Almost everything great about our beautiful indigenous game – truly among the greatest Australian inventions – is being desecrated by a group of administrators who are woefully out of touch with the people who have made the game what it is: the fans. The ordinary people who invest so much time and energy into it.
It’s fair to argue that the current administration’s number one priority is money, and the game has never been stronger in that regard – at least at the top level.
But those dollars are coming at the expense of the community-focused culture that has always imbued the game with its charm and creativity. Why are we so desperate to follow the American model in everything? Is America – a country beset by bitter fighting and societal tension – a model for us?
Football is no different. Do we really want to emulate the NFL, the archetype of the soulless modern corporation?
Sure, the AFL pretends to care about social issues. But that care appears disingenuous. Indigenous Round? Rings very hollow when you remember it took them four years to acknowledge how badly they let down Adam Goodes. Constantly claiming to champion women when Simon Lethlean was out of a league job for all of two minutes? Spare me.
This lack of integrity was on display in Jaidyn Stephenson’s suspension for a series of bets placed on Collingwood games.
How can we take the league seriously when Stephenson’s press conference is directly followed by a gambling advertisement? When the Freeze MND slide featured BetEasy logos? When a significant number of Victorian clubs still rely on money from pokies? It was also reported that the AFL negotiated the outcome with Collingwood. How about enforcing the rules on your own? You know, what everyone in football expects you to do.
I hate what is being done to this game – and I’m not a hate-filled person. It isn’t fun to follow anymore. West Coast and the occasional great match keep me interested, but I actively avoid most football media because it’s so devoid of honesty.
Witness the contrived debate over Sydney Stack’s high-five with Eddie Betts. You could scarcely find someone beyond Garry Lyon affected by the incident but just one outlet had the nerve to ask why we were so outraged about it. Is it any wonder fans switch off when they get force-fed this toxic garbage?
Mick Warner is a shining light at the moment, in the mould of true journalism he is holding power to account by sounding the alarm about the game’s direction. Most others don’t have the guts because they’re either terrified of losing their credentials or they enjoy the proximity that kowtowing to the AFL provides them.
The mere worry that the AFL would revoke press credentials says it all about its modus operandi: make money, avoid scrutiny, protect the brand.
Pleasingly, others have begun to enter the fray. Nat Edwards and Jon Ralph, in particular, have been vocal about the appalling new crackdown on fans at games. This issue is telling in two important ways. Firstly, it is AFL’s belated attempt to make right its inaction during the Goodes saga.
But secondly, and more importantly, it is the administration telling fans to shut up and be grateful for what they’re given. To sit down and enjoy what is being done to the game ‘for them’. The AFL has finally dropped all pretence and shown what they think of fans; that the league has dominion over their loyal subjects.
But they are quickly going to find out how wrong they are. As with all social movements, it will start from the ground up and, in the form of a misguided protest, we can expect fan behaviour to get worse before it gets better.
Another clear sign of the game’s deterioration under McLachlan is the insult after insult heaped upon Tasmania, a state that deserves its own football side, not a couple of Victorian clubs desperate to fill the coffers. Unsurprisingly, Tasmanian draftees have dwindled and traditional clubs are folding. That’s what happens when you take for granted people who have made the game great.
The constant rule changes are the most striking illustration of the game’s maladministration. The overwhelming majority of fans don’t want these changes. Players and coaches have spoken out, too. They love the game as it is, so why the constant need to tinker?
The administration doesn’t have confidence in the quality of its core product. Give fans, players and coaches a chance to breathe and let the game evolve naturally for a couple of years. I assure you the sky will not fall in and any ex-players pushing changes for a bit of attention can be roundly ignored.
We don’t need Competition Committees and Rules Committees and Jobs for Retired Players in the Media Committees ramping up anxiety about the state of the game. If these people despise the modern game so much maybe they should leave and allow those of us who love it to stay involved.
I understand people want the game to be as great as possible and emotional investment is generally a good thing, but the results of constantly fiddling with the rules are on full display this year. Not only have the rule changes not come close to achieving the desired effect of higher scores, but umpires have no idea what they are doing and are copping the blame for the administration’s failings.
Like a kid constantly smashing buttons on their favourite toy, the game is broken.
It is no coincidence that the crowd fiasco started with a fan berating an umpire. That the umpire is follically challenged is beside the point. Fans are letting go of years of pent-up frustration borne out of disillusionment.
The AFL’s latest bungling of fan engagement is emblematic of their tin ear. Fan anger directed towards umpires is entirely a creature of the AFL’s creation – in a league where many decisions are as contentious as a High Court case, umpiring well and consistently is an impossible task.
Further, the AFL is deeply out of touch with fan sentiment and is incapable of doing anything other than applying the big stick.
The AFL’s inept handling of the score review system lays bare their inability to act decisively. If they can’t handle minor issues such as this, how can we possibly expect them to act with courage when significant problems arise? Like, say, nothing approaching appropriate censure for Eddie McGuire’s repeated bonehead comments?
The contrast is fairly clear. Yell out something as tame as “flog” at the footy and you’re getting booted. Suggest using an Indigenous player to promote King Kong or joke about drowning a female journo you just have to wear a dunce hat for a few days and nothing else happens.
I’m not saying fans bear no responsibility in this and can do as they please. Fighting at the footy is disgusting and increased bans for those idiots are welcome. Ideally, grown men wouldn’t be screaming obscenities at the footy but, provided their behaviour doesn’t become aggressive or bigoted, they should be free to make fools of themselves ‘til their heart’s content.
The AFL has once again completely botched the handling of a major issue. The game is adrift and no one knows its direction. Umpires are unsure of which rules to apply and when. Security guards think it’s their job to run onto the field and break up scuffles between players, at least when they’re not telling people not to be too loud. The league takes gambling millions in one hand and wags its finger at players with the other.
It’s easy to dismiss these as isolated incidents but they’re part of a broader, extremely worrying trend. The game is in crisis and I haven’t thought that before.
As they say, the buck stops at the top and for this reason, Gillon McLachlan has to go. He has allowed the game to deteriorate to this point and been consistently weak when the game has required leadership.
As a stopgap, someone like Trevor Nisbett or Brian Cook, who are more in touch with the needs of clubs and fans, should steer the ship until a suitable candidate can be found.
Failing the commission demonstrating some ticker for once, I think fans are going to have to follow the lead of the good people of Hong Kong and demand the head of the chief executive. Otherwise, the damage to the game may be irreversible.