For many, when they think of a junior footballer, they think of training one night during the week, and then game day on the weekend. For the country’s elite junior football players, the reality is very different. Teenagers as young as 15 years of age are taking part in gruelling training and playing sessions in pursuit of their dream of one day being a listed player at an AFL club.
Like most teenagers, these young men attend school full time, but from there life diverges. The schedules might differ between individuals, but the work load is similar. Monday will be training for the state team, Tuesday is gym work, strength and conditioning training. On Wednesday night, training for the state team again, Thursday is training for their local club. Friday is strength and conditioning training. On Saturday they’ll play in their local junior team, on Sunday they’ll back up and play for the seniors.
That amounts to a seven day schedule, with a minimum of ten hours a week dedicated purely to training, and then an extra six hours on the weekend for the actual games and recovery, with no time off. Assuming their bodies hold up to this rigorous schedule and they are lucky enough to be drafted, the work has only just begun. At 18 years of age, when selected by an AFL club, the young men attend a two day induction camp conducted by the AFL Players Association.
The AFLPA was created by players for players. It provides essential services and support beyond the much publicised negotiation for the Collective Bargaining Agreement that saw the Association come to loggerheads with the AFL. The AFLPA educates the inductees on the life that will await them as AFL players; from expectations in regards to AFL policies, player codes of conduct, ASADA and WADA codes.
With the hard work that the AFLPA puts in to educating players, it staggers belief that players would be put into compromising situations that would see them contravene the codes of conduct set out by both the AFLPA and the AFL. It is easy to nod your head in agreement when respected figures such as Mick Malthouse state that players are responsible for what goes into their bodies. These are grown men, how could they blindly accept what a club tells them without questioning?
These are grown men who spent their formative years subjecting themselves to strict training regimes in pursuit of achieving a place on an AFL club list. They sacrificed their free time, their social lives and their bodies for the opportunity to play the game at the highest level. Whether drafted to the most lowly positioned club in the AFL or one of the powerhouses, they are extremely grateful to finally have the opportunity to play professional football.
Being drafted is not a guarantee to play, as there are many who are drafted yet struggle for years playing in local leagues before they even get the opportunity to line up for the seniors. It is not all about talent; it is a mix of commitment, drive and willingness to buy into the ethos of the club. On some levels, it is about faith. You hear players say repeatedly that the club showed faith in them, that they wish to repay that faith.
The desire to be a part of a successful organisation requires that the members of that organisation buy in to the programs offered by it. Young men commit to a club. They commit to the ideals and work ethic demanded, and they buy into the culture with the aim of pursuing their dream.
In the past several years, clubs had breached this trust and duty of care. The underhanded deals made by Adelaide to keep Kurt Tippett on its list breached the trust shared by player and club. In an effort to secure the elusive premiership and retain a player, CEO Steven Trigg authorised an impossible deal under the table. In doing so he tarnished the reputation of the club he serves and endangered the career of a player.
Essendon CEO Ian Robson failed at corporate governance and stepped down after his club pushed the boundaries of sports science. Essendon subjected its players to countless courses of injections in an effort to gain an advantage. While the legality of these decisions is still being assessed by the ASADA investigation, there is little doubt that the club endangered the welfare of players with pharmacological experimentation.
Adelaide and Essendon breached the trust and duty of care an employer should provide to their employees, and they did so for the elusive advantage in pursuit of the premiership. The trust shown by players might seem naïve to many people, but place yourself in the position of one of these young men. You have spent most of your life pursuing a dream, and on the verge of having that dream realised, while bombarded with an overload of information, you are asked to do something by your club and you are assured that it is all above board.
Many AFL clubs utilise the Leading Teams strategy of leadership. This involves the players providing 360-degree feedback to each other on what they believe does and does not benefit the club. Leading Teams has undeniably had success at the AFL level – it has been utilised by both Geelong and Sydney as well as Essendon. It creates a culture where individuals are required to buy into strategies of success pushed by the club and results in public shaming if they do not.
Jobe Watson’s much talked about revelations on the Fox Footy program ‘On The Couch’ triggered much debate and immediate calls for censure, but there was one thing that was very apparent during the interview. Jobe Watson truly believed that the Essendon Football Club had told him the truth. In his mind there is no reason that they would provide him with incorrect information and his trust and belief in the club was as transparent as the captain’s integrity when he broke the ranks of ‘no comment’ to tell the truth.
As the son of an Essendon great and the captain of the club, Watson’s belief in a program championed by club great and coach James Hird was always going to be unwavering. He spent his childhood in the Essendon rooms and junior playing days knowing that he was always destined to play for the Bombers. When the club he had grown up with and now leads on the field told him something was okay, he believed them without question.
To an outsider this beggars belief as the evidence stacks up that there are serious sanctions on the way for Essendon, for no matter what the judgements of ASADA are, there is no doubt that Essendon’s actions have brought the AFL into disrepute.
The actions of the Essendon players in seemingly blindly adhering to a risky sports science program might seem utterly foreign to those of us outside of the club, but for those within the confines of the club environment, they are normalised. Kyle Reimers, former Essendon player, stated: “After a couple of months away from it (the club), it does seem very odd the type of stuff we were taking.”
When ASADA hands down its findings in the near future, it will be only then that the majority of Essendon players will know whether their faith in the club for the security of their playing careers was jeopardised by the short term pursuit for premiership glory that has so far failed to eventuate.