MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian Football League (AFL) boss Gillon McLachlan has apologised to fans after a huge backlash against a security crackdown at recent games which has seen spectators warned by stadium staff for barracking too loud.
Security has been in the spotlight in the Australian Rules top flight following a number of violent incidents in match-day crowds but fans and pundits have condemned the league for its response.
Melbourne’s Docklands stadium, which is owned by the AFL, employed “behavioural awareness officers” to patrol the terraces during matches over the weekend, prompting pundits to describe them as “thought police”.
One fan was ejected from a match for yelling at an umpire last week, while others have reported being told to “calm down” for being “too loud” in their cheering.
AFL CEO McLachlan said he was “appalled” at the situation and that the governing body would take action.
“I apologise if the people who go along to the football to have a day out feel that they haven’t been able to do that,” he told reporters at a media conference in Melbourne on Tuesday.
“They feel that security in some way is impinging on them and they feel they actually are not able to be themselves.
“It’s devastating to think that our fans think something has changed to limit their enjoyment at the footy.
“I want to make this really clear: Nobody at the AFL is trying to stop our crowds being passionate, or fans barracking. No one.”
McLachlan met with Docklands stadium chief Michael Green on Monday regarding the issue, which has dominated social media and talkback radio.
Green on Sunday told a local radio station that the stadium would scale back patrols of its behavioural awareness officers.
McLachlan said the behavioural staff needed to be stood down.
“My personal view is they’re not right and they should go. That’s part of the discussions we can have with our venues,” he said.
Indigenous football code Australian Rules is hugely popular in the country’s southern states and AFL games often draw crowds of over 70,000.
Jeff Kennett, former premier of Victoria state and club president of AFL Hawthorn Hawks, was among the biggest critics of the security clampdown but also raised eyebrows on Monday by saying the stadium staff appeared to be ‘new arrivals’ to Australia and ill-equipped to police crowd behaviour.
Kennett stood by his comments in a radio interview on Tuesday but later posted an apology on social media after a phone call with McLachlan.
“I expressed my regret at using some of the words I did and apologise for doing so,” he wrote on Twitter.
McLachlan said Kennett was out of line.
“If you call out someone based on their appearance and not their ability, you are racially stereotyping and I’ve told Jeff that,” said McLachlan.
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by xx