Australian Rules Idol

By Eliza Sewell
The Age
May 05, 2010
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Forget the Brownlow, the toughest club to join in football is that of the cult figures.

Being a plain old hero is comparatively easy and players are used to adulation. But how many are true cult heroes? Not as many as have already been given the tag in the sports pages of the daily newspapers this year, that’s for sure.

Jason Akermanis seems to want to be known as one, what with bleached hair and dyed beard, the now-defunct handstands and his sometimes peculiar views.

But is he? Really? Gaz doesn’t cut it he’s too good and we know Dayne Beams has an arm full of ink, but so what?

Definitions of “cult figure” vary widely, but in general it’s someone who has strong appeal whose reputation doesn’t correlate with their level of success. And in some cases, a cult figure is an unusual person with limited appeal.

Associate professor of sports studies at Victoria University, Bob Stewart, names Sydney’s Buddhism follower Brett Kirk and maligned Western Bulldogs ruckman Will Minson as players who fit the cult category.

“I think players who are all over the place, they have strengths and severe weakness, can be cult figures,” Stewart said. “Someone who has another dimension to their personality that comes through.

“These people are not your stereotypical footballers. The cult figure is maybe underrated but also has an idiosyncratic feature.”

Stewart’s colleague, Dr Matthew Klugman, reckons bearded Bulldog Ben Hudson, Geelong free spirit Max Rooke and tweeter extraordinaire Harry O’Brien could fit the bill.

“It’s the fact that he’s (Hudson) got this beard and then all these people come to celebrate it (the Ben Hudson Beard Appreciation Society),” Klugman said.

“He’s not a classically skilled player but he adds all these things to the team, they love his hardness and they love the beard.

“There’s something unlikely about these people I think cult figures tend to be unfashionable. There’s something that can be celebrated about them they’re much more human than the superstars.”

The University of Melbourne’s Dr Lauren Rosewarne struggles to see how any AFL player could rightly be called a cult figure.

Rosewarne says former Melbourne Lord Mayor John So with his idiosyncratic use of the English language is the perfect example of a cult figure.

But she acknowledges West Coast ruckman Nic Naitanui is thereabouts.

“A cult following generally are people who embrace a product that hasn’t yet become mainstream,” Rosewarne told mX.

“This guy Naitanui, that does seem the kind of behaviour you actually could attribute cult to.

“You would have seen this on reality TV, where a person who’s maybe not conventionally attractive or there’s something weird about them and they get a bit of a following because they’re a bit unusual.”

Stewart said modern football doesn’t allow for as many cult figures as the old days.

“Because of the way players are today, they are shaped in a particular mould,” Stewart said. “Suddenly players think, act, play and behave the same. There’s not as much room for cult figures because of the regimentation. They’re not to be eccentric or individualistic.”

But he said fans would continue to look for them, attempt to create them.

“A lot of fans like to see the game differently they’ll seek out a cult figure as a way of differentiating their fandom from someone else’s.”

Dr Binoy Kampmark, a lecturer in law and society at RMIT, said people often confused admiration for a cult following and that talent alone was not enough.

“There’s an image about the football player that the sole criteria of greatness is strictly that they are a sporting genius. People then make the mistake of drawing from that that they can do anything else or that they’re indicative of something more than they are,” Kampmark said.

“This is the problem with these (so-called) cult figures; with some exceptions, their talent is purely that of sport and nothing else, that’s what they’re judged on and that’s what people worship them on.”

Overseas is where true sporting cult figures could be found, he said.

“I don’t know about Australian players, whether there’s a phenomenon like there is in European football and those in South America, where societies raise their players to a certain standing that makes them mythical, almost political subjects it’s remarkable,” he said.

“But I don’t see that here. I think you would find the term is bandied about and Australian footballers are generally considered cult figures … but I think the criteria there is they would have to be more, they’d have to be figures beyond that.

“You will find something more has to be there to convert the otherwise talented AFL player to a cult figure, and it certainly takes more than just appending things to your arms and body.”

And as for Akermanis?

“I’d say that puts it rather well, many are figures in search of a cult,” Kampmark said. Do you follow?
Players (and one umpire) labelled cult figures or heroes by the footy press this year.