Friday, July 6, 2012

AFL: Martin's suspension a symptom of wider problems

When Daniel Connors was sacked by the Richmond Football Club yesterday, the Australian Football League again displayed it's most brutal form of professionalism. Connors is twenty-three and will likely nominate for this season's National Draft. His chequered record makes it unlikely he will be given another chance and after 28 games he will be ejected to one of the AFL's myriad, bespoke scrapheaps – the EFL, the NTFL or even country footy.

It's not the first time Connors has made headlines for the wrong reasons, meaning his indiscretion has cost him far more than Martin. Of all the PYTs at Punt Road, Martin perhaps sparkles brightest, a straight-lines midfielder who has caught the eye not only of spectators but also, apparently, West Sydney's recruiting department. However, his penalty – a two match suspension – reflects both a first offence and the investment willingly paid into him by the Tigers and their fans.

Martin was suspended for a little under 10% of the season. The frequency with which AFL clubs impose sanctions like these on the young men in their care is startling: times are long gone where a wayward genius can be banished to the twos until he learns to see the coach's point of view. In fact, significant suspensions and, now, sackings are a penance required almost exclusively of Australian sportsmen – can you imagine an NBA team suspending a starter for seven games for an infraction like this? Or a European football club suspending a premier talent for three games?

Such events do occur, but not with nearly the same regularity as in the AFL, suggesting Australian sporting discipline derives from our country's harsh origins. Other conclusions are that either Australian football requires its young players to act more professionally at a younger age than any other team sport, or that Australian footy needs a severe culture upgrade. All three may indeed apply.

Australian Football eats alive the country's young. With the strictures in place in junior and suburban footy, professionalism has become a new Leviticus not only to be obeyed but enforced at all levels. Junior hopefuls sourced from the bush often travel lengthy distances several times a week to training and games; sacrifices are expected and made willingly by teens and parents. Opportunities are rare and players are instructed to cling to – and work for – those chances.

Professionalism isn't just the watchword of the AFL but is now demanded of fourteen year olds. Juniors all over Victoria have specialist kicking coaches, forward coaches and defensive coaches; the system asks so much from players so young that their bodies simply decompose at age 30. It's hardly a coincidence that Osteitis Pubis is practically nonexistent in the youth development systems of the United States and England. The suggested cause of OP is the overload of developing bodies.

If a player who's managed to make it to the top level breaks strict codes of conduct, punishment is relatively severe. As the game has become more sanitised on-field, there has been a corresponding increase in the off-field corporate culture. In business, when where mistakes are made there is often only one penalty. Footy has bred the same expectation of mea culpa and fall guy from teens and men in their early twenties. While support structures have certainly increased, so too has the responsibility borne by the elite athletes of the iGeneration. While responsibility for one's own actions is always beneficial, often that responsibility now takes the form of public stoning.

If things don't work out, clubs rarely hesitate to “go in another direction” and second opportunities are rare. Only 23, Connors holds some scant hope of being re-drafted. By age 25, however, little optimism remains – he is patently a finished product, a known quantity to be passed over for the mystery and romance of a “likely” adolescent.

In almost every other major sports league on the planet, players have second opportunities to prove themselves. They can be signed as free agents, seconded to minor league clubs or simply just invited to trial. Though this has improved with the success of players like James Podsiadly, AFL simply doesn't offer the same variegated routes back to the big time. Rookie lists were instituted precisely to offer a second chance for undrafted or cut players – but even they only recently dispensed with age and experience maximums. The result: in 2012, only ten players out of a leaguewide 112 were exhumed and reanimated.

You can also draw a link between the inherent culture and the obvious decrease in larrikinism and personality our stars exhibit. Every AFL player, knowing the scrutiny he is under, has to do everything by the book. The landscape is as unforgiving as a set from sixties Doctor Who. Honest answers are no longer important, just rhetoric, process and structures. Players rarely exhibit personality nor rare insight. Interesting interviews – at least for readers – are rare. Individualism, only a Diesel Williams kick away from selfishness, is now only displayed in a player's choices, hair colour or tattoo sleeve.

Thank the heavens for Steve Johnson.

This flinty panorama took twenty years to achieve, hurried by certain successful procedures that were soon aped. Success has bred success. Has your team underperformed? Institute a clubwide review, led by your CEO. Got an ageing (25-27 year old) team and a new coach? Blow it up and redefine your list and gamestyle with late-teen talents. There are only three phases in the AFL now, root-and-branch reform, growth and contention. Only the Sydney Swans have the stomach to do it differently, re-tooling year-on-year.

The AFL is a far more successful entity for the changes made over the past decade. However, the league has become uniform and homogenous. The sanctions Richmond have ruled upon their brethren aren't out of place for a league where results or hope are the only things that matter, they are symptoms of a league where everyone takes themselves just a little too seriously.  

1 comment:

  1. Watched the eagles play today after loosing three players from the sheep paddock in tasmainia last week. What does the AFL think it is doing playing teams in third world condition s one week then expecting world class results after adjudicating on practically unplayable grounds the next. A classic case of the Nazi AFL at work.No wonder Freo has no hope.