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AFL still has some lessons to learn on player movement

Jake Lever breaks clear for Adelaide during the preliminary final against Geelong. The defender hasn’t departed on the best of terms. Photo: AFL MEDIA

AFL still has some lessons to learn on player movement

Rohan Connolly    

AFL football likes to think it is a code more advanced culturally than rugby league, and in many ways it is.

It’s a game which has fully embraced an expansion from a local to a national competition far more easily and successfully, less prone to petty parochialism.

The AFL was also on to its importance as a reflection of community values much earlier in the piece and has been a leader in initiatives against racism and sexism. Its recent move to begin a womens’ competition has been a huge success.

Its players seem less prone to explosions of alcohol-fuelled misdemeanours as rugby league racks up case after case of “boys behaving badly”.

But there’s one area in which AFL football continues to lag behind rugby league and has been highlighted again over the past week. And that’s in its attitudes to player movement between clubs.

The AFL has in recent times opened up the avenues for players to switch clubs via free agency and more adventurous list management on the part of its clubs. There’s been a tacit acknowledgement that for fully professional players, the club environment is a workplace.

And yet when some attempt to change their jobs, they’re subjected to what in an office environment would be considered nothing short of workplace bullying. Just ask Jake Lever.

A Melbourne boy, his decision after three years with Adelaide to seek a return to his hometown has met with the sort of petulance you might have expected in a schoolyard. Given a serve by senior teammates in announcing his intentions, Lever was then effectively warned off attending Adelaide’s best and fairest count last Friday night.

The “he said, she said” debate which has ensued about whether Lever could indeed actually have attended is one of semantics. And misses a bigger point.

It’s all pretty petty, childish stuff, to be honest. And an area in which AFL football can learn plenty from league, and might have done for the last decade or so.

There’s any number of examples over that period of rugby league stars announcing their intentions to head elsewhere in subsequent seasons whilst still playing for their current club. Not only are they not made to feel like pariahs, they’re regularly still valued and popular parts of their original club’s seasons.

Melbourne Storm legend Cooper Cronk hadn’t dismissed the possibility of playing for a Sydney club when he moved there next year to be with fiancée Tara Rushton even as his club was preparing to run out for a grand final a bit over a week ago.

That induced little more than a shrug of the shoulders from the Storm or its fan base, who paid the departing champion appropriate kudos after the Storm’s thumping grand final win. Ditto prop Jordan McLean, who announced back in March he’d be playing for his grand final opponent next year.

Wests Tigers fullback James Tedesco got a guard of honour for his last game with the club before joining the Sydney Roosters, a shift which had been announced as early as May.

There’s an acceptance in rugby league that while the players involved might be part of an emotionally-charged club environment, they’re also professionals plying their trade in a workplace.

Why would they be any less motivated to their current cause? Isn’t anything less than the usual 100 per cent effort or focus only going to damage their reputation, credibility and ultimately, value in the marketplace?

The AFL world doesn’t seem ready enough yet to accept that. The Lever episode is familiar territory for the Crows, who similarly ostracised Jack Gunston back in 2011 when he sought a move to Hawthorn.

Gunston was said to have effectively thumbed his nose at the faith shown in him by the club after just two years in the system. He was stripped of the Crows’ “best young player” award

With Lever, it’s been three. But in either case, the prevailing sentiment has been about disloyalty. And frankly, in a so-called professional sport, it’s childish and unrealistic. Not to mention hypocritical given all AFL clubs’ preparedness to hawk a good percentage of their list around each trade period.

Whilst it’s never actually spoken out loud, the clear implication is that Lever would have been giving something less than his best to the Crows at the pointy end of the season whilst tossing up the possibility of playing for Melbourne, something his performances pretty effectively disproved on their own.

As indeed any such doubts were dispelled when Patrick Dangerfield was considering a potential move to Geelong in his final season with Adelaide in 2015, the midfield star a comfortable best and fairest winner.

Dangerfield was given a smooth ride by the club he was departing, and made a gracious farewell speech on accepting his best and fairest award. Why not Lever? And why no similar angst about Charlie Cameron, who’s also told Adelaide he wants out?

