your soy late.

So is it logical that a fan can be subjected to stereotypes simply on the basis of the team they support? Probably not, but football is so much more emotionally gratifying when fans of rival teams can be ridiculed with unfair stereotypes.

In any case, derogatory stereotypes are arguably in the commercial interests of the clubs, as has been demonstrated by the appeal of Collingwood.  For the last 120 years, no club had been subjected to the same number of insulting stereotypes but rather than be harmed, the club has fed off them to become the most widely supported club in Australia. Contrasted to Collingwood are teams like Parramatta and GWS that don’t really have an identity at all. The marketers of the clubs try to develop some kind of image by writing press releases of players going to a family day or doing work for charity etc, but this gives fans of opposing clubs few insults to work with and fans of the clubs few insults to defend against. The end result? Boredom! Instead, a more obnoxious team is chosen to support. In the NRL, why would you support Parramatta when you have a bogan alternative in Canterbury and in the AFL, why would you support a respectable club like Melbourne when there are genuine ferals like Richmond and Collingwood to get behind?

So why is it that the clean cut charity clubs have few fans? Let's consider from a psychological perspective.

The inevitability of stereotypes

A theory known as Self-categorization Theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher & Wetherell, 1987) proposes that if a social group is given a label that distinguishes it from another social group then the human mind will try to give the label a justification for existing by creating a stereotype for it. As far as the mind is concerned, if there is no difference in substance, why is there a difference in label?

In practice, these cognitive processes can be seen in everyday life. For example, when hosting a dinner party where one of the guests is a policeman, the stereotype that police officers are law abiding citizens should dissuade people from talking about how much they enjoy using drugs. The host may later discover that the police officer is a Collingwood supporter and therefore not only uses drugs, but sells them as well, but until that is revealed, the honest policeman stereotype will be relied upon.

The same processes are used in football. One may hold a stereotype that St Kilda fans are a self-depreciating bunch. Thus when one encounters a St Kilda fan, one will feel comfortable making a joke about the club's latest wooden spoon. On the other hand, one may hold a stereotype that Richmond fans don't come to terms with losing quite so easily. Thus upon meeting a Richmond fan, one may wisely avoid making a joke about another inept performance by the Tigers.

Of course, not all St Kilda fans are comfortable with losing nor are all Richmond supporters so emotionaly shattered by a loss that they dump chicken manure on the club's doorstep; however, the respective stereotypes help the mind better guess how Richmond fans as a collective are different from St Kilda fans as a collective. Furthermore, they provide a model of behaviour that fans can conform to.

Using stereotypes to persuade

As the old saying goes 'birds of a feather flock together'. People choose to support a club that reminds them of themselves. The character of the fans subsequently reinforces the club's image. Furthermore, as people conform to the social sterotypes, the stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecy. This can make stereotypes very useful tools in social persuasion. For example, after their second Grand Final defeat in as many years, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire calmed dissent by evoking the stereotype that Collingwood is a unified club when he said:

" But this club will not turn on itself or founder like we’ve seen some other clubs do.
The great thing about this football club is we celebrate together, we cry together, we love together and we hate together but as our theme song says ‘side by side we stick together."

Similarly, when trying to persuade fans who didn't want the club to move from its home at Victoria Park, the club released a mock anthem that evoked the stereotype of passionate Magpie fans following the club to its new home and still buying their memberships:

" We're dyed in the wool, completely one-eyed,
And we say,
We are the black and white army,
We say 'Go pies!'
- in the wind or rain, win or lose,
We're still in the members, how about you?
They took us away from Magpie land,
'cause no one could beat us in front of our stand,
But we don't care, we'll go anywhere."

(*Considering the amount of time that Collingwood fans spent time in Pentridge Prison serving their sentences and/or visiting family, it was a mystery as to why they were unable to spot the con. Perhaps Collingwood fans are even more stupid than we thought.)

Stereotypes being used for a cultural identity

Cultural identities rely on the use of stereotypes to define the nature of the social group that an individual believes he or she belongs to. Furthemore, they help individuals understand how they should behave if they join or identify with the social group. For example, the stereotype that Richmond fans are passionate should guide the behaviour of any individual that chooses to pull on a Tiger jumper. The new Richmond supporter should know that his or her fellow Richmond fans expect passion to be displayed. This seemed to have happened in 2005 when a Richmond supporter down from Queensland saw his team lose to Geelong in Melbourne. As Richmond were walking off the ground, he spat at them. Because he was basically a newbe to the crowd, his behaviour stemmed from a stereotype of how Richmond fans should act rather than how they actually act. Ironically, his actions were subsequently used by fans of other teams to define the culture of Richmond. It should be noted; however, Richmond fans in Melbourne go nuts but they don't spit.

Stereotype affecting performance

Sports psychologists have long noted the link between a club's identity and the manner a club plays. The ability of identity to influence performance is the very reason why sporting teams started associating themselves with ferocious animals 150 years ago.

