“Everything I learned about morality and the obligations of men, I owe to football” – Albert Camus.
I grew up playing and umpiring Australian football. I come from a family of footballers who have played and served the game from local to national level since the late nineteenth century. I want my children to grow up playing Australian football.
Yet, I have a growing concern that this might not be the case. However well-intentioned, the AFL is slowly undermining the game we love.
What has made Aussie rules an enduring, successful sport in this country for generations is the connection between country, community and club. According to football orthodoxy, the sport was codified from an Indigenous game – marngrook.
Australian football is an expression of this island continent’s boundless plains.
Unlike imperial sports that were codified on an island bereft of space (e.g. rugby, hockey, soccer) Australian football is unique in that it does not have an offside rule. The offside rule regulates what space players may occupy in order to localise a game on a small scale.
In contrast, Australian football has immense scale. The early games in Melbourne in the 1850s were played on grounds over a kilometre long.
The first Australian football games were played between clubs formed from communities that wished to compete against each other.
In turn, these clubs formed leagues. This community-based organisational structure sustained the development of the game in this country for decades. But a club is nothing more than the people that make it.
All football fans owe a great deal to those that volunteer to make the sport what it is; those that coach, manage, run the canteen, mow the grass, umpire, take the gate.
However, this voluntarist, community-led structure of the Australian football in this country is slowly being undermined by the AFL. This is being done through an over-emphasis on football-as-spectacle and the restructuring of community-based leagues throughout the country.
Before the AFL was formed in 1990, Australian football was a community-based sport. The sport was administered on a decentralised basis with decision making and power dispersed among the constituent states and territories.
The Australian National Football Council governed the sport until 1995. The ANFC was a body of delegates representing each of the state and territory leagues that controlled the sport in their jurisdictions.
The ANFC governed the rules of the game and managed interstate administrative and football matters. In 1995, the AFL took over the administration of the game throughout the country.
The AFL is governed by an eight-member commission elected by its 18 clubs. This structure of the commission ensures there are no formal links to community; community has no influence over decision making that affects their sport.
What is the AFL? The AFL is certainly not a sport; it’s a competition. I was never lucky enough to play AFL. But to explain Australian football to foreigners and anyone north of the Barassi line, I played AFL. The AFL brand transcends the sport, to the detriment of Australian football.
Moreover, the AFL is less an organisation that administers a football competition, more a media organisation that produces football content.
The AFL’s primary objective is to produce football-as-spectacle, maximising audiences, revenue for advertisers and broadcast partners. The AFL’s competition is not just other sporting codes, it’s anything it competes against for eyeballs: Netflix, computer games, sleep.
A tension emerges between the AFL’s drive to maximise audiences, administering a fair football competition and the long-term sustainability of the game at community level. Sometimes these concerns align, but often they do not.
Let’s quickly examine the AFL’s administration of its own league. The AFL has a series levers at its disposal it uses to develop football “narratives”. These levers include the draw, the rules, the draft, the salary cap, the umpires, and the match review panel.
None of these levers are open to scrutiny and decisions made often take precedence over quaint notions of procedural fairness and natural justice. The AFL can silence competing independent football narratives through cancelling the accreditation of journalists, which it sometimes threatens.
An emerging perception that the AFL engineers results damages its brand and Australian football. Characterising the AFL-as-media-organisation might explain a number of recent decisions: the Melbourne tanking non-decision, Adelaide’s player payment punishment, Sydney’s trading ban, COLA, the Essendon 34, Trent Cotchin’s preliminary final hit, score review debacles, fan expulsions from games, AFLX.
But to what end? Why does it seem like the AFL more interested in managing public relations than managing a fair competition?
The AFL tinkers with the rules for the elite competition to speed it up, slow it down, clear up problems of its own making, all to make the product more spectacular. There’s an old saying that you can’t fix what you won’t acknowledge.
Working in policy for the AFL would be amazing because they don’t only acknowledge problems, they revel in making them. The AFL finds problems and fixes them, only to make bigger problems that need fixing.
• Ball movement is too fast! The AFL changes the rules to slow the game down (subs, capped interchanges)
• Ball movement is too slow! The AFL changes the rules to speed the game up (we now have slower ball movement)
• Fremantle rests some players the week before finals! The AFL puts in a bye to stop that happening
• There’s nothing to do in the week before finals! The AFL suggests a wildcard round in the week before finals.
The policy objective that runs through most of these decisions is maximising audiences for football content, often to the detriment of common sense and Australian football
This isn’t limited to the men’s game; the AFL recently wrote to the women’s league directing it to make changes to increase scoring.
In response to criticism regarding rule changes and interpretations after round seven in 2017, Gillon McLauchlan, in an interview published on the AFL website with an AFL-employed journalist, said:
“I think we are not talking about the important role the rule changes have made to the quality of the game … The football is exceptional at the moment: high-scoring, entertaining, the crowds are fantastic and the ratings are fantastic.”
How fantastic for the umpires at a local level who must apply these rules and interpretations at a local level. Community umpires must contend with ever-changing rules handed down from the mountain, their often-illogical interpretations together with irate players, administrators and spectators who often think they know better than the umpires.
Increasing violence against umpires is a concern. The AFL must make community umpires’ jobs, easier, not harder.
However, more concerning is the AFL’s hubristic managerialism that is unwinding community-led football leagues that have endured and succeed for the past 150 years. The AFL is implementing a Soviet-style hierarchical structure to replace community-based football leagues with AFL-administered leagues.
Why would the organisation that runs the elite competition wish to intervene at the local level? Because the AFL wants to implement a vertically-integrated pipeline of talent for the elite competition.
This disenfranchises communities. Young, promising players are plucked from community and enter elite “pathways”. Not only do the players leave the community, but so too their families.
A club loses a player as well as a coach, a goal umpire, someone to run the canteen, brothers and sisters. These people don’t necessarily return to community and once a player enters the elite system, they stay there.
By way of contrast, cricket maintains a horizontal structure: Test cricketers are state cricketers are club cricketers. Cricket in Australia, unlike any other sport, brings the global to the local and back out again.
The AFL undermines the local to serve the global. This is unsustainable long-term.
The AFL has set a course to develop its brand, boost audiences and broadcasting deals. There will come a time when the AFL doesn’t need broadcasters.
The AFL is following the NFL model: a fully vertically-integrated supply chain; producing and managing talent, making and selling its own football content direct to consumers.
When it achieves this, the AFL will not be accountable to anyone or anything. Other sports have demonstrated what can happen when administrators get it wrong. I hope the AFL doesn’t do the same, for the sake of Australian football.
I fear the AFL will irreparably damage Australian football unless the authority to make substantive decisions regarding the future of the sport is returned to communities.
The organisation that administers the elite competition must not also administer the sport in this country and set the rules of the game.