Essendon fans spent so much time and energy booing at Etihad stadium last Friday that it was a wonder they got around to cheering at all.
They booed Dan Hannebery. They booed Adam Goodes. They booed the umpires. Some of them continued to boo umpire Troy Parnell when he was out cold, on a stretcher, being wheeled from the ground. Theirs was a night of booing on an industrial scale.
But there is booing and booing, and Essendon fans of all people should know it. Hannebery was booed for his part in a collision with Michael Hurley that left the Bomber dazed and Hannebery himself clutching at a sore midriff. Replays show that unlike in other infamous recent incidents, Hannebery was in the act of the gathering the ball at the time of the crash, and Hurley at least partly contributed to the accident. Subsequently, the match review panel would clear Hannebery of wrongdoing.
None the less, the crowd booed Hannebery. This was excusable as football pantomime. Hannabery was the cast villain, but his was the sort of villainy that would be forgotten with the fall of the curtain at night's end.
The booing of Goodes was more problematic. Most fans say it was because he is perceived to play for free kicks, moreover to get other, soft frees even when he is not staging for them. This also is the crowd playing its part, albeit too sensitively; it was not as if Goodes hurt Essendon much that night. The Bombers had their hands full elsewhere on the Swans' forward line.
But some Essendon fans made it clear this week that they booed because they disliked Goodes. This is contentious territory. None know him personally, and so object to an image. Necessarily, that image is bound up in race. Apart from his brilliance as a footballer, Goodes is best known as an ambassador for indigenous Australia. He is the reigning Australian of the Year because of it. Fans who boo the Goodes persona are giving voice to latent racism. Fans previously have abhorred what they thought they knew of other footballers - Wayne Carey was one - but rarely did it lead to gratuitous match-day booing.
Some, we now know, were express in their racism towards Goodes last Friday. Commendably, other Essendon fans took exception to this, and named names. Commendably, the Bombers acted swiftly, on Tuesday suspending one supporter's membership. It turned what could have been another infamous week for the club into a virtuous one.
Also on Tuesday, the Western Bulldogs came out forcefully to condemn an unidentified fan who racially vilified Melbourne's Neville Jetta. Again, the Bulldogs deserve praise for their stance. But 20 years post-Winmar, post-Long, it is depressing that a stance is still necessary. Though we have gone on long, we have not come far.
The booing of umpire Troy Pannell while prone on the ground and then on a stretcher was unforgivable on any terms. Booing umpires also is football pantomime. The Bombers were aggrieved this night as only losing fans can be. But when it was clear that Pannell was hurt, the fans should have switched to neutral, the way soccer players do when a player is injured.
Instead, Pannell was booed. Fans of both clubs were culpable, but the booing was loudest and longest at the Essendon end, where Pannell was carried off. Throughout the week, talkback callers have justified the ongoing booing on the grounds that they were frustrated by the umpires' decision-making. By the time Pannell was being driven from the ground, this was as beside the point as he was far from consciousness. Reasonable fans understood this, and many clapped sympathetically. But as with racism, it is mystifying that anyone booed a man in Pannell's position.
Trying to reason with a mob is a fraught exercise. But Essendon, of all mobs, should understand. Last year, lest anyone forget, Jobe Watson was booed by opposition fans because of a simplistic presumption that he was a cheat. It is a peculiarly honest sort of cheat who volunteers on national television details of his supposed cheating. But Watson was targeted anyway, infuriating Essendon fans. Evidently, some have shorter memories than goldfish.
Some Essendon fans howled at Goodes for being black, and Pannell for being an umpire. Their intemperance has nothing to do with the ASADA cloud that will not lift from Essendon. But the mindless mob will conflate them; in fact it has already. Ask Collingwood about stereotypes, and how difficult they are to shake. The club already has made a statement about Goodes. The fans need to make one about Pannell, if necessary on their banner next week.