A valentine to sport: Fourteen things to love about you.
1. The scoreboard
Sport stacks up the numbers, and declares winners and losers. The results may not be desired, but they are cut and dried, unlike most of life, often a decidedly ambiguous affair. Employment, health, love are all ruled by changeable, debateable aspects. But the simple hierarchy of results, standings, ladders . . . Utterly unrealistic, thankfully.
2. Port Adelaide
By this we mean the unexpected. The upstart which inspires by seemingly exceeding its supposed station. The underdog which excels. The team or individual which defies common wisdom to leap from mediocrity into contention. The unpredictability of the best competitions, where seemingly rudderless teams can revive themselves and leap into the finals.
3. The roar
A crowd is an underrated thing. Each has its own mood and flavours, just like a game, and analysts hidden behind glass miss the best part of the experience – how the events on the field have a visceral interaction with the reacting mob, an uncontrollable variable. Uncouth, annoying and messy, yes. But all those rude, disparate voices create a stirring noise, and disarming silences. Anyone who thinks barracking, or just watching, are passive activities, just hasn't been paying attention. The best sports command rapt but thrillingly vociferous attention.
4. Kids who like things you do
Standing as a sports fan at a game, you can bond regardless of your age, gender, or life experience. Sport is a way for people to share and talk. You get to feel how their mode of analysis, how and when they feel, what gets them fired up and what makes them indifferent. No need for inane questions about how they are going at school.
5. Good radio commentary
OK, this is rare. But when you get a commentator who lets you know where the ball is and why, and what is actually happening, your day gets arranged around the contest being described. Unfortunately, most overrated modern broadcasters feel the sporting event itself is a bothersome interruption to their endless editorialising about the "issues" it produces. But that just makes exceptions all the more enjoyable.
6. The lingo
Snobs who ridicule poor grammar and English usage among sports folk miss the glories of its language, and the joys of its heinous but utterly irresistible cliches. It is an insider's joy, and reward for devotion. An outsider to cricket might as well be trying to decipher Swahili as any random selection of cricket commentary: “Pitched up outside off, and driven past cover with good timing off the front foot, a peach of a shot that races to the boundary . . .” Every word requires knowledge we take for granted. Wits use such terminology out of context, creating some of our most distinctive, funniest pidgin conversations.
7. Mark Evans
A commonsense, less interventionist voice of reason in charge of the most important thing to most AFL fans – the game itself. If he hadn't come along, we would have had to invent him. Fewer runners and trainers on the field of play; sane adjudication of marking contests; rule tweaks instead of experimental wholesale changes, most of them intended to safeguard players and keep the play flowing; fewer free kicks . . . If this goes on, talkback callers will have to turn to political and ethical issues to vent their spleen.
8. Quasi-sporting activities
Kick-to-kick. Playing catch. Touch footy. Tennis ball cricket. The backyard corollaries of the professional sports are their lifeblood and their most enjoyable and intimate iteration. It's just you, your friends and the activity. Do it, and repeat, in the simple but endlessly distracting ambition of play.
If your team is terrible, fantasy games based on your favourite sport offer you a way to enjoy the sport without focusing constantly on one of the most depressing thing in your life. They also teach recalcitrant children basic arithmetic and offer people who love to abuse the obvious the chance to say: “It's about more than just the numbers.”
10. The MCG
The word "sacred" is mocked, but if you have spent hundreds or thousands of hours at the place, sharing great and despairing moments with your loved ones and mates, it is not inappropriate. It is Melbourne's greatest and proudest landmark, a point of common but individual experience. It is in the perfect location, right in the converging groin of the city, a fulcrum, a monumental focused mirror, a space for us to define ourselves and be ourselves. The stadium is like an enactment of the sprawled city itself – complete with distant suburbs of Q section, entitled inner city of the Members' and under-appreciated nooks in standing room. Melbourne loves events and crowds and it imbues a relatively standard coliseum with magic.
11. Other stadiums
One of the great shames of Melbourne is that we prematurely limited AFL games to just two arenas. The varying size, shape, texture and atmosphere of different stadiums, in town and country, are a major aspect of the pleasure of travelling away, in itself one of the pleasures that sporting allegiance brings the committed fan.
12. The gnarly veteran
Perfunctory in pre-season, taped, balding, efficient, cunning. The player closer to the end than the beginning is usually only just threatened by his early 30s, but he is an oldie. When these noble, scarred warriors push on through pain and ridicule, it gives great heart to genuinely middle-aged fans, bravely taking up physical activity in search of an ambulatory old age. Paunched observers also enjoy it when such legends of the game end their career. So rarely is it graceful. Curse, kick and scream against the dying of the light!
13. The precocious youngster
If you have watched enough of your sport, you can see it instantly: class. If a kid has it, all that remains is hard work: i.e. everything. But now you get to follow the stripling from obscure boondock beginnings to tentative or triumphant first steps on to the big stage, through inevitable setbacks to beloved stalwart status. Or to a quick oblivion. One way or another, with each newcomer, the narrative is renewed. Loving sport is a story, a human story, told through thousands of deeds of players and words of fans.
Just when you get to thinking this sport caper is getting too corrupt, homogenised, cynically marketed or over-saturated, a close friend or family member will want to come to a game with you, or discuss your game, or play it with you, and you remember it belongs to you and yours as much as any powers that be.