Three days after the Grand Final, I went searching through high-profile sports web pages, searching for any indicators that the mighty Swans were still front and centre in the news. Of course they weren’t; we had all moved on … within 3 days.
In their place in the footy limelight was player movement. Who was going where? Which players might be offloaded, traded back home, move into the draft or be delisted, never to fight another day? (And who dressed up as what for Mad Monday?! Seriously…)
It was Paul Roos, immensely respected ex-player and champion coach, who commented on the day of a number of player trades, that it ‘was a sad day for football’. Of course the headline read, ‘Free agency is killing football’, but let’s put that down to the usual hysterical sports media in this country. Craig O’Donoghue, you’re excluded from that tainted brush, so are you Tim Lane, ok, and Jake Niall…
But is the sentiment over the top?
If you look back, for as long as we can remember, clubs have held the upper hand when it comes to player movement. This has shifted slightly in the past, and significantly of late.
One fact is that the league had zero legal backing if it ever came to a head on the issue of player movement and the salary cap. One legal challenge and the player in question, if brave (or stupid) enough to challenge the powers that be, could move to the team of his choice or sue on the basis of restraint of trade.
So the AFL, under pressure from the players association, relented and allowed a restricted form of free agency. This would have killed AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou, to actually have to compromise and give a little. You’ve got to congratulate him, though. He did little to hide his disdain for the players or their position throughout the bargaining process. You can’t call him dishonest. An arrogant tool, yes. Fake, no.
And off they go
And so it is in this new season that we are seeing a greater amount of player movement in a seemingly less chaotic environment.
It hasn’t stopped the bitterness, however. St Kilda coach Scott Watters, after losing star* Brendon Goddard to the Bombers, claimed that ‘It was all about the money’ and that Goddard acted ‘outside our team-first structure’. (*I’m not convinced.)
And this is what gets at me. For too long, these clubs have played God with their players, demanding a team-first approach, yet watch a player over 28 after 4 or 5 average games in a row and see how long that loyalty sticks. Players are acutely aware that it can all be over at the snap of your finger, or their ACL, and so seek security in the longest and most profitable manner available. Does this make them mercenaries, or just like everyone else in this business?
Clubs are content with ending players’ careers or moving them on as they see fit. Yet when a player empowers himself to be pro-active in his career, hilariously, clubs respond like jilted lovers. The power is shifting and some aren’t coping.
Our league contains more loyalty than you will see in the average professional sporting competition. This was more pronounced ‘back in the day’ when young stars were drafted to clubs on the basis of where they lived. This increased the likelihood that players would end up plying their trade at the club they had barracked for since they were a kid. And so why would they leave? Plus it was less cut-throat then. Players played (way) past their prime.
But now the league has grown and with it the professionalism. Players are drafted to teams and cities they had no previous connection with. The game is more of a business than ever before. Clubs have responded, and now the players are having their turn. Loyalty is still a major factor but it is no longer the unwavering disciplinary stick used to hoards of young men into line.
Does that put us in a good place?
Aside from the odd outburst from a team official and concerns over the long term welfare of some of the ‘poorer clubs’, it seems that a successful compromise has been found. Players are more open to the prospect of moving and clubs are getting on the front-foot when a player decides he wants to leave instead of pouting and playing untenable hardball.
But be careful. It is in our nature to want more. Players will be content in the short term, but, they’re just like everybody else. Soon enough, they will want more.
I’m talking to you, 6 foot 6+ giants…
Yes, I follow a league, the NBA, where team fidelity is basically non-existent. Clubs have very little leverage when it comes to player movement and loyalty does not even belong in this paragraph. I love that league, don’t get me wrong, but I would hate for our national game to emulate our American counterparts.
Players here buy into the team concept far more than our basketballing stars. It’s in the nature of football that a player on the field with 17 teammates + 4 more on the bench will exert less overall influence that a star on a basketball court with only 4 teammates. Add to this that he earns $15 million plus, versus the guy on the end of the bench on about $300,000, tops and you can see who has the upper hand.
A team bias
In all of this, I have to acknowledge in this that one of the facets of free agency is that it plays into my team’s hands. Supporting one of the bigger clubs in the land, with a rich winning (and financial) history means that we will be one of the teams that players won’t turn from when considering their options.
It’s easy for me to be ok with it, especially when my team lands a star (*!), but for teams such as the Port Power, Western Bulldogs, Melbourne Demons and Brisbane Lions, to quote Stewie from Family Guy, ‘Trouble is afoot’…
Players will naturally chase the clubs that are better resourced and more able to equip them in the training room and in their endeavours outside of the football club. Contacts therefore become a major player. The more cashed up and connected the clubs, the better chances they have to lure and retain quality players.
But I can’t help but see the value in the system where yesterday’s trade where a team who was perilously close to winning a flag – Hawthorn – successfully trades for a key defender to a team who is bottoming out and seeking multiple draft picks – the Bulldogs. The Hawks get what they so desperately desire (damn them!) while the Doggies start their rebuilding process with quality young players.
It’s a win-win and so we can lament the loss of the good ol’ days, or we can sincerely thank a player like Lake for his service and wish him well as he chases what all of us have dreamed of at one time or another – a premiership.
But did it have to be at the Hawks?!