In 2019 the AFL saw an unpredecented phenomenon. After only a single coaching sacking in the previous two seasons, four coaches left their clubs mid-year, three replaced by caretakers who would eventually be promoted to the ongoing position.
The St Kilda Saints visit to NFL team the Denver Broncos last week has brought up the inevitable comparisons between the two leagues they hail from.
And justifiably so as allowing an American approach to how we conduct ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather a necessary means of expanding the game like the AFL so desires.
Whilst the Saints meeting with the Denver Broncos and speaking of their admiration of their strength and conditioning facilities is all well and good, the truth is that the facilities of American franchises aren’t what have seen the explosion of popularity of the NFL in America, it is the transparency that the game offers between player and supporter.
The very weight rooms, recovery chambers and indoor training grounds that proved awe-inspiring for the St Kilda players are the by-product of the NFL’s bold step to allow the players to be the stars of the league on a 24/7 basis, not just when the game is being played.
Evidently, I have always remained quite vocal and have reached a tipping point in that it is now a situation I feel the need to voice my opinion on.
These thoughts began to bubble again whilst I was watching an episode of First Take, a debate program on ESPN between respected US sports journalists Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.
This particular episodes guest debater was former six-time NFL pro-bowl receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals and current free agent Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson.
Despite his impressive resume, Chad has undergone a tumultuous couple of months as he was released from the Miami Dolphins on national television after a domestic abuse altercation with his wife of five weeks, reality television star, Evelyn Lozada.
I highly encourage anyone to find this particular episode as what followed the introduction of Chad Johnson was highly enthralling television, something that cannot be said often of sports analysis unfortunately.
The questions that were asked were brutal, shocking and yet met with the highest regard of respect from the very man being asked.
The most poignant moment of the program for me personally, came after Johnson was asked whether the altercation with his wife had stemmed from infidelities over the short period of marriage to which, after a short pause, was met with an honest response of “yes”.
I hear you ask, “What does an out of contract player speaking of his marital issues have to do with the NFL?”, well simply put, I am already looking forward to the NFL off-season if only just to see where Chad Johnson ends up, if anywhere.
These are the kind of opportunities that arise if players are given the leeway to speak their mind and voice their opinions.
Am I endorsing the second chance of the perpetrator of domestic violence? Not necessarily.
Am I saying that he does not deserve a second chance at all? In a league with Mike Vick, Plaxico Burress, Adam “Pacman” Jones and Dante Stallworth, of course not.
What I am saying is that this kind of transparency with players allows intrigue to build and subsequently all those who desperately pine for Chad’s return to the field will be paying close attention alongside all those who believe him to be a terrible person and hope for his eventual failure.
Either way, publicity is being achieved and as the old adage goes “any publicity is good publicity”.
Take a look at the current state of the AFL.
The AFL Draft is still in its infancy, and whilst measures are being taken to raise interest and comparisons to the NFL’s system (eg. The ‘combine’ environment and affiliation with Underarmour) overall interest in the event is not overly encompassing.
If anything, the AFL should be reimbursing Kurt Tippett the money his suspension will eventually come to cost him as this saga alone has brought more interest to the AFL off-season than anything in recent memory.
The fact is that the AFL seem adamant in their procedures to emulate the NFL and its practices yet seem content to take a backseat to cricket, tennis and A-League come the summer months whereas the NFL still dominates American sports news outlets well into MLB and NBA regular seasons.
The AFL currently operates in a six-month news cycle but by allowing individual discretion of the very players that people pay to see, you have the ability to turn the league into a carousel of news on a 12-month basis.
It is about keeping the league in the public eye for as long as humanly possible, this is the exact reason as to why an interview with a high-profile NFL personality will rate higher than an MLB playoff game.
Understandably, there will be situations that will come with both positive and negative responses from the public.
However, the key in achieving this is accountability.
By allowing the player to speak with conviction, and letting the public know that their voice is in fact their own, the onus thus falls on the individual rather than the image of the league itself and we all know how serious the AFL is about the dreaded ‘bringing the game into disrepute’.
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall last season went to twitter shortly after the death of Osama Bin Laden and played devil’s advocate to the nation-wide celebration by stating his suspicions of ‘how a plane could take down a skyscraper demolition style’.
Obviously an insensitive and perhaps ignorant statement to make for such a prominent figure however, who was the main respondent to the backlash?
It wasn’t the Steelers, it wasn’t the NFL, it was Rashard Mendenhall.
When it comes to AFL, the best example of public opinion would be that of Brendan Fevola.
Were his now infamous antics on the Footy Show’s Brownlow edition of ‘Street Talk’ met with revelers angrily displaying pitchforks and flaming torches in hand outside Princess Park?
Maybe it’s just me, but I quite clearly remember general consensus being that of ‘well he’s not the smartest guy around is he?’
Ultimately there will be both positive and negatives that come out of a more freely opinionated AFL environment.
Some children may grow up with a slightly different view of their idols. So be it.
Some may grow to appreciate a player’s candid nature. So be it.
But as long as these freedoms to not compromise the integrity of the game, it will allow the AFL to flourish and grow into the dominant force it so pines for from its ultra-cool step-dad, the NFL.