The year 2013 year marks the tenth occasion I have been privileged to begin an AFL season as Chief Executive of this game.
This season also marks the tenth anniversary of the appointment of our chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick, to the AFL Commission.
Ten is an important number, not just a milestone, but a fork in the road that allows for reflection, for analysis and for anticipation.
Events over the past few months have made that audit trail even more important.
Back in 2004, the AFL’s agenda was clear. The AFL’s purpose was:
• To grow the game via appropriate policies.
• To recruit, retain and develop participants.
• To connect with fans and community.
• To manage responsibly and strive for financial growth and stability.
The reality is, no matter what the year, or the administration, or the circumstances, those points will always drive the AFL’s agenda and, on balance, the Commission has ensured our game has flourished in all those areas, and more.
But there is still much to be done as we enter 2013, on the eve of our first game this Friday, March 22, at AAMI Stadium in Adelaide.
Experience is a great teacher – and moderator – in an ever-changing world. It gives you an acute sense of reality.
I can see the blemishes – and strengths – that have passed under my watch during the last decade, and I can say with great surety, despite some recent errors of judgment by some in the AFL community, myself included, despite some murmurings in the media calling for a new direction and a new culture for the AFL, despite the warnings given to us – and to sport in Australia – by the Australian Crime Commission, and the Federal Government, our game has never been stronger, never been supported with more passion, and has never had more potential and opportunity.
And the AFL community – from the Commission, through the executive and the administration and to the clubs – has never been more alive and alert to continue its role to manage and guide the game on behalf of our supporters.
To that end, we have made significant changes to our administrative structure, and more will follow over the next weeks.
On the eve of our season, I was delighted that Hawthorn’s General Manager of Football, Mark Evans, has accepted the role of AFL Football Operations manager, following in the footsteps of Adrian Anderson.
Adrian did a wonderful job in his nine years in the chair, instituting and managing many vital changes to our ever-evolving game.
Many of these changes have come because we have listened to our supporters, but we need to get even closer to our fans, and a new department – Fan and Community Engagement – will be instituted in the next month to ensure we are on top of any issue that may confront us.
We are in the entertainment industry, as well as the sports industry, and we must ensure that all of us – in the AFL and in the clubs – work together to ensure our game remains the dominant sports entertainment in this country. Many will say the most exciting in the world.
For all the beauty of our game, these past months have not been positive for any of us. There’s no avoiding that issue.
Our fans have had reason to doubt us in recent months. We have had to deal with breaches of our rules by the Adelaide and Melbourne clubs. We have had Essendon coming forward and admitting flaws in its operations and seeking answers on its governance and processes, and we’ve had a cloud over all sport following our briefing by the Australian Crime Commission.
Serious matters all, and we cannot avoid this truth: what infects any of us, has the capacity to infect us all.
Our fans have quite reasonably been outraged by what’s been happening, and with great justification.
Many of our wonderful players and many brilliant sports medicine practitioners are similarly angry – besmirched as they have been by poor behaviour, driven by poor values and poor judgments.
That said, the on-going attraction of our beautiful game, and the faith our fans have in its integrity and competitiveness, cannot be broken by the misdemeanours and misjudgements of a misguided few.
It is a time, in a sense, to slow down, to return to a more languid past to understand what it is that makes sport a wonderful thing to watch, to be part of.
If our game is reduced to a madcap philosophy of winning at all costs then we have lost the spirit of sport and we need to pull out all stops to get it back.
Some will scoff at that. Some will think the elite game is all about winning and winning is the only measure.
It is not.
In all parts of our life, we admire those who compete at their best, and win ethically.
The AFL has flourished off the back of great athletes performing marvellous feats – without any assistance beyond their own genius.
I was reminded of this when I read a recent description of Roger Federer by the novelist, and sports fan, J.M.Coetzee:
“One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him, and one ends up neither envying nor admiring him, but being exalted at the revelation of what a human being – a being like myself – can be.”
That sentence describes the sport we love, we oversee, and ultimately must protect from any assault from the unscrupulous, the unworthy.
He could have been writing about any of our players, of Gary Ablett, or Lance Franklin, or Jobe Watson, or Scott Pendlebury: players of bravery, strength, courage, and that X-factor that separates them. He could have been writing about our game.
The Commission, under Ron Evans and Mike Fitzpatrick, hammered into me one key point that drives the best sporting administrations: we have a responsibility to hand over the game in better shape than that we inherited.
We also have a responsibility to hand over the ethos of the game in better shape.
The style of the play might change, the speed, strength and endurance of players might change, the science and strategies available to coaches might change, the training methods might change but the day we accept that players, coaches, officials and clubs can do anything in the pursuit of victory or advantage is the day we will lose the faith of the people who love the game far beyond winning or losing.
I will say it again: our game is a beautiful game. It is resilient, it is never the same, it brings in new champions to excite us, as the previous generation moves on.
In recent weeks, I have met with most of our clubs, and have stressed to them some emphatic truths. They, like us, have a singular responsibility – and that is to the game, and the integrity of the game.
I was delighted, though not surprised, by the common purpose all the clubs expressed, and their shared view that we must be united in all our efforts to protect that integrity.
The game owes us nothing – we owe everything to the game.
We are nothing without it.
I was proud of the way the Commission responded to our briefing by the ACC, rapidly enacting significant changes to the way we monitor our game, our systems, and our personnel – at all levels.
We approached serious matters with zeal, and purpose to stem the potential of any incursions at any level of the game’s administration, supervision, coaching, or playing.
But we cannot rely on rules alone.
We have to act personally and collectively.
Everything we do – or don’t do – impacts on our game, its importance to our fans, and its capacity to impact on the broader society.
In 2013, we will take another significant step on ANZAC Day when two of our foundation clubs, St Kilda and the Sydney Swans, will make history, playing our first international match for premiership points, when they venture to Wellington New Zealand.
This is not just a significant event for Australian football, it is a marvellous commemoration of this sacred day for Australians and New Zealanders.
I congratulate both clubs for taking this bold step – although the journey is not long; it is one giant step in taking our game into new frontiers.
The cynics may sneer at that, just as they sneered at the introduction of the Suns and the Giants into our competition, but why should our game have boundaries?
Our potential is limited only by imagination, vision, and application.
In that regard, 2013 must be a year of solidarity, of great purpose, blended by just the right mix of optimism and realism, and driven by the values that formed our game and the culture of our sport.
2013 is our chance to do great things for our game, to reset the foundations that have been shaken, and to drive our destiny to new outcomes, new successes and new pride.
2013 is the year we remind everyone that Australian Rules Football is the greatest game – it’s authentic, it’s beautiful, it’s eternal, and it’s ours.