With the 2019 AFL draft in the rearview mirror and club lists finalised for 2020, we decided – despite overwhelming popular opinion – that it’s not at all too early to start speculating about the season ahead.
If you play sports at a schoolyard level, you referee your own games. Whether it’s footy, basketball, soccer – whatever – you’re going to get into arguments if you call fouls of any kind unless they literally stop the game with their egregiousness.
If you play professionally, you can expect to have some reasonably competent officials working alongside you. They’re undoubtedly paid less than you are, but they’re still being paid to do their best to impartially adjudicate the rules of the game. You might object to their calls, but you abide by them (hopefully), and if they are impartial, the other team’s probably objecting about as often as you are.
The point is that you tend to play by the book more as a professional than you would if you’re just a schoolyard athlete. Agreed?
Of course the officials know this too. They’re not expecting you to play by schoolyard standards, and most of the time they’re perfectly fine to do so. If you’re playing basketball, the officials aren’t looking for ‘wet willies’ in the opponent’s ears. If you’re in the women’s World Cup right now, they’re not looking for players subtly snapping bra straps. If you’re on the cricket oval, they’re not looking for sandpaper in – whoops, bad example.
And if you’re on the footy field, they’re not looking for pinch bruises on the backs of your direct opponent’s arms to see that you’re not acting like a schoolyard bully, Ben Stratton.
Let’s not be naive here. As an American, I never had the opportunity to play Aussie Rules myself, but I have played rugby and American football – and mostly the schoolyard versions, for that matter. I know what goes on in a scrum. I know what goes on at the bottom of a pile of heavily padded and armoured young men scrambling after a fumbled football.
It ain’t pretty. Toes get stepped on, fingers get bitten, eyes get gouged and poked. Nobody denies that this happens even at the professional level in those two sports, mostly because in those two situations in particular nobody outside the action – including the officials – can see what’s really happening. So young men revert to schoolyard techniques momentarily. I suspect young women do too, but I’ve obviously never been in a scrum with young women.
However, there really aren’t any occasions in any other of the sports we’ve named where that waving of the rules ever applies.
In the Hawthorn loss to Essendon on Friday night Ben Stratton was playing on Orazio Fantasia in defence and pulling out the schoolyard bullying ploy of mini-torture on the much smaller Bomber, pinching him repeatedly in the back of the upper arm. In my youth we had a name for this particularly bruising and painful kind of twisting pinch that I probably can’t use in The Roar. That probably says all that needs to be said about it.
In Fantasia’s post-game interview with Jimmy Bartel, seven or eight marks were vividly apparent – his skin was so purple it looked like it was preparing to play for Fremantle. Incidentally, Charlie Cameron of Brisbane noted that he’d had a similar treatment from the much larger Stratton. Notably no tall forward has mentioned being picked on with this schoolyard method. Curious.
He also stomped on Shaun McKernan’s foot while the attention of the umpires was focused on a tussle elsewhere. There seems to be a pattern emerging here.
The match review tribunal was set to hear the report on both of these charges early this week, but let me share my unprofessional schoolyard opinion with you.
Stratton is 30 years old. He is in his tenth season in the AFL, all with Hawthorn, and his veteran status has earnt him a captaincy with the club. He was on the field for all three of the Hawks’ grand final victories in 2013-15 as well as for their grand final loss to Sydney the year before that. He has played 180 games with the team, putting him in the top 50 in the club’s history in that category.
But the Hawks are not what they were. They won’t be winning a premiership this year, and it seems unlikely they will in the next few years. Stratton himself has entered his 30s, and his averages are down across the board this year – disposals, marks, tackles, one per centers, everything. His game isn’t what it used to be. His AFL rating has begun to slide – he sits 15 places below where he started 2019.
He sees teams like Essendon and Brisbane, teams that his Hawks trounced regularly throughout the heyday of his career, beating his team comfortably now. He’s personally being beaten more often now, his statistics say. How should he react?
Not everyone reacts to this situation the way his teammate Jarryd Roughead has. Roughhead could be described in the exact same terms used over the last three paragraphs, virtually word for word. Even more, Stratton has stayed on the top tier all season while Roughead was famously dropped to the VFL a month ago.
Roughead’s reaction was to get caught on camera doing two things: busting his butt to play as hard for Box Hill as he did for Hawthorn, and in the right way; and grabbing hold of his new situation with both hands the way he grabbed overhead marks for all those years by coaching the players he came in contact with. First it was the young Footscray defender he was up against in his first state league game, and then probably many more when the focus drifted away from him again and when the public wasn’t paying him much attention.
You know, like in the schoolyard. It’s not a coincidence Gold Coast want to hire him in any capacity they can. You can’t teach class, but you can model it and hope it rubs off.
Which brings us back to his teammate.
There’s plenty of class in the Hawthorn line-up that should be rubbing off on Stratton. On Friday night the starting backfield consisted of Stratton, James Sicily, James Frawley, Tim O’Brien, Blake Hardwick and Shaun Burgoyne, who is as reliable a role model as comes to mind. And of all the coaches in the AFL, while there are a few with compasses as firmly affixed to the right star as Alastair Clarkson, none could confidently say theirs were more so.
So Stratton has role models to follow. But here’s a suggestion: send him to the VFL for an indeterminate length of time.
Have him room with Jarryd Roughead for the duration of his time in the VFL. Move in. There’s probably a spare bedroom somewhere in the house. Sleep on the couch if need be.
Then spend the time learning from his decade-long teammate. Not how to play footy, but how to be a man. How to play the game of life – of which footy’s a part – with class and how to handle the fact that soon footy will probably be a smaller part.
And then let Jarryd decide when he’s ready to return. And if there’s any justice in the world, that’ll also be when Alastair Clarkson decides it’s time for Roughead to return as well.