On Anzac Day, the AFL should pause and reflect that sport is not war | Russell Jackson

Russell Jackson
Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury and his Essendon counterpart Dyson Heppell prepare for the AFL Anzac Day game. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Every year the AFL’s “traditional” Anzac Day game between Collingwood and Essendon throws up at least one new and mildly unpleasant variation to its ongoing body of work commercialising war. And yes, “throws up” is a deliberate choice of phrasing in this instance.

In 2017, to reserve a seat at a football game positioned as an afternoon of commemoration and reverence, fans will have their wallets gouged by ticket price increases of up to 80%; honour our fallen heroes by paying $72 to sit in the nosebleeds, and don’t forget the exorbitant booking fee to print your own ticket. It’s what the diggers would have wanted.

In this instance it is the designated “home” side, Essendon, who have jacked up the price, safe in the knowledge that 85,000 diehards turned up last year to watch what amounted to a reserve-grade Bombers side. And in fairness, Essendon are encouraged to do this under the auspices of another great AFL initiative, and one of its most risible corporate-speak euphemisms: “dynamic ticket pricing”.

Actions are one thing, words are another. Even less palatable than the shakedown is the hyperbole-laden combat analogy porn we’re subjected to at ever-increasing volume when this game rolls around. This time former Collingwood coach and self-described history buff Mick Malthouse has had a bash, making a particularly excruciating foray into the genre. “While the commemoration and the football match are both intrinsically linked,” Malthouse starts his Herald Sun column, speaking entirely for himself, “I would never compare a game of football to genuine warfare. How can you?”

Indeed. How can you? Quite easily, it turns out, and in this instance we wait only a few paragraphs for a rather glaring contradiction: “Perhaps the closest we get to [the “sheer undeniable bravery” of the Anzacs] is on a football field, dressed in team colours, armed with a game plan, working side-by-side at the stoppages and in the packs, treating the opposition as an enemy to destroy for a win.”

Then this: “I remember – prior to coaching Collingwood every year on Anzac Day – in an Anzac round with West Coast, we dimmed the lights in the rooms before the game to give it the feel of a bunker and I read aloud some poignant words from the history books that line my bookshelves at home.”

When he was coaching Collingwood, Malthouse used to take his players to the Shrine of Remembrance in the days leading up to Anzac Day games, so one shouldn’t doubt the sincerity of his intentions, but if this is what passes for perspective, perhaps he might use his spare time to do some wider reading.

In truth, the point at which money, myth, football and Anzac Day intersect has always been blurry, and the correct balance of commercial and moral interests hard to pinpoint. The RSL actually encouraged the establishment of games such as the Collingwood-Essendon blockbuster, because it entitled them to a significant windfall under the Anzac Day Act. The games became the lighter-hearted portion of an otherwise solemn and emotional day for many, though not all veterans.

Though I often wonder how those without a personal connection to Anzac Day can feel anything other than cynicism at the AFL’s encroachment today, I’m also forced to admit how much it obviously meant to my late, Pies-supporting, Collingwood-born-and-raised grandfather, LAC James Henry Jackson of the RAAF. The family always took some solace that on his final Anzac Day, after he’d led the parade through his adopted home town of Jeparit, the Pies got up by a point. He loved those games like grand finals.

Today’s game will be the fifth since my grandfather died, so as Anzac Day approached this year I felt a compulsion to learn a little bit more about his life than the small snippets he’d tell the family, like his blasé description of the war as “a holiday”. He’d always taken Collingwood football developments far more seriously, at least outwardly, and didn’t react well to losses. He and my father were among the 98,385 who watched Collingwood lose the 1965 semi-final by a point against St Kilda. They didn’t get home for three days.

I’m not sure why I expected otherwise, but what I found in my research startled me, brought a measure of forgiveness to Ancestry.com for their hokey TV adverts, and made me a family history evangelist: tackle it well before you’re greying and spending idle hours in libraries.

It turns out my grandfather – this man’s man who never allowed himself be truly known – died with a secret his family never discussed, and perhaps never knew it himself: he was named for his uncle, Private James Henry Jackson of the 46th infantry battalion, who died by a trench near a railway embankment during the battle of Dernancourt.

Ninety-nine years later, almost to the day, I discovered an Australian Red Cross Society wounded and missing enquiry bureau file, and reading that document further confirmed the idea that it is unwise to compare pastimes and warfare. In it, comrades describe Private Jackson’s last moments in grim, perfunctory detail: he was hit in the head by a shell splinter and died instantly, just half an hour before he was due to be relieved of his post.

From here came revelation after revelation. Jackson, 23, left behind a 46-year-old widow and a will benefiting a son who died at the age of one – Jackson couldn’t have known he was already dead before his own death. And Jackson had been fighting beside his step-son, who sent the first word of his death home. What really got me was one line of biographical detail in a matter-of-fact account of his death, which reads like an entry from the Football Record: “Description – from Collingwood, about 5ft 8ins, 26/27, young, dark, known as ‘Jacko’.”

Today, it’s doubtful that anybody who knows his story will tend to Private James Henry Jackson’s grave – a white headstone among 344 others at the Millencourt communal cemetery extension, two kilometres west of Albert.

So many Australian families must have these stories, and their rediscovery on this day reminds us that sport and the tragedy of war are in no way analogous. Mick Malthouse really could have shortened his gambit to a single apt line about today’s game: “Four points will be at stake, not lives.”

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