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AFL crisis: Hello, pot. Meet kettle

AFL football operations manager Simon Lethlean (above) resigned, along with Richard Simkiss, after an “inappropriate” relationship. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

AFL crisis: Hello, pot. Meet kettle

I’m not going to make a habit on this website of venturing into the machinations of football politics unless they have some sort of bearing on the game itself. But sometimes you can’t ignore it. And last week’s events at the AFL was one of those occasions.

They were also a good indicator of the extent to which media coverage of AFL football has changed, some would argue for the worse.

We see, hear and read more about football than we ever did. But sometimes it feels like the proportion of that coverage devoted to the actual game itself isn’t necessarily a lot more than existed 20 years ago.

The analysis delves deeper, certainly. But it’s just one area of football coverage, often jostling for space or air time with other areas like contract and trade speculation, club board and AFL Commission manoeuvres, footballers as celebrities and increasingly, the football media talking about itself.

It’s a consequence in part of how big the AFL has become, another part of the entertainment industry as much as sporting competition. Some would also argue, not without justification, that the AFL’s venturing into various social issues leaves it more open to attack on a variety of fronts.

Even those arguments, however, didn’t stack up for me when it came to the resignations of AFL executives Simon Lethlean and Richard Simkiss last week. Indeed, I’m still trying to work out on what grounds they resigned.

Both were involved in consensual affairs with fellow AFL staffers. There was no suggestion of harassment nor inappropriate use of power. AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan denied the affairs had impacted on the work performance of any of those involved.

His publicly-stated reason was “inappropriate relationships with two younger women who work in the AFL industry”. But if consequent issues in the workplace were not a factor, how then were the relationships inappropriate?

Clearly, that’s a moral judgement. One most would probably agree with given Lethlean and Simkiss were married. But I still don’t get how even questionable morals can be the vehicle for their departures when there is no evidence their work has been affected, nor the work of the women with whom they were involved.

If neither of those women (who have been named, but don’t need to be here) return to their AFL jobs, it will be, as in the cases of Lethlean and Simkiss, unrelated to their work performance.

Now back to the media’s role in all this. I’m never comfortable when media outlets start lecturing on morality, particularly so when the morals in question concern fidelity. Having worked in newspaper offices for 35 years, I’m pretty confident journalists don’t operate on a higher moral plain than people in other occupations. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite.

That, incidentally, shouldn’t be taken as a swipe at my former Age colleague Caroline Wilson. Some of the media people throwing stones on this story have operated from some pretty large glass houses. She’s not one of them.

But I did see some contradiction in Caro raising again concerns about the progress and treatment of women in the AFL workplace, then joining the pack scrambling to reveal the identities of the two women in this case, which, given their low profiles, served no greater public good, and no doubt caused them only more humiliation.

And I don’t agree with her contention that this case necessarily indicates a desperate need for cultural change at the AFL.

Sure, the place seems to be a bit of a “boys’ club” at times. But I actually find the tiresome “which private school did you go to?” discussion which seems to go hand-in-hand with Melbourne corporate life a bigger factor in that exclusivity than any inherent sexism or misogyny.

Do employees having affairs put the AFL on weaker footing when it comes to community issues in which it gets involved like racism, homophobia or sexual and gender equality? Wouldn’t have thought so, if those issues aren’t a subtext in what’s been going on. And nobody is claiming they are.

There’s been enough other high-profile champions of change and progressive thought over the years whose own closets have had their share of skeletons.

Indeed, if we’re to accuse various organisations of not practising what they preach when it comes to arbitrary and very personal definitions of moral behaviour, there’s going to be a lot of fingers pointed. And perhaps very few bodies beyond the church seen as standing on solid ground on that score … actually, best leave that example right there.

It’s been a difficult few years for the AFL. This is just another chapter. But given the lofty reputations of Lethlean and Simkiss in a strictly professional sense, isn’t there also a decent argument that their departure might actually do more to damage the AFL than any perceptions about sexual propriety?

Image. Optics. Damage control. In the end, that’s the pyre upon which the AFL executive pair were sacrificed. Pretty shallow and token symbolism, really. And with the media lighting the flame? Hello pot. Meet kettle.

  1. well put.where caro made a blue was on footy calcified she said the only victims were the wives of the 2 men.
    conveniently ignoring the fact that both women also had partners who they were cheating on.
    maybe caro doesnt think men can have hurt feelings in relationship bust ups.

  2. I hate the Caro bashing, but I can’t help but feel she’s almost entirely fixated on taking down big names these days, be it Hird, Buckley, McGuire, and I don’t blame her for the most part, she has had to break down walls to get where she is, but naming those women seemed to be unnecessary and punching down.

  3. I totally agree. No power over women issues, no direct line of reporting to the men, no harassment or bullying, no stalking. The AFL must think they rule the world.

  4. Rohan, I was in the army for 20 years. One of the best bosses I had put it succinctly ‘If your wife can’t trust you how can I?

  5. Agree wholeheartedly,as you said, all participants were consenting adults.
    The moral high ground is atop a slippery slope,not the place for the AFL.
    Rapped to be able to read your comments again.The Age will not be the same

    Steve Murray

  6. I agree. It is crazy that these people needed to resign when they were obviously consensual relationships.

  7. Well put. No need to Caro bash, enjoy her contribution to the game. Simply, she and others are off the mark here. Any business in town, white or blue collar would lose employees daily if their only misdemeanour was adultery. Clearly they lack some moral judgment but that’s for their partners to deal with, not with the employer unless it’s impacting work performance.

  8. If the relationships were consensual, and if there is no ongoing impact on the professional performance on their duties, it is a bizarre response by the AFL. Assess their continuing work performance, not their moral rectitude- the latter is for their partners to consider.

    It is great when the AFL stands up for strong community values – racism, sexism, violence, homophobia – but declaring that marriage is sacrosanct? A bit 1950s, chaps, even if some would prefer it otherwise!

  9. Isn’t the issue more about perception within the workplace? Imagine working there and finding out that a colleague received special treatment at bonus time and you didn’t. In large companies these things are decided at the top level and if their names came up for review, do you think these two executives would recuse themselves from making a decision? I can totally understand why they had to leave.

  10. Spot on, RoCo!

  11. I have 2 different responses this article.

    Firstly, the media angle. I agree with what you say here – the media, especially people who at the end of the day are “just” sports/footy journos, have no right to be moralising.

    The second point I make though is to say that I think – or at least I hope – the AFL didn’t approach this from a moral angle. They approached it from a purely human resources angle recognising that, in 2017, it’s not appropriate for senior executives to have relationships with their staff. You say that neither of the women involved alleged any wrongdoing – but do we know that they didn’t want to but refrained because of fears about the impact on their respective careers? Do we know that, if the women had wanted to end the relationships, they could’ve done so without fear of reprisal from very powerful senior executives? Given that we are told the relationships were an “open secret” at AFL HQ, do we know that anything good that happened to the women in their careers wouldn’t have resulted in resentment and persecution from colleagues who may have/would have attributed their success to their relationships?

    At the end of the day, the AFL haven’t done anything here that thousands of other organisations across Australia wouldn’t have done. If my (female) manager were to engage in a similar relationship with me, I’m 99% sure she would face the same outcome that Lethlean and Simkiss received.

  12. Can we have Fidelity Round next year?

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