Photo: AFC Website
Photo: AFC Website

There is no positive to be found in the death of a sports personality before his or her time.

No one deserves to die, of course, but it just seems to hurt so much more when it’s a sports person and it’s before their time.

These are, by and large, good-intentioned people who dedicate their lives to their chosen sport, and who by pulling on their guernsey and boots bring joy to so many people other than themselves.

Where is the justice in a person like this having their life cut short? Why have they been denied the chance to give all they had to in life?

For how intently we follow the lives of AFL footballers and coaches, we are never prepared to follow their deaths.

Nor should we be, given sport is a place for joy and not tragedy. But when tragedy does come, and we have no choice but to confront it, how the footy community responds is important.

We are still in shock at the moment, which is reasonable.

But the immediate effect of the news of Phil Walsh’s passing will soon subside for the wider community, and those left to deal with difficult emotions will be Walsh’s family and the clubs he was involved with over his 30 years in football, particularly Adelaide.

This is a situation the AFL community has arguably never had to deal with before. There was of course the equally tragic passing of John McCarthy at Port Adelaide in 2011, and Adelaide assistant coach and former Melbourne coach – and Walsh’s close friend – Dean Bailey, of lung cancer in March last year.

But this time a current senior coach has passed away. That brings with it a unique set of consequences which we will need to consider if we want to respond appropriately.

At AFL level, a good senior coach earns the respect of his playing list, makes them excited to play each week, and helps them develop as people as well as players.

Adelaide’s form in the first month of football is a testament to how Walsh achieved all of this, and it now means there are over 40 young men who are not only grieving, but are without leadership and father figure to help them mature.
The Adelaide playing group may find the courage to deliver a touching public tribute to Walsh in the next few days, but if they don’t, they shouldn’t be criticised. It takes time to speak on events that are as distressing and confusing emotionally as this.

More generally, we shouldn’t give Walsh’s death, or the potential guiltiness of his son, so much attention that the media feels compelled to stay camped outside the Walsh home for days on end.

Walsh’s daughter is overseas at the moment, and if she has a media scrum to confront when she returns there’s every chance it will worsen her grieving process.

The AFL’s role in the aftermath is important too, of course. The AFL made the right call by cancelling the Crows’ match against Geelong.  The league’s focus should be more oriented to finding ways to fill, however incompletely, the gap left by Walsh in the Adelaide football club.

Having only yesterday made player well-being their highest priority in the case of Harley Bennell, they must now ensure the same for the playing and coaching staff and the supporters of the club, all of whom had no bigger concerns than how to beat Geelong before this morning.

Forget the implications on the AFL season of one or two games not being played, the scale and lack of precedent for a loss like this demands the AFL make the game a secondary concern for supporters, and for Adelaide, for a period of time.

How the AFL community reacts to this tragic event will reflect how mature and respectable we are as a sporting code.

For the sake of all those currently grieving, and for the sake of sending Walsh off appropriately, we want to get this right.