Punchy fans ring alarm bell for AFL

There is a smile on the face of AFL football that was probably always a bit too smug in the first place, and now is beginning to curl down at the edges.

It is the smile from the high moral ground of the grandstands, where legend has it that fans of opposing clubs mix freely and benignly, at worst chiacking a little and posturing in a bellicose manner, but leaving it all at the turnstile on the way out. It is the knowing smile down at soccer especially, where fans are segregated inside stadiums and massively policed outside, lest anarchy and its foreign accent take over.

In truth, both images are dated. In the big leagues, soccer has worked hard to minimise violence. In the A-League, there are incidents still, but they are mercifully rare.

In the AFL, they appear to be increasing. There was another on Saturday, at the Carlton-Collingwood match. This follows multiple flare-ups at Marvel Stadium, Geelong and in Adelaide in the past 12 months or so, and that is not a definitive list.

This apparent rise might only be a function of the social media era, where every outbreak is liable to be captured on a smartphone camera and appear on a screen near you within minutes. If so, good. It doesn't matter whether there is more violence, or just more exposure of it: one instance is too many.

Ask anyone who has innocently found themselves in or near a punch-up in any forum. It is one thing to see it, another to hear it. If a violent media culture has inured you, the sound of a bare fist landing will shake you out of it.

There was a time when such behaviour would have been met with a helpless shrug, one eye congenitally blind anyway, the other now turned, but no longer. Again, good!

So far, brawls in the AFL have been isolated in that they do not appear to have been the work of any one set of fans. In soccer's darkest days, the violence was premeditated and orchestrated and sometimes the work of criminal infiltrators who were not fans in the first place.

In AFL now, it looks to be the outcome of on-the-spot slights and provocations, offence given and taken, way too far. The cheer squads don't involve themselves; they are there to cheer.

But neither AFL nor ground authorities should sit on their hands. The main complaint of ruffled bystanders at the MCG on Saturday was that security took too long to arrive. Let's hope that is down to logistics, not complacency.

AFL chief Gillon McLachlan has said it won't come to partitioning fans inside grounds. It ought not. The AFL is quick to move against racist taunts, and rightly so. It should move with no less alacrity against fisticuffs. The racists at least are at arm's length from their victims. The thugs are a swing away.

I won't be so naive to as pretend that footy used to be all sweetness and light – far from it. There were always elements of menace, thankfully rarely realised.

On a bad day, a footy ground outer could be a grim place. Right now, we appear to be in a meaner-than-usual period. It manifests in, for instance, the way fans boo pre-emptively. It stands in contrast to the players, who have been weaned off violence and are more mutually solicitous than ever. I've seen several examples this year of momentary but proper armistice.

Then, last Friday night, after David Myer's improbable post-siren kick to win the game for Essendon had fallen well short, captain Dyson Heppell went to him and they shared a smile. This jarred on many, because it betrayed insufficient hurt.

This was, if not a backward step, a backward way of looking at it. There are enough ways for the smile to be wiped from footy's face without insisting that the players do its own wiping.

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