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Thursday, October 19, 2006

AFL's Influence on Australian Culture

One of the central messages on this blog is that footy is "the engine-room for the boganisation of Australia". In the northern states, rugby powers the underlying ugliness that leads to, for example, the Cronulla race riots of last summer. For the southern and western states, it's the attitudes and behaviours in the AFL that trickle down and wreak havoc on society. Today, we look at one case in point: an anti-Semitic attack by a regional Aussie Rules football team.

On Saturday, 14th of October, a busload of about 20 amateur footballers from the Ocean Grove Football Club left for a day of drinking at the Caulfield Races. At around 6:30pm, they were driving through Balaclava (part Melbourne's Jewish area[1]). They spotted a 33 year-old Jewish man, Menachem Vorchheimer. What followed is pure disgrace:

Mr Vorchheimer said the men yelled "F--- off Jews" and "Go the Nazis" before motioning as if they were shooting a machine gun at him and his children.


When the bus stopped at a red light, Mr Vorchheimer went to the driver's door.

"I wanted to find out where they were from so that . . . I could make approaches to that organisation," he said.

But the bus driver appeared to ignore him and took off when the light turned green.

As the bus drove past, two men reached out the back window, grabbed Mr Vorchheimer's [Shabbat] hat and skull cap [yarmulke] and hurled more abuse. [NB: traditionally, Jewish men were the small skull cap at all times, and the broad-brimmed Shabbat hat over the top during the Sabbath.]


Mr Vorchheimer said the men threw one of his hats out the bus window but when he asked for the other hat he was attacked.

"I was pulled toward the open window and then punched by a right hand into my left eye by a passenger on the bus. I fell back and was in enormous pain."

Mr Vorchheimer said he felt blood running down his face as the men threw his other hat out the window.

"Meanwhile my kids are on the sidewalk crying and screaming," he said. (The Herald-Sun, 17/10/2006)

Menachem Vorchheimer Shows Off Handiwork of Ocean Grove Football Thugs
Source: Herald-Sun

While police are still investigating the matter to examine individual charges, we can condemn the cowardly, insensitive and hate-filled actions of the entire football club. To compound matters, the reaction of the club officials is staggering:
[The president of the Ocean Grove Football Club, Michael] Vines says he is disappointed players were allegedly involved in the racial and physical abuse of the man.

"The last thing we want is our footy club blasted all over the front page of a newspaper and getting this type of publicity - like any sporting club we expect our players to behave in a responsible fashion," he said. (ABC News, 17/10/2006)

This isn't about "behaving responsibly" and avoiding bad press, it's about obeying the bloody law! This wasn't they boys getting drunk and throwing up - this was a hate-crime, involving cruel taunts, assault, theft and public humiliation. But it gets worse:
"If that did in fact occur, on behalf of the club I would apologise to him most sincerely," [Club President Michael Vines] said on Southern Cross Radio today.

Club coach Matthew Sproule said Mr Vorchheimer's hats were removed "accidentally" in a tussle through the bus window.

"The driver ... did not know the person at the back had the hat. We realised the person was chasing us down the street for his hat. We pulled over and we put the hat to the side, then we got run off the road by another person who wouldn't let us move after his hat was returned," he said on Southern Cross Radio.

"We don't know (who threw the punch) with all the commotion that was going on at the time.

"At the time the man in question asked for an apology and we gave an apology to him and he said, `No, it's 10 seconds too late. I'm calling the police.'" (The Herald-Sun, 17/10/2006)

Player/coach Matthew Sproule - who should have been in a leadership position on this - was involved with the pushing and shoving and failed to rein in the troops. He's now attempting to "blur out" any culpability of his club (accident my arse) and paint his victim as a "deal-breaker" who called the police despite some sort of "deal" over the apology. Combine this with the half-arsed conditional/tentative apology by the club president and it's clear there is a crisis of leadership in Ocean Grove.

The only positive from this whole sorry saga was that normal citizens surrounded the bus to stop it fleeing the crime scene and up to 50 witnesses stepped forward to provide statements to investigating police. Note that these upstanding people were not footballers.

It must be asked - what were those dickheads thinking? I grew up in Victoria's Southwest, on the Surf Coast, and I'm guessing that for many of those young men it was their first time in the Big Smoke. No doubt their mindset in setting out on the trip was to a) drink at least as much as everyone else at the, races; and b) show the uppity city-folk that they weren't overwhelmed or cowed by the tall buildings, traffic and crowds. Couple fear of the unknown with "small fish in big pond" syndrome and that bus of drunken knobs was a ticking time-bomb. For many of them, I'm betting Mr Vorchheimer was the first Jewish man in traditional garb they'd ever seen. They reacted like they would to any outsiders - with hate and violence. (Hence the gene pool in Ocean Grove must be getting a little murky, if you know what I mean.)

