The competency of AFL clubs in nurturing players has been put under scrutiny by one player's mother. Faced with accusations of putting their interests ahead of the young men plucked from obscurity, club and union officials have hit back. But is the debate denying the players' own culpability, and what responsibility should the wider community shoulder?
In light of the recent player betting scandal unfolding across the AFL, Yvonne Hale (mother of noted punter David Hale) has spoken out to The Age. Respected footy journalist Caroline Wilson has kicked off a debate about the "malaise" affecting many AFL players with too much "down-time". While such a spirited defence of her son is to be expected, we shouldn't be under any illusions that clubs - as self-interested businesses - are poorly placed to act in locus parentis.
Yvonnne Hale's specific complaints about the clubs' behaviour are no doubt well-founded:
She said her son was not a problem gambler but had been "hung out to dry", the victim of a gambling and game-boy culture, despite being assured by the Kangaroos five years ago that the club would develop her son's off-field education and skills.
She said no one from the club had told her when Hale dropped out of his university course after one semester because second semester exams clashed with the Kangaroos' end-of-season trip.
"I am distraught that my beautiful, loyal, loving and trustworthy son has been portrayed as a criminal," Yvonne said.
" . . . The president of his football club has stated that they are 'disappointed' with my son. Well, let me tell you that I am very disappointed in a club that promised me so much when they 'kidnapped' my son at the tender age of 17-and-a-half, just out of year 12."
Yvonne said that many mothers of young footballers agreed with her but would not publicly expose the social problems associated with the AFL system for fear of retribution.
"Most mothers feel if they speak up or speak out about the system, they're jeopardising their sons' careers," she said.
"It was said by the club's recruiting officer that the young boys would be either working or furthering their education. This is so, so far from the actual truth. The boys instead spend endless hours doing nothing productive at all.
"They obviously soon learn the fun of betting on the horses and anything else that will give them a bit of a rush and help fill in the endless down time hours that an AFL recruit is exposed to." (Realfooty, 21/2/2007)
Here at The Speccy, we've written extensively about the psychological dangers of "Playstation Syndrome", the appalling state of AFL player education and development and the broader issue of just paying them too damn much for doing too damn little. These pages chronicle several dozen incidents in the past couple of years involving some scandal, criminality or both arising from these systemic problems.
With AFL players in court every other week, it can hardly be a shock to AFL mothers that AFL culture is corrosive. What, then, is to be made of parents who sign over their teenaged boys (under 18) to the clubs? Surely, it must be apparent that the promises and razzle-dazzle offered by the clubs is pure lip-service? Like that from former Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide coach, Peter Rohde (supposedly one of the best in the business in terms of looking after his players' wider interests):
During his tenure as coach of the Bulldogs, from mid-season 2002 to 2004 inclusive, he ordered his entire senior list to find jobs or enrol in courses, and any player failing to do so faced the match committee for disciplinary action.
He said it was a policy at Port Adelaide, and almost certainly at every other club, that players do their best to be employed or enrolled in a course of some kind.
"It's about thinking about something other than football in their spare time," Rohde said. "It is too easy for players to become addicted to PlayStations, and in some cases gambling.
"Some have nothing to do, and it is important for the players to be guided in the right direction.
"At Port Adelaide we try to guide the players as much as possible to help them use their idle time well, and prepare them for the workforce.
"The player also has to face the responsibility that there is life other than football.
"We believe at Port that it is not only our role to prepare young men for AFL football, but our responsibility to help give them their best chance in life.
"It is not easy for the clubs. We each take young players, some from interstate, and we consider their wellbeing outside of football is of paramount importance.
"It is important for their parents to know that. At the end of the day the responsibility rests with the players, and at Port we work hard to educate them to make the right choices." (Realfooty, 22/2/07)
So, what do we get for all these platitudes and bland motherhood statements? Where are the results? Did Dean Brogan graduate from these touchy-feely programs? This kind of rhetoric is all about fiddling at the edges while maintaining a steady stream of fresh meat into the clubs. If the clubs were serious, we'd see these expectations about off-field behaviours translate into on-field selection. Of course, that will never happen. Instead, we get more blather like this from Brendan Gale (chief shop steward for the players' union):
AFL players receive unprecedented levels of public support and they acknowledge that with public support, higher standards of behaviour are expected and a responsibility to act professionally.
There are few more accountable positions in Australia than that of AFL footballer. Pick up a newspaper and you're likely to read a story placing a footballer under intense scrutiny. Put in a bad game, whack. Make a minor error of judgement, whack. Nothing is off limits or deemed as too minor to not be worthy of comment and analysis. AFL football is a demanding, full-time, professional sport.
Last year 83 per cent of all players were either studying full or part-time at university or for professional qualifications, studying full or part-time at TAFE, or involved in a business or involved in part-time employment. All of this in addition to their full-time role as a professional footballer. (Realfooty, 22/2/2007)
Brendan, there's constantly AFL footy players in the papers getting scrutinised because many are heavily involved in criminality, including serious matters like bashings, drink-driving, rapes and drug abuse. Hell, what does it say when we see nine scandals over the Christmas period and Collingwood alone has four players in court in one month! Is this "scrutiny" really caused by them being AFL players? Or is it their (collectively) atrocious behaviour? I'd argue that the AFL instills attitudes and provides opportunities for criminality. Absent a properly functioning criminal justice system, bad press is the only (albeit weak) check on their behaviour.
At least Gale admits that around one in five players is barely "working" (ie training) for a just a couple of days a week (with several months a year off), without any outside commitments. When you couple this with the realisation that the other four players may just be enrolled in pointless, time-wasting, tailor-made short-courses (personal grooming for media 101) or artificial promotional jobs (signing footies for the kids), the extent of the problem becomes obvious. C'mon, Brendan, how many players are employed in real (non-footy but paying) jobs or undertaking serious (accredited) study? The fact the Hale's club scheduled their footy trip during uni exams speaks volumes.
Disturbingly, the AFL Players Association's own figures show the magnitude of the "chew 'em up, spit 'em out" mentality:
But football is fickle; according to the AFL players' association, the average career is only 43 games, and the chances of any one player reaching 50 games is just 29.3 per cent.
Only 14.8 per cent of players make it to 100 games and 6.8 per cent to 150, 2.7 per cent of drafted players will reach 200 games, while only one in every hundred draftees will play 250. Only 0.4 per cent of players ever reach the magical 300-game figure. (The Age, 23/2/2007)
But should we save all of our ire for the clubs that use up human beings like this? After all, parents and players must be going into it with eyes open. They must realise that for all the talk of opportunity, empowerment, development, tools etc that the bulk of footballers make lifelong sacrifices to their personal, social and economic development for the sake of a couple of seasons of professional football. A record high score on Medal of Honor and an intimate knowledge of the racing form will not prepare these young adults for a life outside footy.
I'd argue that, much like with politicians, we get the footballers we deserve. By and large, we're happy to put up with the fallout on society resulting from the toxic mix of commercial interests and tribalism that permeates the game. Parents are happy to see their sons offered up to feed the machine for a year or two. If we made our support of the clubs conditional on better behaviour, we'd get it. But until clubs stop fielding violent and lawless players (who happen to be good), we'll see the current low standards continue to spiral downwards.
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