Although millions of words have been written over the past four years about Essendon and James Hird, very few have alluded to what is a very simple truth.
With the staggering television rights deals we now have in place, our beloved footy has become a huge business. While we understand why this has happened, it is easy to forget sometimes why businesses exist and how they operate.
The AFL as a corporation has grown massively in a relatively short period of time. Through the salary cap and the draft, it has created a situation where teams are less likely (in theory) to dominate for long periods of time and have a more realistic chance of short-term success than ever before.
Which, in turn, creates higher expectations from team supporters.
In any competitive environment, everyone is looking for an edge. So with teams becoming more evenly matched, it’s the one percenters that might put one ahead of the rest. More than ever before, clubs need to be creative, but are working on a far more even playing field.
Our game is built on courage, skills, endurance and strength. While courage can’t be taught, the other three can all be improved with knowledge and science. Players are often selected on body types which can be manipulated and improved to fill a role. Like test pilots, coaches will push the envelope with the aim of getting a player’s performance to its maximum level without breaking. Like test pilots, sometimes they push too far.
History shows us that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches. James Hird was a courageous, skilful footballer who was thrust into a role with no previous experience but huge expectation. I don’t think for a moment he believed his players were being injected with anything illegal. But in his passionate desire to succeed, he clearly placed too much faith in those he shouldn’t have.
Hird has admitted he should have asked more questions. But his biggest problem throughout the whole saga was that he failed to realise he was operating within a business environment.
He damaged the AFL brand, so the AFL needed a head on a platter. He damaged the Essendon brand and while Essendon showed support, they ultimately also made a business decision that while he was there they couldn’t move forward. It wasn’t personal, it was just business.
Australians are familiar with the Azaria Chamberlain dingo story. In an interview in 2014, Michael Chamberlain, who had also endured years of personal attacks and vitriol from the public and media, made the following statement:
“We had lived by the credo that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. It was dead wrong.”
I’m sure that’s what Hird thought too.
But the simple truth is that we live in a world driven by success and dollars. Which creates pressure. Which can lead to mistakes, especially for the inexperienced. The football world is part of that. When there is failure, there will be blame, which means casualties.
The world is full of James Hirds. Many are people who find their lives have changed forever due to technology, an accident, an error of judgement or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But we don’t generally hear about them.
But when a person with a young family who was so revered and had so much of what we call ‘success’ finds himself in a situation where he is prepared to take his own life at 43, maybe that’s a bigger picture we should be talking about.