I'm not going to say that this happened because of AFL footballers. Dumb-shit yokels have been coming to the city, getting drunk and attacking Jews for hundreds of years. Anti-semitism is widespread among uneducated, monocultural morons who have been in-breeding for so long that they react with horror and moral panic to anyone who's not their cousin.

Yet it remains true that most of those 20-odd young men on the bus look up to and idolise AFL players. Can it be pure coincidence that this attack happened in the same month as five AFL players are facing court for drunken arrogance and violence (Heath Scotland, Chad Morrison, Brodie Holland, Alan Didak and Ben Johnson)? No, the AFL clubs tacitly condone illegal behaviour of their players by failing to sanction them in any meaningful way. This policy of "tolerance for talent" leaches out through the VFL and down into amateur leagues. From there, it spreads far and wide in the national consciousness, given the prevalence and high regard for footy.

Here's an example of how the hateful, violent mindset of the professional leagues is effectively exported to the amateurs:
"A former VFL [ie professional] footballer has been jailed for assaulting an opposition player during a match.

Former Broadford senior coach Paul Lawrence Tilley, 42, was jailed for six months in the Bendigo County Court yesterday after being found guilty by a jury of intentionally causing serious injury to a North Bendigo [ie amateur] player two years ago.

Tilley played 15 VFL games for Fitzroy and St Kilda in the 1980s.

Judge Roy Punshon sentenced Tilley, of Wallan, to a maximum of 18 months, but suspended a year of the term. (The Age, 17/10/2006).

AFL officials' reluctance to stamp out these attitudes stems from a desire to make money. A ban on law-breaking players means lower ticket sales and reduced TV audiences. This is why they could do more, but refuse. I'm not alone in the assessment that the AFL lies at the root of this problem but is reluctant to take it on:
Caulfield MP Helen Shardey condemned the attack. She said the AFL needed to do more to educate footballers at all levels about behaviour. (The Herald-Sun, 17/10/2006)

The prospect of sane, reasonable and violence-free footballers is unattainable. But we should not give up trying to reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks. To achieve this, we must understand where the hate - in this case, ignorant anti-semitism - is coming from, how it permeates society and why it's allowed to exist.

*** UPDATE ***

There have been more developments in this story which, quite rightly, refuses to go away. Firstly, it has become apparent that a serving police officer was involved. An (as yet unnamed) off-duty police officer was the driver of the bus who refused to provide Mr Vorchheimer with details of the group. He has become the subject of another police investigation, this time by internal affairs.

Secondly, two miscreants have come forward and admitted to participating in the assault. The third man, who struck Mr Vorchheimer in the face, has still not come forwards, although the club assures the public they've narrowed it down to "six possible suspects".

Thirdly, the planned field trip to the Holocaust Museum and Research Center was postponed due to concern it could interfere with the police investigation. There's no word yet on when this educational experience will continue.

Finally, radio entertainer Neil Mitchell has waded into the issue with an opinion piece in the local Murdoch tabloid. Mitchell makes all the right noises, but twists and turns like a worm on the hook to avoid sheeting home full responsibility to that group of drunken young men. Here's some of his moral gymnastics:
There is something about the mix of competitiveness, tribal team bonding and the booze, that regularly turns even sensible young men into yobbos.


[P]resumably they had not restricted themselves to the occasional dry sherry. This was a football trip, after all.

(And that raises another key point, nothing to do with racism. If somebody, somewhere had served fewer drinks, again this could have been avoided.)


The incident that left [Mr Vorchheimer] with a dangerous eye injury and blood pouring from his head could have been avoided if he had not made the decision to confront the ugliness.


[T]here seems little doubt that Mr Vorchheimer's objections escalated the clash from ugly to violent.


If a passing motorist had not intervened to block the bus, it would probably have headed back to Ocean Grove, carrying the hats and impending hangovers.

Mr Vorchheimer would have been left with a horrible story to tell but no injuries.

But what that motorist did, along with several others who helped, was a statement for decency because these people identified as unacceptable the actions of a few idiots. (Herald-Sun, 19/10/2006)

Mitchell goes on to praise the football club president, points out how it's brought Muslims and Jews together and provided an opportunity to showcase mainstream Aussies' values and intrinsic decency.

In my view, he sails very close to the wind on playing up to the prejudiced. While he is extensively critical of the young men on the bus, he casts this as inevitable and normal behaviour. It's not. He's also very keen to highlight the responsibilities of others in this - from those serving the drinks to Mr Vorchheimer requesting his hats back. From all accounts, Mr Vorchheimer's actions are reasonable and legal. Notice how Neil Mitchell plays up the bystanders' intervention as "a statement for decency", yet Mr Vorchheimer's was not. There's no praise for him, just the insinuation that it could have all been avoided if he just copped the abuse as an inevitable (though undesirable) part of life.

In Mitchell's final analysis, Australians have no need for introspection or analysis as to why this happened. And the AFL certainly bears no responsibility for promoting a culture of hate and intolerance. No, it's just part of life and something to be expected. Well, Neil, I call bullshit. These ugly attacks are not to be tolerated or accepted. We must understand why they happen and get at them root and branch.

