“…football, wherein is nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence; whereof proceedeth hurt, and consequently rancor and malice do remain with them that be wounded…”
Sir Thomas Elyot on Football, The Governor, 1531
On Sunday 16th April 1967, the rooms of the Sun News-Pictorial were filled with journalists writing and talking about the previous day’s Australian Rules football games. The Sun was Melbourne’s biggest circulating newspaper and on Monday, football was a mainstay of its pages, both back and even the front, where the main news ought to be. Melbourne, then as now, was football mad. In one respect things were better. In those days Australian Rules football was played only on Saturdays. Although football was played elsewhere in Australia, the wintry second capital, Melbourne, has always been the capital Of Australian Rules Football.
Sunday in the sixties in Melbourne was a day of the week when nothing much happened. Shops were shut and the churches were supposed to be full. If you didn’t want to stay home and mow the lawn then the most exciting thing you could do if you wanted to go out would be to drive to Essendon airport (the International airport at Tullamarine had not yet been invented) and watch the planes come in.
Sunday television programs like World of Sport and especially the daily newspapers had a feast when it came to analysing the previous Saturday round of matches. There were no Sunday papers for Melburnians in those days and so the full analysis was boiled up over twenty fours hours and delivered to the public at length in newsprint on the following Monday. Douglas Wilkie, the Sun’s long-standing Foreign Affairs writer, had had enough. He made this observation to the Sun’s daily columnist, Keith Dunstan.
“I can’t stand it any longer. This is supposed to be a democracy – we should have rights – there should be something to protect us from all this in the winter” “There must be a better life than this. Couldn’t we start an anti-football organisation?”
In the next day’s column Dunstan relayed Wilkie’s sentiments, yet maintained his anonymity. He suggested the need for an Anti-Football organisation and the idea of a badge, so that members could identify each other. Over the next few days Dunstan was deluged with responses, with hundreds eager to join. The long pent-up frustrations of those whose interest in football was negligible were at last brought out into the open.
And so the Anti-Football League was born, but if it was going to compete with the cultural force that was the Victorian Football League (as it was then known), it would have to have respectability. The new society needed a patron. Douglas Wilkie had initially suggested the idea. Wilkie had written for the Sun since 1946. His insightful commentary on international affairs sometimes seemed the only antidote to the Sun’s coverage of pigskin based acrobatics. The AFL had a patron, and named an award after him, the Wilkie Medal, awarded annually to a prominent Australian who had done the least for football.
Dunstan now had a regular source of Monday columns as well with material gleaned from both supporters and detractors. The detractors saw him as some sort of heretic; after all, ‘football is religion’. A letter received at the Sun read ‘Come to the Phoenix Hotel at 5 p.m. and I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich.’ The Phoenix was a Flinders street pub, owned at the time by former Collingwood footballer and Sun football writer, Lou Richards, and frequented by both footballers and journalists. There were many letters just as strong. One suggested he just move to Alaska if he didn’t like football. Others felt he was a Communist subversive, of dubious moral proclivities, or worse -‘un-Australian’.
Regardless of the criticism, badges were sold at an alarming rate and the inaugural Douglas Wilkie medal was awarded to then Prime Minister Harold Holt. By July 1967, less than two months after the AFL was conceived, it had more members than the Collingwood Football Club, the largest in the VFL.
The numbers of anti-footballers grew and each year a new Anti-Football star was awarded the ‘Wilkie’ medal. The public interest was retained and Dunstan found himself hard pressed to come up with more bizarre circumstances and stunts for the awarding of the distinction. Commonly, this involved the destruction of a football by various means. One year it was cut in half and planted with flowers. Another it was placed in a coffin and buried at sea (only to float away out beyond the Heads), and on another occasion Dunstan and his supporters burnt a football on the Melbourne Cricket Ground just prior to a Grand Final. The passage of the years took a toll. The Last Wilkie was awarded in 1994 and since then the organisational head of steam has slowed. Despite this, a strong band of non-followers of football has maintained true to the credo on which the AFL was founded.
But this was before the days of the internet and spontaneous community action. The year 2006 saw the launch of this website and a new beginning for the AFL.
Anti-Football League members have now, at last, an online meeting point and a forum.
The AFL is currently staffed by a small number of volunteers and welcomes contributions, criticism and cabernet sauvignon.
Feel free to drop us a line.
¹The Sun News Pictorial, 6th June 1970
²Keith Dunstan, No Brains at All: an Autobiography (1990), p192