Free agency brings out the paranoid and the feral
Carlton and Collingwood - old rivals face off with new spice added.
Paul Roos called it a “sad day”. A mourning journalist noted: “It was the day our culture, built on loyalty and hope, took a major shift”. For a moment I thought Lou Richards or democracy had died.
But no, nothing so dramatic – despite the angst. Just the beginning of free agency.
If anything the day was a positive one for democratic principles, giving players some freedom of choice in the despotic world of the AFL.
From day one, the draft camp grades potential recruits like chicks in a hatchery. If they survive that process, they enter the draft with a number hanging around their neck waiting for their name to be called.
Their club is decided for them and the better the player the worse the destination.
An argument often given against free agency is that having players shop themselves around like prostitutes destroys the family culture of football clubs. Football clubs as families – unconditionally loyal, loving, and protective - is a noble but false sentiment.
Nothing is said about loyalty when clubs publish the sad catalogue of delisted players at the season’s end.
If loyalty means sticking by someone at your cost, then football clubs are never loyal. They pick teams to win matches.
If they select a player who lacks talent but works harder than his more gifted teammates his inclusion is based on the contribution he can make to their success, not as a reward for his work ethic.
If the ageing body of a club champion shows signs of pulling the team down he is hurled out into the cold bleak wilderness like a hoary Eskimo elder (apparently the Eskimos don’t actually do this do but I’ll leave it in).
Free agency doesn’t only provide players with an opportunity to be disloyal.
When Collingwood signed free agent Quinten Lynch on Tuesday the football manager Geoff Walsh said: “Another strong-bodied marking target up forward will really suit the Collingwood game and Quinten can also play in the ruck. And we know very well how valuable a player is who can play those two roles”.
Yes, the importance of a strong bodied forward who can also ruck was the reason Chris Dawes still had two years on his contract but recently he hasn’t been able to mark, kick, or get a tap out to save himself from being replaced immediately.
As if trying to rub salt into Dawes’ wounds, Walsh concluded with: “We’re extremely happy to have Quinten with us”.
With all the moaning from commentators you’d think free agency was an NRL or EPL player agent – pimp fest rather than the small window of belated freedom that it really is.
You need to have spent an entire eight years at a club you may not have wanted to go to in the first place before you can entertain the possibility of getting the hell out. And if you’re in the top 25% of money earners you can only go if the club decides not to match rival offers.
As the NRL deals with the image of fans burning the flags of their Grand Final conquerors, the AFL is facing the feral response to free agency by some of its supporters. Departing players have been offered such sentiments as: “Hope you break both legs or at least an ACL”, or threatened with: “I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
The latter – a quote from a CIA operative played by Liam Neeson in the film Taken – was aimed at Kurt Tippett (who is leaving Adelaide but not under free agency) and was apparently intended to be a joke. I must admit that imagining Neeson, who usually plays a lovelorn pain in the arse in a turtleneck jumper, talking like an assassin is funny.
The sender has stopped laughing though since the AFLPA referred it to the police.
Many fans of course have an emotional connection to their team and get upset when a player chooses to leave. They should realise that certain family members – black sheep if you like – just don’t fit in. It’s nothing personal and for the benefit of everyone they should be allowed to move on.
No one would accept such strict conditions of loyalty in their place of work. There is probably some resentment when an elite footballer has the temerity to show he’s not happy with his lot.
Some are paid highly and do receive the sort of acclaim and glory denied to the average working person but life for these modern-day gladiators is relatively short, and crippling: “That fat git over there with the limp…didn’t he play for Collingwood?”
The only reminders many of them will have of their playing days are a set of football cards and a listing in the Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers.
Everyone should settle down. Players can’t choose their first club. We can at least allow them to choose their last.