*** UPDATE ***

The last pair of miscreants in the Ocean Grove Jewish race-hate case have had their day in court. In a surprising move by a Victorian judicial figure, one was even convicted:

Magistrate Julian Fitz-Gerald in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court fined Grubbers captain and best and fairest winner James Dalton $1000 but did not convict him of behaving in an offensive manner.

Mr Dalton's teammate Matthew Cuthbert was fined $750 and convicted for using insulting words, which Mr Fitz-Gerald described as appalling, offensive and racist.


Mr Fitz-Gerald said Dalton and Cuthbert's behaviour was "criminal, hurtful, insensitive, ignorant, at its base racist and anti-semitic [and] is to be condemned and I do so". (Geelong Advertiser, 15/11/2007)

To understand these horrific and appalling actions by drunken young men, we need to understand football culture. A culture based on exclusion, derision and mindlessness. These yokels are just re-enacting what they see from their superstar AFL heroes. Worse still, the small-town amateur club is adopting the denialist and hostile approach more befitting of a professional club:

President Michael Vines hit back at claims made in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court that the club's efforts in the wake of the abuse had been sparse.


Mr Vines said Mr Vorchheimer's children had recently launched a civil claim against the Ocean Grove Football Club.

Mr Vorchheimer's wife took the action in the Equal Opportunity Commission on her children's behalf, after they saw the incident.


But Mr Vines said the club did not accept any legal liability to Mr Vorchheimer or his family because the incident occurred in the off-season and the bus trip was not a club-organised event. (Geelong Advertiser, 16/11/2007)

Yeah, way to go, big guy. The end-of-season bus trip to the Caulfield Races wasn't organised by he club so it can shirk responsibility? Even Eddie McGuire would be proud of that one.

[1] Known within the community as "The Ghetto". This is both technically accurate (the Jewish quarter of a European city is historically referred to as a ghetto) and ironic (the modern meaning of the word is associated with slums and urban decay, yet these suburbs are extremely genteel and expensive).

Citations: The Herald-Sun, 17/10/2006; ABC News, 17/10/2006; The Herald-Sun, 17/10/2006; The Herald-Sun, 17/10/2006; Herald-Sun, 19/10/2006; Geelong Advertiser, 15/11/2007; Geelong Advertiser, 16/11/2007

Word Count: 2450

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  • BSD
    As it was the Sabbath going into another Holy Day, Menachem Vorchheimer could not use a phone, and would not have been carrying one and did not call the police. It was good non-Jewish passers by who observed the events who did so.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:51 pm, October 21, 2006  

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  • Greg I must admit this time i logged on to your site deliberatly to see what you had written about this incedent.

    I am disgusted that anyone would behave like this and whats worse they did it in front of children.

    I watched Mr Sproule on the news being interviewed regarding the incident and it was clear to me he was speaking in a way to lay blame somewhere else. You are right he was in a position of leadership. He should have acknowledge immediatley that what happened was wrong and confirmed all involved would be punished from the football club. What hope have the younger people of the club got if a person of leadership is not prepared to stand up and say this is wrong.

    On so many levels was this behaviour dispicable. These young men should be made to study how the Jews were treated by the Nazis during the WW2. This then would even more predominantly highlight to the individuals involved what type of people they must be to think things like "go nazi" are ok.
    If the football club are really serious maybe they should undertake this action. My bet would be though these badly behaved cowards would probobly just go and play elsewhere.

    To do this in front of this man's children, I just can't believe people are still capable of such things.
    Regardless of the exact events which transpired this is exactly why there should not have been any excuses made for anyones behaviour. These young men should have been publicly rediculed by there club if they really wanted any one to believe there apology's. More importantly because they did the wrong thing and should be accountable for there actions.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:33 pm, October 23, 2006  

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  • We've seen the first conviction arising from this atrocious incident:

    A YOUNG footballer who yelled "Go Nazis" as his mates abused and punched a Jewish man has been fined $1000 and branded a racist.

    Simon Phillip Christian, 21, admitted hurling the insult during the race attack on Menachem Vorchheimer, who had been walking to his synagogue with his son, 6, and daughter, 3.

    "These words, 'Go Nazis', have echoes back to one of the most horrific events of the 20th century," magistrate Barbara Cotterell told Christian.

    "Your words . . . were uttered in the context of a very ugly episode. I can't think of anything more racist. (Herald-Sun, 19/4/2007)

    Just as well the footballer concerned was a mere bush league amateur player: professional footballers have dodged convictions for far more serious crimes. Still, it goes to show that our courts are capable of convicting footballers after all, so there's hope yet.

    Let's see if the courts can hold their nerve when two other dickheads - facing assault charges - front up in a couple of months.

    By Blogger Greg, at 2:38 pm, April 19, 2007  

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