One of the few accurate ways to describe Australian Rules Football, also known as footy and Aussie Rules, is to characterize it as the lovechild of soccer and Boston street fights. Aussie Rules originally started in the 19th century as a way for cricketers to maintain their fitness in the offseason, the Australian winter. That’s why the oval used for cricket is roughly the same size as the Aussie Rules field (between 135 and 185 meters in length and 110 and 150 meters in width).

The sport focuses on a rugby-shaped (often red) ball that is either kicked or handballed (where a player punches the ball out of their hand, usually to another player on their team) up and down the field, with the aim of the game to kick the ball between tall, upright posts (there are four in total) that extend from the ground. A ball caught on the full (an Australian term meaning out of the air without bouncing) from a kick yields the catcher a “mark,” giving them what basically amounts to the same as a free kick in soccer: a free opportunity to take a kick without fear of being tackled. This fear is certainly justified, as no pads are worn in Aussie Rules, and full body pileups, primarily on top of a poor soul who happened to be stuck with the ball, are common. Players can run with the ball, if a tackle doesn’t stop them, but must bounce it on the ground every 15 meters, which is quite a difficult feat at higher speeds.

The result of these rules is a cruel, often violent game that tests the athleticism, grit, psychology, will, and intelligence of Australia’s finest young men. It is not uncommon for players off the ball to throw often-connecting punches at each other, just to show off to the opposing team their unwillingness to wound and be wounded. Upon showing highlights of footy to one of my friends in high school, he promptly said, “[it’s] the best thing [he’s] ever seen” and that “it’s incredible that they can just do that to each other,” referring to the unrepentant and unceasing brutality that accompanies the sport. Australians seem to agree, as the Grand Final, Aussie Rules’ Super-Bowl equivalent, is the most attended club championship event in the world, with a crowd of 99,981 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground just last year.

Aussie Rules hasn’t always been full of punch-ups and head-injuries. Back in the 1950s, my grandfather, Ken Melville, played on the Melbourne Demons, winning the premiership (the championship) in 1955 and 1956, as well as being named the “Best and Fairest” member of the team in 1953. In those days, footy was a game of skill, intelligence, and tactics; the violence associated with the modern-day sport was missing. The fact that my grandfather retired from the sport after the 1956 season at the age of 25 to become a minister should say enough.

But those days are no longer. From one perspective, perhaps that of a testosterone-overloaded teenager, this kind of fervent aggression and passionate cruelty is enjoyable to watch and experience. And it’s not necessarily wrong to find pleasure in watching athletes attack each other under the guise of cunning skill. However, it can become easy to ignore the human element, easy to forget what it would be like if you yourself, the viewer, were at the bottom of a pile of jacked-up and very aggressive men.

It’s not just physical warfare with which footy players must contend. Of course, Australia is no stranger to racial prejudice. Perhaps the best quote about race relations in Australian sports is from historian Dr. Colin Tatz, saying “they’re Australians when they’re winning and Aborigines at other times.” In 2013, ape-centered insults were hurled at Adam Goodes of the Sydney Swans, and, even more recently, a banana was thrown at Paddy Ryder of Port Adelaide Power.

The current regular season of the Australian Football League (AFL) has recently just finished, with the last of the 22 matches the teams play during the regular season completed on Aug. 27. There are 18 teams in the league, and the top eight on the ladder, a ranking system akin to the British Premier League, advance to the AFL finals series. This year, the top eight are as follows: Adelaide Crows, Geelong Cats, Richmond Tigers, Greater Western Sydney Giants, Port Adelaide Power, Sydney Swans, Essendon Bombers, and West Coast Eagles. The finale of this playoff series will be the 121st AFL Grand Final, played on Sept. 30. Coverage of the games in the United States will be by Fox Soccer Plus, but given the time-zone differences, the best shot to catch a glimpse of the action will most likely be by highlights on YouTube.

Ultimately, Aussie Rules is a fascinating sport, but its brutality can often overshadow its complexity and nuance. Of course, there are issues with it, but what sport doesn’t have its fair share of issues—take a look at American Football’s concussion conundrum. All I know is, I’m disappointed that once again, the Melbourne Demons have failed to make the finals series.

  • dharman

    While spending much of last winter in Australia I was introduced to Footy with games at the SCG and MCG. I was immediately hooked and have watched at least 50 more games on the Watch AFL Global app. While it is clearly a dangerous game, it is hardly as violent as American football. In particular, it seems to pose far less risk of head and spinal injuries than American football. I did notice a few players wearing lightweight head protection as they recovered from previous injuries.

    As a parent of a son who played US football from Pop Warner through a very competitive high school program, I share the concerns of many Americans about the safety of that game. I have never seen youth Footy but I can imagine a version that requires protective headgear and limits tackling as a very healthy activity for pre-teen children. At elementary levels, Footy also seems to require significantly less skill than soccer that millions of US kids play daily. I would love to see American kids learn to play Footy as a fun and healthy addition to their current choices.

    Regarding this year’s AFL finals, I expect either the Swans or the Tigers to win it all.