Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Want to know now? Tough.

Last week, Greg Baum wrote an article in the Age (http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/for-the-sake-of-all-ablett-must-reveal-any-decision-20100720-10ji5.html) saying that if Li'l Gary Ablett has agreed to join the Gold Coast Suns he should announce that decision publicly, allowing everyone – especially Ablett himself – to focus on football rather than his probable departure. Now it seems that by declaiming that football should be the focus in an article about someone potentially leaving his club, then you shoot your argument in the foot. But that aside, there's a few fatal flaws in the logic that fans are entitled to know a player's decision as soon as it's been made.

No one is implying that Ablett's made his final choice already. I fail to see how he could have given the Cats are among the favourites for the 2010 flag and a premiership could play a major role in whether he stays or goes. He may be a long way from decided, or pretty sure in himself but to cliche horribly, five weeks are a long time in footy. Let's say for argument's sake that Ablett is 50/50 on joining the Suns next year. In the next five weeks, Geelong could fall away badly as their older brigade are exploited for a perceived lack of mobility and suddenly he's 75% of the way to the Gold Coast. The Cats could steamroll everyone on their way to another premiership and before you know it, perhaps the decision is 40% in favour of the Gold Coast. Geelong has everything to lose or gain here and it's not Ablett's fault. If it's the case that Ablett still isn't 100%, and I think it is, then of course he shouldn't make a decision and he's a fool if he has.

Other players are unquestionably facing similar circumstances. West Coast ruckman Dean Cox is only 28, and has potentiall five years of high-class footy ahead of him yet finds himself in danger of being superseded and may well head out the door. Adelaide's Nathan Bock is also the subject of rumours, one of which is that he has signed already with GC17 and has garnered publicity from teh Adelaide and national media for his “distracted” performance on the weekend.

The most publicised incident of this “one foot out the door” attitude in recent times could equally go to the NBA's former poster child LeBron James for his insipid last home game in Cleveland, or to the Brazilian Robinho in the EPL, who quit on Manchester City as the English winter approached. Warmer climes and changed lifestyles had such a strong appeal that both played like they were preoccupied, and both had the results one would expect. Both ended up wearing the scorn of fans for their perceived lack of stomach, suspicions confirmed in LeBron's case with his “LeDecision” to join Dwyane Wade in Miami.

But do the paying public have a right to know immediately the results of an athlete's decision is? Of course not. It's complete bunkum to suggest that we as a public are foremost in the minds of our professional sportsmen. Athletes can say their primary concern is the fans until they're blue in the mouth, but in truth their first priority is themselves and personally, I have no truck with that. Careers are short and the demands on both the body and spirit would be tremendous. A player may be a certain starter with one coach, only to be completely disregarded by another for no good reason. Playing time can be plentiful or sparse depending on the whims and natures of their head coach.

The franchise is responsible for player remuneration, and they are charged by their fans to prioritise sustained success. Because of this, their first priority should be paying players who help them win, irrespective of statistics or reputation. If a player does not perform, then they should not be rewarded with raises, security or even a place in the squad. The club is concerned first and foremost with itself. As fans, we tend to identify with players who exemplary in one of two fields: work ethic or skill. For a team however, often fielding only players with a good work ethic isn't rewarding – the combination of talent and hard work is required so a hard worker and “good club man” is cut. So, if a club's first priority is to itself and they hold most of the trumps, why shouldn't a player's first priority be to him or herself?

We as fans tend to support teams rather than players. More and more recently we find the club is all-important and the Jason Akermanis/Western Bulldogs row illustrates this perfectly. He was viewed as allegedly putting his own interests above those of the club and put through the wringer because of it. But it's hypocritical to sack a player for the sin of self-indulgence: if the club will do what's best for it's long-term success, why should Akermanis be pilloried for attempting to ensure his own long-term success? Everyone on that Bulldogs side is looking after “Number 1”, just in a different manner to Aker, a more subtle way. (Do you expect subtlety from a man with peroxide hair and a black goatee?) Each Bulldog individually prioritises “Number 1” through the results of corporate success – the adoration, money and recognition that a winning team brings.

Each player's first loyalty is to himself, but the difference is in what shape that loyalty takes. For one guy, that could manifest as wanting more money. For others, it may be media or marketing interests, fame, recognition, new challenges, lifestyle, winning, security, his or her legacy and even plain and simple fan adoration. The athlete who values fan adoration is always going to be drawn to devoted supporter bases or large market teams. Those who value money are going to chase larger contracts. Those who want money, fame, girls, lifestyle at the expense of personal legacy go to Miami. With the publicity and coverage each decision receives, we pretty soon can open a window into the very heart of each player and deconstruct them, pigeonhole them into “Driven by money”, “Driven by lifestyle” et al. If this is the case, why wouldn't you keep your cards close to your chest? Why should someone risk teammate and fan ire, not to mention the match payments simply for coming out and saying “This summer, I'm going to take my talents to ...”

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