Inside AFL's pressure cooker

03 Aug, 2013 03:00 AM
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis.

Jude Donnelly came from working for a minister in the Howard government to being media manager at Richmond and an adviser to the AFL before returning to Canberra to work in Tony Abbott's office.

I once asked her: "Where is there more pressure - in the footy/AFL world in Melbourne or in Canberra politics?" She thought there was more pressure in the footy/AFL.

''In Melbourne, football is not simply confined to the back page of the paper or the sports section tacked on the end of the nightly news,'' she said.

''More often than not it dominates the front page, leads news bulletins and therefore sets the agenda for the news cycle. The line between sport and news are blurred more in Victoria than in any other state."

This, frankly, is weird. In Canberra, they discuss serious things such as wars and sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea. In Melbourne, we're talking, for the most part, about a game. Occasionally, the stakes are higher than that and the issue of drugs in sport is a case in point. But, even if Essendon was not mired in that issue, we would be dealing with some other matter being played out by sections of the media in terms of high drama.

As a fisherman on the Snowy River said to me some years ago: "Footy's two games now. One's played on the field, the other's played in the media."

I was told the other day that the two things holding up in terms of television ratings right now are sport and reality TV shows. AFL football in Melbourne is both. It's sport - at best, absorbingly good sport - and it's a reality TV show with people being voted off the island with increasing regularity.

Australian football is not American football in that we don't have owners running the clubs for personal profit. We have presidents and boards. Not only do they not get paid, they often are required to put their own money into the club. Lots of it. This year, for the first time I can recall, two presidents have resigned - Melbourne's Don McLardy and Essendon's David Evans - because of pressures associated with the office.

Both are well regarded men. Both were serving their clubs for the best of reasons. McLardy was delivering on an undertaking he made to his dying mate, Melbourne's previous president Jimmy Stynes. Evans was the son of a former Essendon president who had also played for the club and later became the AFL's chief commissioner. It was clear, in both cases, that their families and their businesses had paid a price for their commitment to the game.

Both cases were incredibly poignant. Most presidents are first and foremost fans. It seems corny to say but they love their clubs and often put their money where their mouths are. Their reward - as in the case of McLardy and his board - is to have their integrity and competence publicly questioned, and on a regular basis, depending on what other footy news story is running at the time.

There are as many accredited journalists covering AFL football as there are players. The ratio of footy journalists to journalists covering Canberra politics is about four to one. An interesting question is: If the Essendon drugs story was not running, who would be in the gun right now? Because someone would be. Probably Melbourne - again - with its 20-goal loss to North Melbourne last weekend and Jack Watts not wanting to re-sign until he's met the new coach.

Last weekend was described as a poor few days for footy, but there was some good news. Cheeringly good, in fact. The Western Bulldogs won! Is there anything better in footy than seeing a team that's been down start to rise back up and to see its young players coming on in leaps and bounds.

I was particularly pleased for Bulldogs president Peter Gordon, who was previously president of the club from 1989 to 1996. Basically, Gordon is the reason there is still a team playing in the AFL wearing the red, white and blue colours.

In 1989, the AFL had consigned the Dogs to semi-oblivion by railroading them into a merger with Fitzroy. Gordon orchestrated the campaign that won the Dogs the right to stay in the competition.

Gordon stood down in 1996 and was replaced by the able David Smorgon, who once remarked wryly of his presidency: "Either people think I'm doing a good job or no one else wants to do it - but I never get challenged." He finished last year and Gordon has once more shouldered the load of carrying the struggling club.

Earlier this year, I did an interview with Richmond's Daniel Jackson. Like the Bulldogs' Robert Murphy, Jackson is a free and independent thinker. He said AFL football was forcing players to adopt an ever more narrow lifestyle while simultaneously committing to the sport with greater intensity and being subjected to greater scrutiny.

He said there was an increasing incidence of depression among AFL players. It was getting to the point, he thought, where players were starting to ask themselves, "Why am I doing this?" The same could shortly be true of club presidents and board members.



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Pleased that common sense has prevailed. Being close to the policy makers cannot be underestimated
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JohnCarpenter, The lamb and mutton job is going okay- we must be doing some things right.
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Spot on X. Let the Chinese buy as long as we can buy freely in China