It wasn’t all that long ago some people scoffed at the idea of AFL footballers earning money – let alone demanding pay increases – for the privilege of playing at the top level.
In fact, many players would have played for nothing; being happy with a listing in the Encyclopaedia of AFL footballers, their name engraved on the club’s honour roll, or painted on a locker door.
Of course in the old days players at the pinnacle of the sport could indulge themselves. When not smoking and drinking at halftime, they basically ran riot.
Times have changed. Getting onto an AFL list is a significant achievement, as the endless number of kids rejected during each draft period can tell you.
There is the incessant training, obligation to sponsors, greater media coverage and the burden of being a role model to kids barely younger than yourself.
Still, the sight of some of today’s fulltime professionals – smug looking and strutting around in their designer sunglasses – can be a little grating, especially when you consider they are probably unaware of the price paid by others for their elevated financial status.
In 1999, Collingwood legend Len Thompson was forced through financial hardship to sell his 1972 Brownlow Medal for $74,000.
That is the same as a single match payment for Kurt Tippett next season. Tippett and the other stars at the top end of the income spectrum have a lot to thank the late Thompson for.
Two weeks before he died of a heart attack in 2007, he commented, “Maybe ‘Tuddy’ [Des Tuddenham] and I helped these blokes get paid what they do today.”
In 1970, at a time when a players union didn’t exist and the clubs ruled, Thompson lost his position as vice captain for going on strike with the club’s captain, Des Tuddenham, over the relatively exorbitant wages being offered to interstate players.
The club begrudgingly offered the big man $10 extra per game. Four years later, the precursor to the Australian Football League Players’ Association (AFLPA) was created.
Despite the many hiccups in the formative years, when the league twice refused to recognise it, significant advances have been made in the area of player income and general welfare since the first Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of 1990, culminating in the most significant CBA signed off last year.
The important features of the agreement were increases in the average wage, the minimum rookie wage, the retirement fund and injury compensation.
Twelve months on, it’s good to see the Rugby League Players Association using the record TV rights and Telstra digital deals, and the achievements of the AFLPA, to hold firm on claims for an increase in the minimum wage and injury entitlements.
The draft agreement, though, apparently hasn’t made any mention of the latter, which are significantly less than those given to AFL and rugby players.
The AFL union is probably in a stronger position than its rugby league counterpart because the AFL boss is a former player and AFLPA chief executive, and the player benefits have been used by Andrew Demetriou to aggressively promote the game: “[The new CBA] ensures that playing AFL is the number one sporting career for Australia’s most talented athletes.”
To finish, it was interesting to hear Gary Pert, the CEO of Collingwood, hasn’t let his time as a player affect his current role.
In response to criticism from the AFLPA Chief Executive Matt Finnis concerning his comments about the drug culture within the AFL, Pert replied: “I may remind you that officials, CEOs, presidents and boards have done a very good job at looking after the players’ best interests for over 100 years, way before a players association was even thought of.”
In the past clubs did assist players such as providing jobs. More recently, Collingwood on the initiative of Eddie McGuire, paid for a back operation for Thompson, in 2004.
Still, for a former player who was playing at the time of the first collective agreements, such a contemptous remark about the union is extraordinary.