Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Liberatore Conundrum

Now as Steven Baker's 9-game suspension stands, what effects will he show? Short-term, of course, we won't be seeing him until finals – that one's easy. But the long-term ramifications as he moves into his thirties are a lot less clear. But, given the nature of his past transgressions (clear king-hits) and the recalcitrant nature of his offending, Baker seems to be the latest victim of the The Liberatore Conundrum.

1990 Brownlow Medallist Tony Liberatore was an effective player right until the end of his career. The only player to win the Best & Fairest Medal in all three VFL/AFL divisions (Under-19s, Reserves & Seniors), his triumph was perhaps greater because he accomplished all this as the shortest player in the league at 164cm (5'5 ½). But as his career progressed, we saw less of the ball-magnet rover and more of the dour tagger willing to do anything to stop his man.

Amidst the scratching allegations, the Paul Kelly controversy, the 12-week knee reco recovery, and his bordering-on-farcical statements since entering coaching, Liberatore's fine career has been pulled almost inextricably into the mire. Rather than being remembered for his triumphs, Liberatore will now be remembered for the shit he pulled on his opponents as his career wore down in the late 1990s. This is the Liberatore Conundrum: a player's legacy is tarnished by acts they commit in the last years of their career.

Baker has made the most of what talent he has. A midfielder with the Geelong Falcons U18s, on coming to the AFL he found himself in the bottom half of the talent pool and has survived for ten years on his stopping jobs. Given the Saints plans for Robert Eddy and the presence of the younger McQualter and Dempster, it can be argued that Baker is fighting for his career which is a very dangerous place to be for a stopper.

As a player reaches his late twenties or early thirties he is often provided a little more perspective on his career to that point, and his life after football. This means a player can look back and see nothing but football from the ages of 18 to 30. Knowing that retirement age in the AFL hovers around 31, he can begin to either embrace life after football, or refuse to relinquish what he's fought so hard for over so many years. The importance of AFL, and of remaining on a list can become all-consuming. And if football is still all-important – for reasons of love or fear - then perhaps that player can justify straying outside the rules to do one's job and secure a place in the seniors next year. This is the Liberatore Conundrum – where a player is so determined to maintain their place in a team and on a list that they focus on stopping their opponent no matter what the rules say; they perfect the art of “not illegal” tactics and occasionally stray into fair or foul.

Being sucked into the Liberatore Conundrum can happen as the result of a single brain-snap a la Barry Hall, it can also be a lifetime achievement award where one final offence occurs and public opinion is changed forever. Another who fell victim to the Conundrum was Jared Crouch. He received more scrutiny for his frustrating tactics in the last two years of his career than he had in his previous 10 years. He didn't however willingly submit to the Conundrum, but was forced in by his arch-rival Jason Akermanis' public statements.

Steven Baker probably knows that his time at the top level is running out, that he has perhaps two or three good years left. He also knows his next contract could be his last. But is he aware of his legacy - how he will be remembered? There's a fine line between a player who would do anything to win, and one who would do anything legal to win. And with these last suspensions, Baker may embraced the Liberatore Conundrum in all it's shortsighted glory.

As a sporting public, we remember our heroes both in their heyday and as they retire. But will your defining memory of Barry Hall be of the punch on Brent Staker or of his work in the 2005 Second Semi Final in Perth? I thought so.

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