"For the first time in my 25 years involved with this club, I don't want to go to the footy this Sunday. It will take something dramatic for me to front up."
These are not the words those at AFL House want to be reading, but for some of the footy's most rusted-on fans, this week's news of a "please explain" being issued to the Carlton Football Club because members of its cheersquad engaged in the age-old chant of "you are a w------" at an umpire - a little callous, perhaps, but not unprecedented -- is a tipping point.
Considering the recent and hefty fines handed down to Sydney co-skipper Dane Rampe and revitalised Blue Dale Thomas for umpire abuse, it's clear the league is trying to change the culture of the whole industry to become more supportive and less abusive towards umpires, but taking aim at the fans might be where the AFL runs into trouble.
From volunteering hours every week to make banners, to getting to the ground before everyone else and leaving well after other fans have left the stadium, cheersquad members often undertake the thankless task of improving the matchday experience for all football fans. But for some, now being told how to act -- while simultaneously having their own concerns fall on deaf ears -- has hit a nerve.
One frustrated member of the Carlton cheersquad has told ESPN that they believe the AFL is struggling to keep up with greater issues such as fan violence, and similar to the now-sterile active areas of A-League games, AFL venues and the security have adopted a hardline mentality towards cheersquads while ignoring issues in other bays.
"I'm stunned that (the chant) is considered newsworthy, especially while the AFL faces real issues such as player welfare and depression, racist trolls online, a lack of investment in the AFLW competition, and the farcical match review panel system," the member told ESPN.
"Yet here we are being back page news in the two major newspapers in Melbourne, on the news and on multiple radio stations being treated like we robbed a bank."
A spokesperson from the AFL said a notice was sent to Carlton, but primarily regarding the inappropriate use of a drum during play, not about chanting towards the umpire.
They said the AFL maintains that "venues want to create a safe and fun environment for all fans to come and enjoy the footy", and that head office sends fan feedback to every club most weeks, in the interest of limiting antisocial and offensive behaviour.
"The theatre of match day is one of the great sporting experiences, a place to be expressive and passionate about your team and the game, it always has been, it always will be," the AFL told ESPN.
But the cheersquad member said they were not warned about the use of the drum at the ground, and that any reports of a warning "simply did not happen".
The AFL Fans Association is also concerned by the overbearing attitude of the AFL, with association president Gerry Eeman raising concerns about the necessity of telling fans how to behave at the footy.
"Telling fans how to behave is often counterproductive. Many fans resent being told how to behave, so when told to behave in a certain way, they do the exact opposite," Eeman told ESPN.
"Cheersquads are in many ways the beating heart of clubs, they donate so many volunteer hours to their clubs and show up regardless of how badly their team performs. It's really important that their concerns are listened to by their clubs, stadiums and the AFL."
The Carlton cheersquad member said the AFL would be better off investigating antisocial fans who drink too much and incite others in and around the cheersquad's active bays, instead of issuing 'please explain' notices to football clubs about active support.
"[During the same Collingwood game] we had a drunken Collingwood supporter sit in the bay next to us stand up late in the final quarter when the Pies hit the front, threw his half-full beer at the cheersquad, grab his groin and scream [profanities]," the cheersquad member said.
"Security did nothing, in fact, threatened to kick me and another member out for complaining and telling them to do their jobs by removing the drunken fan."
@MCG @AFL another week another game full of drunken abuse being hurled at our Cheersquad from opposition supporters. Security & ground staff have been asked many years in a row to help provide us with a safe place to watch the footy & yet again our complaints fall on deaf ears.— Carlton Cheersquad (@CFCCheersquad) May 11, 2019
According to the member, incidents involving drunk and brash opposition supporters are a "weekly occurrence" that the cheersquad has to deal with without support from the venues, club or AFL.
"Our bay is a dry area where no grog is allowed, and for some reason, at the MCG we get general admission areas planted on either side of us even at home games," they told ESPN.
"These areas encourage binge drinking and as a cheer squad, we're a lightning rod for abuse from these types of fans.
"The AFL have a serious problem with RSA in my opinion as we cop it every week and nothing is ever done about it except lip service."
The Carlton member told ESPN the cheersquad approached the club, AFL and the MCG for further help dealing with unruly opposition supporters near the active bays, but the complaints fell on deaf ears.
🎙️ Should Tom Hawkins have been given a BIGGER suspension? 🤔— footytips (@footytips) September 17, 2019
🎙️ The Lions squandered an opportunity to jag a flag 🧐
🎙️ Should Matt de Boer go to Brodie Grundy? 🤷
Ep. 27 of the @ESPNAusNZ #AFL podcast.
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The Carlton Football Club told ESPN while the AFL did send them a notice about cheersquad behaviour and that the club did meet with their members to pass on the information, there was no requirement of a response to be submitted to the AFL.
The club added that it would continue to work closely with the cheersquad about any grievences fans may have, and that the lines of communication with the cheersquad were constantly open.
Meanwhile a spokesperson from the MCG told ESPN: "We have a commitment to all fans to ensure the MCG is a safe and inclusive place to visit. We have zero tolerance to poor behaviour and continuously work with our many stakeholders to create an enjoyable experience for all."
But according to this fan, some at the Carlton cheersquad are considering scaling back their commitments because of these issues.
"I spent $15,000 on football in 2018 between flights, accommodation, functions, and buying merchandise," the member told ESPN.
"I never miss a game, barely miss an open training session and I help us raise money to sponsor three players and purchase more materials so that we can make matchday a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
"We also liaise with interstate supporter groups to organise pre-match functions and we now see thriving groups in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania with over 100 paid up members in each of those supporter groups. We built that.
"It is ironic that it is National Volunteer Week, and I have to defend our volunteers who continue to work together to make a difference - driven by their shared passion and commitment to the Carlton Football Club."
Similar to the A-League -- which cracked down on active areas, forcing many to abandon the colourful, vibrant environments -- the AFL is turning its attention to providing a suitable matchday experience for a 'broader audience', but in the same breath is risking alienating those who have been walking through the games for more than a century.
The AFL's current idea of a footy utopia is one which seems to go against what has made football great over the last 150 years. The booing of Gary Ablett by Hawthorn fans on Easter Monday was met with a stern response; football operations boss Steve Hocking said he wouldn't hesitate to bring in the AFL's integrity department to investigate.
But the fans -- and in fact cheersquads -- are the lifeblood of this game, and alienating them while more pressing issues such as drunken violence and racism are still so prominent is a bizarre move which was met with an appropriate reaction from the broader football community.