Aware of this psychological appeal, smart coaches evoke the spirit of the club's culture in order to persuade footballers to play in a traditional style. Ex-Kangaroos coach Denis Pagan used to evoke the cliché of "Shinboner spirit" to improve player performance. As one journalist noted:

"Pagan's much-loved Shinboner spirit was a phrase that often had the cynics rolling their eyes, but which reinforced over and over the impression that the Roos would never offer anything less than an honest contest. "

The same technique is also used at an amatuer level. Coaches may try to motivate their players with Rocky music such as "Eye of the Tiger". Alternatively, they may evoke the sterotype of the club's traditional strengths.  At the very least, there is more scientific basis of a strong team identity giving a mental edge than the Crows 2018 “Mankind” preseason camp that involved blindfolding players, stripping them naked and having them listen to the Tigers’ theme song on loop.

There also seems to be a correlation between the connotation of the moniker and a history of failure. In their nine years in the VFA, the South Melbourne Bloods won five premierships. They were a foundation club of the VFL and won premierships in 1912 and 1918. In the thirties, the club reached its zenith and won its third premiership in 1933. It was then that they decided to change their name to the Swans. For the next 50 years, they only twice appeared in finals. In 1982, the club moved to Sydney and in 25 years rarely rose above mediocrity.

Fortunes turned around when a leadership consultant suggested to the playing group that they think of themselves as Bloods and develop a Blood code. Two premierships followed.

Something similar was perhaps seen with Hawthorn, which began its existence in 1925 as the Mayflowers. Only once in the next 25 years did it manage more wins than losses for the season. In 1950, the club became the Hawks and started to find some form.In 1961 it won its first premiership. More successes followed in 1971, 1976, 1978, 1983, 1988-89, and 1991. In the 90s in particular, it was tough, mean and very un-maybloom like in character.

Stereotypes and prejudice

When describing his hatred of Collingwood, Richmond legend Jack Dyer said,

"You hate a mean man, grasping man, a man who wants everything and gives nothing. That's Collingwood. They are a law unto themselves."If they win they gloat. If they lose they sulk.''

Dyer's comment was typical of the prejudice that comes out of the use of stereotypes and can be explained using Tajfel, H. and Turner, JC (1986) "The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour." 

One aspect of the theory is that individuals will raise the significance of group characteristics that increase the group's relative status. For example in Sydney, as Aussie rules gets the biggest crowds, Rugby League fans increase the relative status of their code by stressing the value of television ratings. For their part, Aussie Rules fans increase the relative status of their code by arguing that television is the domain of the fair-weather fan. In other words, fans of both codes value those attributes where they have relative strengths.

The predictions of social identity theory can also been seen in the insults of AFL fans. Collingwood fans may insult Essendon for its performance enhancing drug use. Essendon fans may return fire with reference to Collingwoods illicit drug use. Each insult has an element of truth but respective fans either exaggerate or diminish the significance of each insult as they attempt to gain status over a rival club.

Of course, an insult can only cut if the target shares the view that it is derogatory and usually they don't. For example, Collingwood fans may say Melbourne fans are upper-class toffs who head of to the snow during the footy season but for the Melbourne fans who are proud of their 4WDs and enjoy skiing, this is not an insult, but a source of pride. On their way to the snow, Melbourne fans may even wave to Collingwood fans waiting at the centrelink bus stop. When they return from the snow, Melbourne fans are not concerned about Collingwood fans insulting them for owning a 4WD. However, they are concerned about Collingwood fans making plans to steal their 4WD.

Inter-club hostility

Although diversity will always lead to prejudice, it doesn't always lead to hostility. A notable feature of the AFL is that the hostility is greatest between clubs that share a similar image. For example, traditionally Collingwood's greatest rivalries were with Carlton and Richmond, both fellow inner-city, catholic, working-class clubs. It lacked rivalries with the middle-class protestant clubs such as Essendon and Melbourne.

In recent years, although Collingwood had recently lost two Grand Finals to Brisbane, it didn't build a strong rivalry with the club. As then Collingwood coach Mick Malthose explained:

"Although the AFL is a national competition, the truly passionate rivalries remain largely local affairs. Richmond haven't won a premiership for more than 20 years, but whenever Collingwood play the Tigers there's an almost tangible energy around the place. "

Similarity breeds conflict because fans seek clearly defined boundaries between each club's respective image. By making insults, they are putting social distance between themselves and the rival club. In the words of American poet Robert Frost, "good fences make good neighbours." Conflict emerges when boundaries are not clearly defined. As one Collingwood fan explained his hatred for Richmond:

"I firmly believe that we all hate them 'cause they are like us - passionate, feral and complete nuts!"


Stereotypes as statements of facts

The Fremantle Dockers is WA's working class club; however, according to market research surveys, Fremantle supporters have a very high average income. The contradiction between the stereotype and the reality can be explained as stemming from people having an ideal conception of themselves that may not be consistent with reality. For example, a rich person living in Perth might identify themselves as egalitarian man of the people and so choose to support the Dockers. In much the same way, Victoria Bitter has a very strong working class image, yet is mostly drunk by people who are not working class.

