Tom Bugg is our non-football football star

There is a mural of Tom Bugg in a Melbourne laneway. Or there was. It began its disintegration practically as soon as it was created. The photo announcing its existence already exhibited newer layers of graffiti covering its edges. Almost a week later, the mural might not exist at all.

Tom Bugg is a mildly famous player for the Melbourne Football Club. He is only mildly famous, not famous-famous because he remains in the middle tier of footballing talent. In five previous seasons of football, he has polled one Brownlow vote- hardly a game-changer. Admittedly, Bugg has been better this year, but he is substantially more famous for non-football football acts. Tom Bugg plays a role in his team that is difficult to define. Bugg is an agitator, an instigator, a provocateur.

A supercut of Bugg’s all time highlights probably won’t feature a football at all. They will include (1) starting a melee between Melbourne and Richmond (2) mocking the opposition cheer squad after kicking a goal (3) deliberately pushing an injured player into a physiotherapist as he was being helped off the ground. Bugg is a professional pest.

Bugg has recently taken his brand of mischief-making online. Two weeks ago, he posted an Instagram story taunting opposition player Jason Johannisen before an upcoming game. Johannisen, a lethal running player for the Bulldogs, has been targeted heavily this year to limit his influence off half-back. It’s worth noting that these efforts have been exclusively physical thus far.

Melbourne crushed the Bulldogs by 57 points, an unexpected victory. The actual facts muddy the narrative somewhat. Whilst Bugg had a good game, he never actually played on Johannisen. Melbourne’s Jake Melksham tagged Johannisen for most of the game. Johannisen himself had been out-of-form with the stress of a contract year and another poor game couldn’t realistically be attributed to an Instagram post. As it stands, the dubious sorta-story was that Tom Bugg won the mental battle. And now there is a giant mural of Tom Bugg somewhere. Tom Bugg, Melbourne’s 15th best player.

Certainly part of the equation is Melbourne’s convoluted relationship with irony. The ongoing conversation about avocados and personal finance alone is indecipherable. In Melbourne, I’m never sure if I’m eating an avocado ironically, politically or literally. Similarly, the appreciation of Bugg is almost certainly tongue-in-cheek, a love for the disruptive pest. But it is also about our love for our love of pests. Melbourne loves irony, almost as much as we love congratulating ourselves for appreciating it. Or something like that. I told you about the avocados, right?

The mural of Bugg has taken a few by surprise. It shouldn’t. The AFL as a cultural product has expanded to more than just a discussion about good football and good footballers. The AFL now boasts a large-enough presence to accomodate more conversations. Conversations about players like Tom Bugg, players who are stars without being star footballers. It’s obviously more palatable if players like Bugg had more talent, but that’s not how talent works. In life, we’re used to having to justify your personality with ability. In this way the AFL is aspirational. In the modern AFL, your only sin is to have a lack of both.

Port Adelaide has rising star Sam Powell-Pepper whose football is matched by his proclivity to choke-slam dudes. Brisbane has firebrand Rhys Mathieson trading mimed rifle shots with the opposition. The Bulldogs have randomist Tom Liberatore whose off-season playing ruck for Macau is equal parts art project and fever dream. They may not be be part of the football elite, but the excitement they bring to the game is real. These are the new stars of the AFL on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These are our Personality All-Australians.

It’s hard to manufacture something like that. Watching Brendon Goddard graft the tired Salt Bae meme onto the league’s most humourless persona is an uncomfortable experience. Personality is a gift.

The mural of Tom Bugg on Hosier Lane may not exist for long, but pictures of it have been shared on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. It’s probably more accurate to say that there is a mural of Tom Bugg on the internet. It’s appropriate too. The internet is the one true medium for a player like Tom Bugg, a non-football football star.