Bush Footy – Crossing Boundaries

August 03, 2011, 01:54 PM AEST


By Ramón Spaaij

Local sports clubs are integral to the social and cultural life of many country towns and provide an important public space for connection.

This is one of the key findings of my recent research into country sport in northwest Victoria.

The research was part of a wider study carried out between 2008 and 2010 with the aim to investigate social impacts of sport in a range of settings both in Australia and overseas, and has been published in my new book Sport and Social Mobility: Crossing Boundaries.

The research in northwest Victoria mainly covered the North-Central Football League (NCFL) and included in-depth interviews with 35 people who were involved – as players or volunteers – in Australian football, netball, hockey, cricket or tennis. Field visits were undertaken to attend matches, training sessions and community activities and to engage in informal discussions with players, volunteers and other residents.

Country sports clubs in northwest Victoria serve as a key vehicle for social interaction, providing a shared focus and outlet as well as a site for dialogue and information exchange.

For farmers who live in relatively remote areas, Saturday afternoon sport is one of the few forms of face-to-face interaction available to them, allowing them to meet people they would not necessarily meet in a social context otherwise. Sport participation gives them the opportunity to share experiences and to release tensions and stress.

Sport plays a similar role for several people who have recently migrated to the region, and who tend to engage in sport to get to know new people and ‘integrate’ into community life.

An important theme in the research is the role of country sporting competitions in creating bridges between people from different towns. Sport is a form of rule-governed competition that can divide people as much as it unites them. However, the rivalries between different teams and clubs in the NCFL are generally good-natured and sporting encounters are widely believed to enhance inter-community bonds of trust and reciprocity.

As a senior footy coach put it: ‘We’re very competitive, but we realise it’s still a game and you can still go up and have a beer after the game, sit down and relax and talk’.

Importantly, then, sporting encounters facilitate social interaction between residents of different towns, as a young netball player eloquently described: ‘The league is important in that sense because you’re not limited to your own town anymore. Actually it physically gives you a reason to go to other towns to see what things are like and what other people are like. … Sport is pretty much the only avenue for exploring relations in other towns.’

There is a widely held perception that in country sport social barriers don’t exist or are at least temporarily suspended, which means that the social networks created and maintained in the NCFL can connect different social groups that might otherwise remain disconnected from one another.

Why is this so?

The NCFL incorporates three sports (Australian football, netball and hockey) and is highly family-oriented. Match days feature a large number of matches involving people in different age groups (from juniors to seniors) in male and female sports teams. This setup stimulates social interaction between different generations, between males and females, and between entire families.

In this context, residents find organised sport to be ‘the binder rather than the segmenter’, to paraphrase a local school teacher.

Australian football is sometimes portrayed as being male dominated. Although this image persists to some degree, there is no doubt that it has been subject to change in recent decades.

One important indication of this is that a number of women occupy leadership positions in country football clubs as trainers or administrators. An often heard view among female residents is that although in most football clubs women have long been relegated to traditional roles as cooks, caterers and cleaners, the incorporation of hockey and netball clubs in the NCFL enables women to be involved to a much fuller extent, including at the management level.

They also point out that the importance of women’s contributions is now fully recognised.

Overall, the positive social impacts of country sport clearly predominate in the research findings.

Ramón Spaaij is Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe University.

His book, “Sport and Social Mobility: Crossing Boundaries” is available through Routledge Press – www.routledge .com. Enter promo code ERJ66 for a 20% discount.

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