Quiet! I can't hear myself think
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
THIS is a plea on behalf of the silent majority. They are silent because they cannot make themselves heard even to each other, let alone to the wider world. They do not necessarily want to be heard, but they do want desperately not to be deafened. They simply want to be able to hear themselves think. They are contemporary football fans.
From the moment they enter the ground, or even a little beforehand, they are assailed. In the first instance, it will be by a band. As often as not, it is a band whose only virtue is that it fits the AFL's least prescription for entertainment in that it never stops, a band you have never heard of, playing music you never want to hear again, on a sound system loudly and lousily ill-adapted for the purpose.
Musical performance has its time and place, and it is not at the football. Between sets at the Corner Hotel, they don't clear the dance floor and bring out the Sherrins.
When the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra plays at the Arts Centre, it's canapes and champagne flutes at interval, not kick-to-kick. I am nearly past my use-by date, but on this theme I am not entirely tone deaf. One of Australia's best and most famous performers quietly (and mellifluously) agrees. Our conversation was not on the record.
It doesn't stop at the last drumbeat. Throughout the afternoon or evening, the barrage of decibels goes on, putrefying the air more than any carbon emission could. If it is not an ear-splitting ad, it is a hyperventilating announcement of the bleeding obvious, or a pair of commentators you cannot stand from a network you habitually avoid - but now cannot - telling you less about the game than you already knew, but cannot mull over with your companions because they cannot hear you above the din, and so are reduced to variations of pointing and nodding - vigorous, knowing, rueful, despairing - emptied of words.
Cricket is as bad, if not worse. Cricket authorities proceeded from banning incidental crowd noise one summer to making its own infernal racket the next. It got to the farcical point during last season's Big Bash League where an announcer complained that the action had come so thick and fast that he barely had time or breath to bellow out all the guff he was scheduled to emit. It did not occur to him simply to shut up.
Sport is drama, and drama needs its pauses, interludes and interregnums. Soccer errs on the side of too many stoppages, but at least understands their place. Football no longer has them. The slow build-up pre-match, the delicious anticipation, the imagining, the killing suspense: drowned out. The lulls during the game in which thoughts used to pool: blasted away. Only at the final siren is a spectator entrusted with his or her own thoughts and opinions. Modern football fans are not allowed to have thoughts and opinions; they can have only Thoughts and Opinions (trademark).
The rationale of sports authorities when asked is usually pathetically shallow, a mumbled mantra about market research and a need to engage with youth. I am not aware of any movement among fans who thought the game dull and boring and sat there at quarter- time sighing and remarking to one another how much better it would be if the AFL brought in someone to talk over the top of them all day and otherwise batter their eardrums into mushy submission. Maybe the researchers misheard them.
Football's marketeers seem to think that people who give hours of their weeks and years of their lives to a cause that for most is certain to be lost somehow cannot be trusted to concentrate for more than micro-seconds. To these gurus, silence is incomprehensible and scary, causing them to fidget and tense up and look for a button - any button - to push, but to whom a pause is an opportunity to be exploited. So they fill them all up with guff and tell us that it is paying for the game in the same way they say pokies and gambling ads and great wads of corporate grand final tickets are paying for the game, as if no other justification is necessary.
You have to wonder what incidental hiatus is earmarked next. Ball-ups? Boundary throw-ins? Set shots? That interminable period after a goal is kicked? I'm not protesting the break, but the hypocrisy: the AFL insists that the game must be continuous in every detail, and shapes rules and interpretations to ensure it, but to suit its own televisual purposes halts the game for so long after a goal that those at the ground begin to wonder if it ever will start again, and the umpire overthinks his bouncing technique, with predictable consequences.
On grand final day 1990, Brownlow medallist Neil Roberts looked out over the overflowing immensity of the sun-bathed MCG and said: ''Lucky bastards, the AFL. They could screw up everything and they would still have this.'' All that has changed is that now, you would not be able to hear him.