Desperate AFL clubs turn to the dark side
Shaun McKernan applying pressure for the Crows (Slattery Images)
There are two things that clubs just can’t do in the shamelessly controlled environment that is the AFL. One is to pay players more than what the salary cap allows.
The other is to gain draft access to players you are not entitled to by deliberately losing games.
Fans, players and sponsors are presented with a world where, in theory, every team has a chance of winning the premiership.
Once a club steps outside of these boundaries, it becomes a full-blown assault on the very fabric of the competition.
If it is proven that Adelaide and Melbourne have chosen to circumvent the rules and cheated the system – by rorting the salary cap and tanking respectively – then they deserve to have the book thrown at them.
What drove them to do so? From this perspective, they were both more tragic hero than greedy villain.
For the Crows, it was only one player that was paid outside of the cap. One of the best key-position players in the competition, sure, but he wasn’t perfect.
This was not systematic skirting of the salary cap laws. This was a once-off. Adelaide was not ready to lose Kurt Tippett, a player they had invested significantly in, as an uncontracted player to the Gold Coast, his hometown, for nothing.
So he signed a contract for another three years in 2009. At the same time, he entered a clandestine agreement with an ‘exit clause’ and a shadowy, undeclared side-payment.
One player is never worth that much trouble.
The Demons also did a deal with the devil in the very same year. They opted for a shortcut to the top and decided rebuilding meant hoarding promising young players, not bricks-and-mortar hard work.
Melbourne may as well have torn their own heart out. But if it turns out that this coaching staff meeting in “the vault” really happened, and that the Dees only planned to win four games in the 2009 season, then AFL House will do it for them.
Few competitions in world sport put such a value on fairness as the AFL does. It is key to the sustained success of the league.
Take away the light at the end of the tunnel for the average fan, and replace it with a situation like in the Premier League, where only a handful of teams can realistically win the title.
All of a sudden, the AFL loses its romance and becomes a different consideration altogether.
Sponsors part with such huge amounts of money to be a part of this utopian vision of equality. Television networks pay millions because of the spectacle – because anyone can supposedly win.
This system is reliant certain rules and structures, like the salary cap and the draft, which aim to stop clubs from becoming either too good, or too bad.
There are only so many elite players you are allowed keep on your books. The salary cap dictates this.
Adelaide had no right to keep Tippett in the tricolours if it took an undeclared six-figure sum outside of the salary cap – which was hidden from the AFL – to convince him to sign a new contract. This is cheating.
If the payment could have been made under the salary cap, but wasn’t, then those in charge are fools of the highest order for getting themselves into this mess.
Take this possibility off the table and the seemingly money-hungry ruckman-forward would have almost certainly looked to move elsewhere in 2009 – maybe to the Suns, maybe to another club – instead of staying put.
By the same token, if a shortage of elite players manifests itself into a poor season with few wins, you get the pick of the bunch in the national draft. There used to be the priority pick, too.
But if you manufacture a poor season then you deserve to be thrown out of sport altogether.
There will be debate about what tanking actually means, or whether the AFL was asking for this by rewarding mediocrity with talented teenagers, but it’s all rubbish.
In sport, you know the moment you cross over to the dark side, and when you do, it is fraught with danger.
If there is one thing to take from a week that has torn away at the very integrity of the AFL model, it’s that what might seem like a fast track to success at first will almost certainly end up a highway to hell.
Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard that is the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. He is a Port Adelaide fan by birth, as painful as that has been recently. He's now sports editor of The Area News in Griffith, NSW.
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