2012 is proving to be a bad year for free speech. Not only do we have a Federal Government hell bent on restricting it, but now the nation's largest sporting body, the AFL, seems keen to get in on the act.
Not content with setting up its own media operation, AFL Media, to take a dominant role in the coverage of the sport, or sanctioning its players for causing offense on twitter, the AFL also apparently has its sights set on the fans.
The Age recently reported that AFL spokesman Patrick Keane had "confirmed that the league took a dim view of supporters criticising opposition players", which seems to be a fundamental shift in what has always been a big part of the barracking experience.
Keane's comments came in the wake of the recent game between Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney which presented the first opportunity for Melbourne supporters to voice their displeasure at Tom Scully, their number one draft pick who had deserted the club at the first opportunity to take the big money on offer from the AFL's expansion team on the western Sydney frontier.
Now, Scully is perfectly entitled to sell his services to the highest bidder but, if he does, he also has to accept the fact that long-suffering Melbourne supporters are hardly likely to greet his reappearance against them with polite applause.
So the Melbourne supporters turned up with signs and banners criticizing Scully and one chap amusingly pinned monopoly money all over his clothes. For his troubles, this individual found himself surrounded by security staff, seemingly desperate to find some pretext to escort him from the ground. There were apparently accusations that he had used bad language, denied by all those in the vicinity.
There is a tendency for sporting ground security staff to be over-zealous with minor misdemeanors. Parents offering supermarket cola cans to their kids will quickly be surrounded (cans are of course banned from the modern-day sporting venue), as will obviously harmless individuals whose only crime might be to be barracking a bit loudly, or engaging in repartee with opposition supporters. However, on the extremely rare occasions when there seems to be an actual threat of a punch-up starting, security always seem notable by their absence.
In many ways, football in 2012 is better than it was in the 'good old days'. The skills of the average player have improved enormously and the intensity of the contest in the modern game is often superb. For fans, the facilities are vastly superior, even if one does occasionally look back with nostalgia at having endured the outers at grounds such as Victoria Park and Windy Hill.
However, the AFL and ground authorities seem to be attempting to make a contemporary day at the football something which fans experience rather than participate in as barrackers. There has been a growing trend for incessant announcements, advertisements and gratuitous music to fill breaks in play which once would have been solely devoted to fans having to do things like make conversation.
Now, as well as limiting fans' ability to express themselves quietly during breaks, there seems to be a push to limit what can be said loudly during play. Obviously, there are limits on what should be said and, on the whole, fans themselves understand this. It is now almost ten years since I last heard someone shout out a racist comment at the football. The perpetrator was immediately given a stern lecture by several other patrons and, suitably chastened, shut up for the rest of the day. However, there is a world of difference between making a racist comment and calling Tom Scully a "mercenary".
Oddly, these days, the worst criticism of players does not take place in football grounds at all, but in the anonymity of twitter and in blog comments. Surely spirited barracking in public is a much healthier outlet for fans to express their views. A key element of football's appeal is the belief that one's own club is intrinsically better than its rivals. In a city like Melbourne football culture has been driven by generations of love of one's own team and hatred of its rivals, and yet, at the same time, everyone has friends and relatives who support those other teams. We have all lived with the criticisms of our teams and our players.
In the aftermath of the Melbourne versus GWS game, one might have hoped the AFL would say that security had overreacted and welcomed the fact that Melbourne supporters, often maligned for their apathy, had shown a bit of passion. Even more, one might have thought they would be excited by the fact that some people were reacting to the AFL's expansion team with an emotion any stronger than mild indifference.