Hey AFL, spare us the Little Britain apologies please

Geoff Parkes Columnist

By , Geoff Parkes is a Roar Expert


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    In the acclaimed Little Britain comedy series there is a recurring skit where various English dignitaries front up to a hungry press pack outside the gates of their homes, and deliver grave apologies for their sexual indiscretions – all with humiliated wife and children standing alongside.

    It’s excruciating enough even when you know it’s fake, which makes the AFL’s recent predilection for the public mea culpa all the harder to stomach; particularly when it is grounded in pompous, twisted logic and gross hypocrisy.

    On Friday it was the turn of AFL Football Operations Manager Simon Lethlean and Commercial Operations General Manager Richard Simkiss to be publicly shamed, Little Britain style, for conducting inappropriate relationships with female co-workers, resulting in them both submitting their resignations.

    The comments of both men are revealing.

    Lethlean: “I have hurt the people who are most important in my life and who I love. They have done nothing to deserve this. I am deeply sorry for all the hurt and embarrassment I have caused.”

    Simkiss: “My actions did not live up to the values of the AFL and is something I am truly sorry for.”

    I have no doubt that Lethlean’s statement is true and his apology contrite. But why was it being made in the public domain? Why was this not a matter for Lethlean, his wife and family to sort out in private?

    Beyond salacious gossip value, what is gained from both men splashing their personal shame all over the media?

    One answer is that these public apologies are reflective of the AFL’s bloated sense of self-importance. In the bubble that is AFL and the deferential Melbourne press, these indiscretions are newsworthy in the same way that Bill Clinton, Silvio Berlusconi and JFK’s similar indiscretions were deemed of national, and international, interest. But outside of that bubble, in the real world?

    As for these actions not living up to the values of the AFL, one can only assume that Simkiss is referencing AFL Chief Gillon McLachlan, who said in response to the resignations; “The AFL that I want to lead is a professional organisation based on integrity, respect, care for each other and responsibility. We are committed to a process of change and I am confident change is being seen and felt throughout our industry.”

    What change is that exactly? Is McLachlan referring to the AFL’s push to embrace women, in increasing numbers, as participants and followers of the game – all entirely admirable – or his he talking about change in the context that the AFL is an employer that will no longer tolerate any of its employees conducting an extra–marital affair? Or is that only its male employees?

    AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    In certain professions there are conventions that must be observed. Doctors cannot form personal relationships with their patients. Teachers and lecturers with their students. Male and female alike.

    In the corporate world there is no such hard line. Many companies have codes of conduct that address this and, while they are essentially unenforceable at law, they at least serve as counsel for people in management positions to think carefully about the implications of any potential action on their part, and how this may affect harmony and performance in the workplace. Of itself, that is no bad thing.

    If the AFL is one of those workplaces, then that is their prerogative, and it is easy to understand why McLachlan would be angry and disappointed at the actions of his senior executives. But at the same time, many people will be thinking of their own workplace, their own circle of friends and acquaintances, and be able to reel off numerous examples of workplace relationships, open and illicit, bosses and co-workers, permanent and fleeting.

    Such is the reality of life.

    Accordingly it seems what we are talking here about is the difference between what actually is society’s norm and what McLachlan’s idealistic view of what the social norm should be.

    Initial reports on ABC Radio on Friday emphasised that both men had been involved in inappropriate relationships with co-workers who were younger than them. The inference was unmissable; here were men in positions of power, preying upon co-workers of lesser status.

    Young women. An interesting emphasis, if not intended to imply that if the women involved were the same age as the men, or older, it would make the situation different, then what exactly?

    There is nothing in any of the public statements to indicate either of the men has failed to perform their duties. Indeed, when questioned on the matter ex-Bulldogs Vice-President Susan Alberti, a leading female figure in the game provided a glowing public reference for the work of Lethlean.

    Neither has any question been raised about their actions involving anything non-consensual or offensive. If there was, then certainly, throw the book at them – hard. Indeed, throw two books at them; one at the head and one you know where.

    Alberti is one of many who praises the McLachlan and the AFL for improving the culture around respect and engagement with women. No reasonable person would deny this as a positive for the game.

    But is this justification for McLachlan and the AFL conducting a moral crusade? Frankly it smacks of over-earnestness, primed by a desire to position the AFL brand squarely where all the optics align with a shop front that is politically correct and socially just.

    Spare me a moment while I try to hose all the hypocrisy away.

    The AFL’s main media partner is the Seven Network, the CEO of which is Tim Worner. The same Tim Worner who has gone through a recent public shaming of his own, seemingly finding it difficult to keep his trousers on when in the company of female co-workers.

    There are some interesting differences between the case of Worner and Lethlean and Simkiss. One is that Worner, a married man, is accused of conducting not one, but no less than four workplace affairs, all with women younger than himself.

    The other difference is that, rather than apologise and resign as Lethlean and Simkiss have done, Worner has dug in. He has powerful allies on his board who have enormous influence and cash reserves. Perhaps he knows too much. Or perhaps that’s just what mates with real power and influence over women can do. Look the other way, lawyer up and ride it out.

    It’s Worner’s prerogative of course, but clearly his actions, and those of his backers on the board of Seven display values which are the polar opposite of those of the AFL as espoused by McLachlan.

    In the public view, McLachlan’s social justice crusade is in full swing, Lethlean and Simkiss collateral damage for slipping below the standards required.

    Out of public view however, McLachlan counts Seven’s money. Every moral crusade it seems, has its boundaries.

    Picture McLachlan behind a computer at his desk, tapping away until he is interrupted by a woman who queries him as to the inconsistency in applying certain standards on one hand, and tacitly condoning the opposite on the other.

    “Will the AFL be reviewing its relationship with the Seven Network and either demanding the resignation of its Chief Executive, or withdrawing from its commercial arrangement with Seven because of a profound clash of values?”

    McLachlan, glances at his monitor, before looking back at his questioner. “Computer says no.”

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy is due for release in November. Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.

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