In this regard, a stereotype can be a more factual representation of a club's supporters than a survey. A stereotype is a reflection upon a belief structure that shapes behaviour. A survey may not be.

Fremantle player pulling on the boots

Stereotyping on the basis of biology

Stereotypes are most useful when they are used to help predict someone's possible social identity, or to create a social identity that can act as a model of behaviour. They can be quite dangerous when they are applied to individuals as a judgement of their capabilities. In Australian football, this has often happened to Aborigines. In the past, recruiters often avoided recruiting Aborigines out of concern that they would go walkabout when they needed to be training and playing. In the 1990s, things started to turn around when some Aboriginal players were recruited and proved themselves to be stars. One club, the Essendon Bombers, saw the marketing potential of Aborigines and even used them to build a stereotype that it was a socially progressive club.

By the new millennium, almost 10% of recruits had Aboriginal heritage, despite Aborigines comprising just 3% of the population.
A stereotype had developed that Aborigines were highly skilled, were creative and almost had a magical understanding of football. One writer, Martin Flanagan, wrote:

"Buckley told me if you could read the game in Darwin, you could read it anywhere. Indeed, when he went back to the SANFL — that is, footy based on "whitefella" systems of thought — he found that he frequently knew what was going to happen before it did. Buckley gave me probably the best image I've heard to explain what's special about Aboriginal footballers. He likened the game to a tune. "Indigenous players never forget the tune. The rest of us struggle sometimes to remember it."

The stereotypes of Aboriginal players were circulated with positive intentions; however, when a race is homogenised, the entire race can be harmed by a few bad eggs just as it is aided by a few good ones. This seemed to have occurred when a couple of Aborigines got themselves in trouble with the law. Rather than see them as isolated cases, a stereotype re-emerged that an Aboriginal recruit was a more risky option. One recruiter confessed his club wouldn't recruit an Aborigine unless he had at least one white parent. The percentage of Aboriginal recruits then significantly dropped.

Perhaps the best way to think about the Aborigines' special ability to remember the football tune comes from an interview with ex-Aboriginal AFL player Che Cockatoo-Collins. When asked why Aborigines were so good at football, Cockatoo-Collins replied:

"I know plenty of shit ones."

Facts not stereotypes

Those who hate stereotypes, or believe they are mental corruptions, often seek out the certainty of statistical facts. These often come in the form of surveys. These can be very misleading because the design of the survey can be flawed and thus give skewed results. For example, an American survey in 2010 showed how the wording of a question can produce very different results. Specifically, it found that 34 per cent of Americans strongly favoured “homosexuals” serving in the military, but 51 per cent strongly favoured “gay men and lesbians” in the military.

Aside from the flaws in survey design, facts can be misleading because they are often perceived using stereotypes and in turn are used to confirm stereotypes. For example, at the start of the new millennium, jokes started circulating that Hawthorn was a gay club. It may have originated because the Hawks' captain, Shane Crawford, was a self confessed metasexual, was trying to get into acting and was ambigouis about his sexuality. In 2006, a Roy Morgan survey seemed to find some statistic evidence that Hawthorn fans were far more likely to be gay. Among many other things, the survey found that Hawthorn fans were:

  • Made up of 63% men
  • 35% more likely to be aged 25-34
  • 48% more likely to consider themselves a homosexual
  • 25% more likely to feel comfortable giving their credit card details over the internet

The reporting of the survey was misleading in the sense that 1 in 10 people are likely to be gay so for every 1 gay person supporting a football club, on average, 9 straight people would support the club. At Hawthorn in the survey year, 1.5 out of every 10 identified as gay. In other words, their sexual desires for people of the same sex were not 50% stronger than other AFL supporters nor were they 50% more likely to stock up on Pierre mineral water each time they went shopping. Furthermore, there was a whole range of criteria where Hawthorn fans were slightly different from the average. These changed each time the survey was conducted.

Even though the results really provided evidence that Hawthorn was not a gay club, the gay stereotype was enhanced because it fit the pre-existing jokes that were doing the round. Consequently, when lobby groups started suggesting that the AFL have a gay round or have a special event to celebrate homosexuality in sport, it was Hawthorn that was suggested to be part of the gay pride round or event.

A post-stereotype utopia?

It is easy to imagine a utopian world where there are no football stereotypes. It is a world where polite crowds watch for the skills on display rather than any emotional investment in the outcome. If by chance a team is followed and loses, the crowd congratulates the winner with praise about how well they played. It is also a world where teams aren’t given names or mascots and perhaps instead just given names like 1,2,3, 4 or 5 along with a colour to differentiate the team from others. Unfortunately, all utopian worlds have their downsides and football without meaning is football without a point. Sensible crowds in the post-stereotype utopia soon conclude that football itself is irrational and head off for something more logical that gazing at people fighting over what to do with a ball.



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