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Not Playing the Game

Sport and Australia’s Great War


Xavier Fowler

Carlton, VIC: Melbourne University Press, 2021

Softcover     288pp   RRP $39.99


Reviewer: Rob Ellis, January 2022


During the First World War, one of the more contentious social issues was: ‘Should football and other organised professional sports continue to be played during this War?’ The two sides in this discussion were, effectively, the middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestant sector of the community that favoured limitation or prohibition of professional spot, and the mainly Irish Catholic working-class that provided a large proportion of the supporters of professional football, and who worked in or followed horse-racing.

The wider community was sharply divided over the issue.  It was seen, by Australia's middle class that player payments to professional sportsmen was a disincentive to volunteering for the entirely-volunteer Australian Imperial Forces. Especially, from early 1916 on, troops were desperately needed to replace the very heavy casualties from the fiasco of the Dardanelles Campaign and the mishandled operations of the Western Front.  

Despite two referenda, Australia did not introduce conscription during World War 1, as the troops serving in France voted heavily against it – in sufficient numbers to provide the majority necessary to defeat the motion.

The middle-classes believed that experience in competitive sport gave young men the character, fitness, and experience to fit them for military service, and many volunteered.  One bye-product of this was that the Melbourne Australian Rules football club Melbourne University, withdrew from the Victorian Football League before the 1915 season started, as almost all its players had volunteered for the AIF. The other nine clubs continued to compete in the 1916-1918 seasons, despite opposition from some activists who supported volunteering by all fit men. 

Other sports cut back on their activities, under pressure.  John Wren, who owned or operated many of the privately owned non-club 'proprietary' racecourses in the eastern States, was a target for the supporters of volunteering.  There were, however, fewer restrictions on the turf club fixtures, as the breeders and trainers were seen to be providers of cavalry horses for the Australian Army – which had few if any cavalry units.

In his analysis of Australian sporting activities and population, the author concentrates largely on New South Wales and Victoria, and particularly on the Victorian Football League and the New South Wales Rugby League, which were the two main professional sporting leagues in Australia, although both codes were played in other states, but not always professionally.

Much of the effort to attract sportsmen and employees to volunteer to volunteer was focussed on football clubs and the proprietary tracks, rather than the venues owned and operated by the racing clubs whose members, owners & trainers were largely middle-class Protestants.  It was seen by some that gambling on horse-racing attracted money that could have been better spent on supporting the war effort. This attracted strong opposition from the working-class population.  Gambling on horse-racing and following their favourite football club were the only relief that a large part of the population had from the stresses of civilian life - unemployment, rising costs of living and concerns over the safety of family members or friends serving in the armed forces.


The author bases much of his analysis of the impact of racing and football on the numbers of people employed therein but provides only very limited data to support his findings.  Just 6 of the 9 V.F.L. Clubs are represented in the 'Status of Employees' in these clubs, and that only for one season, in 1917 - but only 168 men are listed, - of whom 29 were classed as 'medically unfit' and 29 as 'eligible to serve'. Only 18 had enlisted, but 87 were classified as 'married' or as 'Sole Supporters' or 'Only Sons', who were not expected to volunteer. There are no comparable data for other professional or amateur sports organisations. There is no data for Australian Rules clubs in other states. The Rugby clubs are broadly ignored, although there is mention of soccer clubs only in one state – Western Australia, which between 1914 and 1918 had only just over 300,000 people, and few soccer clubs which were more likely to have amateur players. 

Similar data on proprietary racing venues covers only 1914 and 1917, at only three of the many courses owned or managed by John Wren, at Richmond, Fitzroy and Ascot Vale – and show that total employment had fallen from 7,257 to 2,113 – a fall of slightly over 80%. Many of these 1,386 employees may have left to join the armed forces or engaged directly in other work associated with the war effort, but the author provides no information on this.

Little or no mention is made of comparable data from Rugby [League or Union], soccer, cricket, tennis, and golf clubs in Victoria [as most of these had only amateur participants], or many of the larger church-affiliated private schools in all states, except to note that headmasters generally encouraged Old Collegians to volunteer and mourned the many who were lost.

Except for casual mention of cancelled matches and a few minor issues, there is no discussion of support for or disregard of the situation in other states. Tasmania and South Australia do not even appear in the Index, but as their populations were 190 000 and just over 300 000 respectively, it probably didn't impact greatly on the argument that some professional sporting organisations could have contributed more to Australia's support of the Allied cause in 1914-1918, and this appears to be the central argument the author puts forward. 

This book could be construed as an attack on the unpatriotic attitudes of some sporting clubs during World War 1 and focuses on the influence of religious and social class differences, Australian Rules Football, especially in Victoria, and non-Turf Club horse-racing.  However, it goes only lightly over the support many of them gave, in a wide variety of ways, between 1914 and 1918.

Overall, Mr Fowler's book gives an interesting review of an issue that could arise in wartime in many societies, but unfortunately, he provides little supporting data on the contribution to the War Effort by many Australian professional and amateur sporting bodies and clubs.  He also ignores the benefits that might have accrued had there been a close-down of professional sport between 1914 and 1918.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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