AFL players can’t win PR battle on pay rise

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Gold Coast's Gary Ablett with the ball during the AFL Round 06 match between the Essendon Bombers and the Gold Coast Suns at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne. Slattery Images

Gold Coast's Gary Ablett with the ball during the AFL Round 06 match between the Essendon Bombers and the Gold Coast Suns at Etihad Stadium, Melbourne. Slattery Images

AFL players do a lot of work, but would have you believe that they are not paid well enough for their efforts. Sounds like a hard sell? I thought so too.

The AFL Players Association (AFLPA) faces the mother of all public relations battles as it tries to agitate for an increase in player payments from an already lofty base without disenfranchising the public.

AFL players earn on average $180,000 each per year, which is roughly three times what many of their peers of a similar age earn in the general workforce.

Despite this, the players have reasonable claims that this amount should increase to reflect the growth in the AFL over the past decade.

The battle to win the hearts and minds of the public will be a difficult one, as the AFLPA attempts to overcome a host of stereotypes and expectations the public holds of what constitutes fair and reasonable pay.

Much has been made of the significant increase in earnings of Andrew Demetriou during his tenure as AFL CEO.

Demetriou’s pay increase has been proportionally far higher than what the players are seeking, both in percentage and absolute terms.

Yet the significant rise in his earnings has not seemed to bother the football public half as much as the AFLPA might have hoped, and the reason for this seems clear.

Middle aged men in suits with titles like ‘CEO’ are expected to earn big money.

We are conditioned to believe that large salaries with even larger bonuses are commonplace in business, and Demetriou’s income – while stratospheric by comparison with the average wage – seems reasonable when compared to his peers in the business world.

We expect Demetriou to earn mega-bucks as the number one man at the AFL.

On the other hand, twenty-something men who kick around an inflatable ball on the weekend aren’t meant to complain about earning close to $200,000 per year.

We question their suggestion that this significant sum of money is not sufficient pay for a task that many of us do on the weekend purely for the love of the sport.

The greatest challenge for the AFLPA is to try and convince the public that 20 year olds earning $200,000 are not being greedy by seeking a pay rise.

The problem the players face is made more complex by the prism through which we view our professional sportsmen and women, and more broadly how we relate to them.

In Australia, we believe our sports stars should possess an everyman quality. They are more talented and more athletic than those of us who sit in the crowd, yet we want to identify with each one of them as still being one of us.

We want our sports stars to be our better selves, but still fundamentally ourselves.

Our sports stars must have an everyman quality – think Pat Rafter’s bloke-next-door likeability or Shane Warne’s larrikinism.

Any signs of extravagance or opulence are harshly criticised or are accompanied by circumspection from the public – just ask Michael Clarke.

In turn, Australia’s professional sportspeople are quick to identify as “just an ordinary bloke” if the suggestion is made that they have strayed too far from the norm or that success has gone to their heads.

How we view and relate to our professional sportspeople contrasts sharply with the different realm that sports stars in the USA appear to occupy.

In America, sports stars exist in an otherworldly state. They are the demigods of American society – some higher ideal, and not the viewer’s better selves.

American sports stars are only too happy to draw distinctions between themselves and the rest of the American public. They have minders and employ others to deal with the everyday mundane tasks of life on their behalf.

They wear flashy jewellery, talk about themselves in the third person, and the suggestion that they are just “ordinary Americans” would likely be accompanied by a raised eyebrow and quizzical look.

The idea that US sports stars should earn multi-million dollar salaries doesn’t seem to rankle as much as the demands of the AFL players, for US sportspeople seem to be a cohort of individuals entirely separate from the greater American public, and are therefore judged by different rules.

Society views them through a different prism.

Australian culture does not allow for such a distinction.

When the AFL players gathered at Melbourne’s Crown Casino to discuss their pay negotiations recently they were accompanied by mates, not minders.

They wore beanies and baseball caps, not bling.

This was a collection of young men largely unremarkable except for their ability to play football.

Were any of these men to identify themselves as being somehow better or different to the general population, they would be greeted with a host of uncharitable labels, ‘wanker’ foremost among them.

And herein lays the difficulty for the AFL players. How does this group of ‘everymen’ win the PR battle with the AFL, and convince the public that they deserve more than three times the average wage as they currently earn?

Maybe they could ask Demetriou for some tips.

Follow Michael on Twitter @michaelfilosi

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