It’s not just the Crows, mind you. Carlton stood Lachie Henderson down from its final three games in 2015 after he decided to accept an offer from Geelong.

The stated reasons were to “protect their investment” in trade terms, and to offer opportunity to players who were going to be part of the mix going forward. But it’s hard to believe there wasn’t also a punitive element to such a decision.

Premiership coach Paul Roos has regularly said he would refuse to play a player who had declared his intent to leave, despite what that player might still be able to offer his current side.

Perhaps it’s time the AFL world grew up a bit an allowed transparency about players and clubs negotiating contracts for the future.

Whilst there’s a view such a degree of openness would cause unnecessary distractions from the focus on the actual competition, could it be any more the case than has existed over the last seven or so years, the AFL media obsessed with speculating about such deals ever since the soap opera that was the Gary Ablett to Gold Coast saga back in 2010?

Most of all, it would drag those who cling to an outdated concept of what players owe their clubs back to some reality.

Because you can’t on the one hand bang on about how elite is your competition on the one hand, while on the other treating those most responsible for putting on that show more as glorified serfs than salaried employees with rights to negotiate their labour.

  1. This article, like others that refer to rugby league and player movements, lacks one important clarification. That is, there is a difference between rugby league fans accepting the way player movement has evolved and them actually liking it! Rohan, I can assure you having lived in rugby league heartland all of my adult life that the vast majority of rugby fans hate the way their favourite players announce a switch of clubs mid season. Most fans I talk to commend the AFL for not allowing this to happen in our code. So please, let’s not misunderstand the majority view of player movement in the rugby league world.
    P.S. Love the podcasts and website!

  2. In the professional era of AFL we find ourselves in, questioning the commitment of players to their teammates and their shared goals is indeed pretty childish, Rohan. But Paul (above comment) makes a very good point — it’s the fans putting their bums on seats and turning on the television that pay for it all. If the “optics” aren’t great for the fans, the longer-term future of the game might be brought into question.
    These two or three weeks are the ugliest of the AFL year, with players being shopped around like unwanted pets or having their dreams unceremoniously dashed. The balance of player wants versus club needs has improved, but I’m not sure an NRL-style attitude to player movement is an improvement. [/end sentimental rant]

  3. I love going to the Football to watch the great players in my team, but never at the expense of my team or success. This sounds harsh, but I do not care if Free Agency and Player movement is great for the players. The players themselves form individual elements of my team, but it is my team I care for most. This thinking I would believe to be near universal amongst AFL fans. If your team has done some dark days at the bottom of the ladder and been fortunate through the draft to bring in bright young talent, then having them announce they wish to walk away is horrible for a supporter in the context of the impact this will have on their team. But that is the extent of it. Loyalty and tribalism makes our game unique and the envy of other codes. This must apply to both supporters and players

  4. Rohan you’re a journalist of long-standing so presumably have a passing familiarity with the basic principles of journalism including the “first obligation to the truth” and the “discipline of verification”.

    Did you seek to verify the information you published here – and specifically that “Lever was then effectively warned off attending Adelaide’s best and fairest count last Friday night” – with the Crows as there are no quotes from them in your article. If not, why not?

    The fact that the Crows chairman has subsequently refuted this allegation surely is strong evidence that it didn’t happen at all – or at least not in the way you’ve described.

    The AFL supporting public deserves better from the media who cover – especially from someone like yourself whose been around and should be above pot-shotting and rumour-mongering.

  5. Less parochialism. What a laugh Rohan!

    Only a Victorian, home of the VFL, i mean AFL could say that with a straight face.

    Crows upset at Lever doesn’t point to the fact they thought he gave less than his best, more that he looked that playing group in the eye, pledged his loyalty and said he would re-sign. Promised he had not held meetings with Melbourne. Said he was in for the long haul, and wanted to contribute to the team first environment so they could achieve the ultimate finals success. It is hard to feel anything but lied to and cheated when a player who came to the club at significant cost (first round pick) leaves after three years, of which only one was of real value.

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