Where have all the characters of the game gone?
The Allen Jakovich-Mark Jackson-Warwick Capper mercurial nutcase that had the crowd enthralled, eyes wide, no idea what was next.
We have become so desperate for such characters that the media has taken it upon itself to anoint the likes of Max Gawn and Patrick Dangerfield as the league’s resident eccentrics.
With respect to those two, they’re fairly normal blokes.
Good for the game, yes.
Captivating figures? Not quite.
I may be in the minority but Max Gawn brewing skinny lattes in some laneway is not my idea of an off-the-wall character.
This trend towards conformity is at least partly explained by the administration of the league.
The AFL has taken many of its cues from the NFL, with its obsessive focus on committees and rule changes, meting out punishments for wrongs on the field and off, and – above all else – the prioritisation of profits.
This has served the AFL well in many respects – the financial health of the game and its reach into Aussie households leaves other codes for dead – however, it has stripped the game of so much of the innovation and joy that made it great to begin with.
The NFL is so intolerant of divergent characters that it has tied itself in knots over issues as stupid as what is the acceptable level of player celebration.
This is a league whose two signature characters are Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr, whose personas are largely defined by their furious rejection of the suffocating environment imposed upon them.
Is that something we want to emulate? Players stripped of their expression and coerced into a league-wide hive-mind, follow the leader mentality?
I don’t think so.
If you don’t believe we’re heading down that road, look at the nauseating response to Steven May’s consumption of a pint or three on a Sunday arvo – God forbid – in public.
Aside from any discussion over the rights of an employer to determine workplace behaviours, this can hardly appeal to common sense.
The idea that all people function best behaving the same way misunderstands human nature.
If people have genuine concerns with May’s professionalism, that’s fine, but the faux moralising coming from Garry Lyon and Paul Roos on the On the Couch programme was a bit much, as was the suggestion that May was going to apologise to his team-mates for his supposed transgression.
What on earth for? Can we take a breather and pump the brakes for once?
Not every incident requires an immediate public dressing down as seems to be the case these days.
While I’m on the topic of the media, it too is guilty of the shallow conformity that is infecting the football world.
When was the last time there was a genuine, robust disagreement on one of the myriad same-same panel shows about an on-field issue of substance?
Not vague hints concerning invisible-to-the-public topics of behind-the-scenes political machinations or whether or not it’s OK to have a beer on Sunday.
The AFL is crying out for a down under version of First Take, at least the version featuring Skip Bayless sat opposite Stephen A Smith and not home-brand Skip, Max Kellerman.
Granted, that show and its imitators have their own issues – sensationalism and takes for the sake of having a take – but at least the fans would be getting someone willing to stick their necks out.
Alas, the narrative appeal of the game lives and dies on its players. There is hope.
During my skin-deep research into this topic, a friend pointed out Jack Higgins to me as a genuine character.
I had to agree he’s been a breath of fresh air since entering the league.
I dearly hope his youthful exuberance and could-say-anything excitement is not drilled out of him in countless hours of media training.
What can be done about it?
The answer to the AFL’s character vacuum is Jack Higgins recording a modern classic in the mould of I’m an Individual or I Only Take What’s Mine. Something along the lines of 1000 Minutes Per Second would work beautifully.
In all seriousness, both the clubs and the media should give players the space to let their hair down and think of themselves as something other than footballers occasionally.
The results might surprise people.
Hell, we might even get a decent ad on Fox Footy.