By Offsiders columnist Richard Hinds
As we are reminded every time we look at the empty shelves where the pasta used to be or get an awkward elbow bump from a well-meaning acquaintance, these are strange days indeed.
But upon viewing the first of what AFL chief executive officer Gillon McLachlan optimistically declared — or, upon review, perhaps threatened — would be a 153-game-season, there seems one certainty.
The AFL will be world’s best practice in social distance signalling (SDS).
SDS is the art of demonstrating that you are following all of those stern health authority warnings intended to save the lives of still mostly hypothetical old people, while going about what we used to call normal life.
The much-less-anticipated-than-usual AFL season opener between Richmond and Carlton provided a master class in SDS with the league, clubs and broadcasters finding multiple ways to demonstrate they could stage the game without breaching all those cloying new societal protocols.
Facade of adhering to protocol
It started with veteran broadcaster Bruce McAvaney conducting the first of the many at-a-distance interviews during which the subject stands alone behind a microphone, much like a US President issuing the traditional Thanksgiving Day pardon to a turkey in the White House rose garden.
This is intended to create the impression the same distance would be observed had Bruce and his subjects bumped into each other — sorry, caught glimpse of each other — in the street, although the illusion is easily shattered.
Soon after the initial Presidential style interviews, Channel Seven’s on-ground announcers accidentally entered each other’s 1.5 metre exclusion zones.
Their rapid and highly self-conscious uncoupling was more reminiscent of a babysitter caught pashing a partner on the sofa by early-arriving parents than two people realising their actions might be actually or even symbolically harmful.
Which was understandable but, given they were trying to adhere to the broadcaster’s instructions that presenters project an air of responsible post-coronavirus behaviour, also painstakingly unnatural.
Then the players emerged and it was immediately apparent no sporting pre-game handshakes would be allowed to breach sensible recommendations about personal contact.
But — read the fine print! — there is no Health Department ban on bumping someone with your bare shoulders or elbowing them in the ribs (other than when attempting to purchase toilet paper).
So having observed the strictest of virus-banishing protocol, the players knocked on in their counterintuitive, contact-heavy, world-sport-abandonment-defying way.
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But easily the most compelling piece of SDS was the quarter-time revelation that the umpires would disinfect the ball.
(There was no mention whether this included all the other balls stored across the ground so that players did not have to jump the fence to retrieve an errant pass. Or, for that matter, how often those distributing said balls had washed their hands.)
The Melbourne Comedy Festival has been cancelled. But in the moment the umpires earnestly wiped a Sherrin with a disinfectant cloth in preparation for 36 players to engage in full, robust, sweaty physical contact, its spirit lived on.
The impact on the game of no crowd
Such focus on the methods by which the AFL’s social distancing was painstakingly enforced is, I will admit, unexpected.
Before Richmond’s possibly important and just as likely irrelevant 23-point victory over Carlton, most of the anticipation had been about what impact the absence of supporters would have on the game.
How would the game look and, as much, how would it feel without a crowd?
Are players really lifted by the roar of their fans or had we deluded ourselves for generations when insisting our primal screams had an influence on the spectacle that unfolded before us?
(You would hope the Richmond-Carlton game would have been better with a full house. But the jury is out.)
Would the umpiring improve without the so-called “noise of affirmation” that allegedly influences decisions?
Your questions on coronavirus answered:
Would goal kicking conversion rates improve with players enjoying training track acoustics?
(The accumulated total was 28.18 but we’ll wait for a better sample size.)
Would the shortened season raise the intensity of early games, given a fast start will be more important than usual?
(How could you tell? The crowd might not create intensity, but we now know it provides a good measure.)
Game trying to justify its decision to plough on
The other justification for continuation was the war-time Bob Hope concert theory — we need distractions to cheer our miserable isolated coronavirus-afflicted lives.
The ratings for both the AFL and its concurrent NRL equivalent will no doubt be spectacular.
These were not just the only shows in town, but among the few live sports shows in the world, and we’re already exhausting our Netflix options.
But the lasting impression of this historic encounter was of a game and its broadcasters desperately trying to justify their decision to plough on without the fans.
Even more so, the AFL seemed almost crazed in its desperation to prove it could do so while complying with the new and unnerving societal norms about contact and personal space.
This does not necessarily mean the AFL was not entitled to commence or that the economic imperatives that drove the decision to play in empty stadiums are not compelling.
You might even argue an industry that employs thousands of people is obliged keep operating so long as it complies with government regulations.
But there was no escaping the fact it missed something.
What the experts are saying about coronavirus: