eAll went well for the AFL. You just signed a mind-boggling TV rights deal. Soccer was great. The stadiums rocked. Brownlow’s medal tally was convincing. The outgoing CEO was on a giant victory tour. The Grand Final was one of the most anticipated finals in years.
That all changed with ABC’s Wednesday morning story. It gave off a feeling that this whole competition was built on bullshit, and that it was hard to take anything coming out of the mouths of clubs seriously.
Football clubs, and the entire industry that fuels the game, throw out words like “culture” like they’re building orphanages. “Blood culture” and “family club” have almost become marketing terms. We build leaders, especially coaches, to the point that they are apparently unquestionable. We often forget that their ultimate job is to win, and that they will do anything to make that happen. Essendon’s “Whatever It Takes” branding became a running joke during the supplements scandal. But there is no joke about this story.
This will now be the backdrop for this year’s Grand Final. As AFL chief executive Gillon MacLachlan said on Wednesday: “It’s going to be context in everything we do.” As Robbie Williams warms up his vocal cords and Max Holmes tests his hamstrings, she will continue to sound away. It can’t be bettered with quick six-sentence press releases or stand-by situations. It will remind us that this is not really about hawthorn, or even football in general. This is the story of our country.
At this time last year, the backdrop of the big end was the global pandemic. Most of the East Coast was closed. At the Memorial Shrine in Melbourne, protesters pelted police with golf balls. The city was hit by an earthquake. Decision was moved. Perth Mayor Basil Zembillas wanted 60,000 West Australians to stand up and applaud those doing it tough on the other side of the country. It came down like a lead balloon. Soccer was a welcome distraction from it all.
Before ABC Story arrived, this grand finale had rich stories. This time last year, Paddy McCarten called him a “former Australian rules footballer” on Wikipedia. Heading into the 2014 draft, he was one of the country’s standout youngsters, along with Christian Petraca and Angus Brayshaw. There was a large extract from Emma Coyle’s book In the Era which delved into St Kilda’s deliberations on whether to draft McCarten. It was like they were buying a house. or a horse.
But the game was not good for him. After suffering a blow to the head, he managed just 35 games over the course of more than five years. Watch Petracca become one of Australia’s top footballers. He was interviewed in 2019 and it was one of the saddest football stories imaginable. “I’m kind of just a shell of someone I was in,” he said. He was hypersensitive to light and sound, sleep deprived, depressed and out of sorts. “I lost a bit of my identity in football, but then I also lost my identity as a person.”
On Saturday, he will occupy an important defensive position as the Pelicans play for the premier.
There were compelling stories everywhere I looked. There was Robbie Fox, who was a substitute teacher earlier this year. There was Lance Franklin, retired by Lee Matthews two weeks earlier, announcing a contract extension as Queens’ coffin was moved to Westminster Abbey. There was Jeremy Cameron, who sometimes gives the impression that this professional football captain is some kind of lark. There was Chris Scott and John Longmire, who had parallel coaching lives since 2011.
It’s as if their team has been turning each other around for years now. But they have never encountered a proper split in each other, nor have they met each other at their best. Perhaps the closest they came to them was the 2016 preliminary round, a game Geelong went into as a warm-up candidate and was asleep at the wheel. They haven’t met since that crazy night in March, when people were visiting, getting down on bended knees and scattering ashes on the SCG. Between them, the two clubs have won twenty-four in the past three months.
All these events are now receding. They all look a little strange. All bread and circuses will look a little silly.
“What a shame it fell on the last big week, of all weeks,” said one on the radio on Wednesday.
And indeed, this week is often a showcase of everything we love about the game. I was looking forward to watching my own team, the team I praise for their “culture” and “connection”. Rather, it is a reminder that we honor and honor the men and organizations whose primary activity is silverware collecting. We are obsessed with their contracts. We consider their personalities above reproach.
For all those who love the sport, this is a week of inconvenient truths and deep shame.