In these COVID cost-cutting times, there is a lot of uncertainty for the AFL industry as clubs begin to grapple with a reduction in the 'soft cap'. How this will play out for First Nations players in the AFL is explored in the latest episode of Yokayi Footy. Drawing on his coaching experiences, Ross Lyon explains his position on the issue, and Demons star Neville Jetta gives us further insight into the challenges the game needs to address.
IT'S OFFICIAL, the game is back. The announcement from AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan was welcomed by so many around the country as the game has been in a COVID-19 hiatus. While the certainty of the date for return to play has been laid down as June 11, the elephant in the room is the uncertainty around how the game will look going into the future.
Being released as the head coach from Fremantle in August of 2019, Ross Lyon has returned to Melbourne with his family to commence a media career where he made his debut on Yokayi Footy last week. Given his ability to navigate the post-match media conferences with pithy one-liners and all the steel of a river boat gambler, Lyons' transition into the media is perfect. More intriguingly, he can now give his opinion with the handbrake off.
The thing that Lyon emphasised on Yokayi Footy is that, in his time as coach, he had amazing interpersonal relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players. Names like Goodes, O'Loughlin, the Clarke and Hill brothers, Walters, Johnson and Bennell. It is through these relationships that he has witnessed first-hand the redemptive power of football as it pertains to First Nations players and their families, but also what they as footballers and people bring to the game.
This has been created over time whereby great trust built on rapport is elicited in the club/team environment. Clubs, after all, are like any communities. They blossom and wither, win and lose on the quality of the relationships contained within them.
These interactions have seen Lyon develop a nuanced understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their world. As he explained, this has come about through a range of experiences, from sorry business and funerals to social outlets, like fishing. Because of this, he understands the nexus between the socio-economic challenges, family pressures, racism, elite expectations and the 'great effort' required to play one game, let alone have an AFL career. He knows the challenges for 'the bothers' are immense.
For Lyon, the issue regarding the 'soft cap' reductions lends itself to a potential diminishment of the code if First Nations players are deemed too 'hard' (read: risky) to recruit. This will not only play out with gate receipts and on-field excitement, but clubs may risk actual game success, the four points. For Lyon, the bigger risk is that the code, the clubs and the community will be left with an opaque version of the current game that will also translate into the relationships contained within it.
A great example of what is at stake is the story of Richmond's Sydney Stack and his vivid recollection of hugging Eddie Betts in round 13 last year. Stack, playing on his idol, witnessed first-hand the Crows' mercurial forward kick an impossible goal resulting in Stack acknowledging his hero with a hug. What a wonderful sight. Some in the media had conniptions that Stack had overstepped the mark (but then some in the media also missed the point about the Goodes War Cry in 2015 against Carlton, and we all know how that ended).
In essence, what these moments help us to do is have a discussion and to learn about one another. This is what football does so effectively: it disarms us.
Another aspect of the 'soft cap' challenges was given by Jetta on Yokayi Footy.
With the stand down of staff across the industry as the spend at clubs has tightened, Melbourne's Indigenous projects officer Matty Whelan has been kept on the books. This is significant as, according to Jetta, the importance of Whelan to the welfare and wellbeing of the Aboriginal players could not be emphasised enough.
Whelan is the conduit to the coaches, the club and the community and mentor and confidant to the players that include Jetta, May, Bennell, Pickett and Bedford. As a sounding board, Whelan plays a vital role in relaying information but also dealing with issues as they arise. With COVID-19 and the change-ups regarding the season, Whelan’s role has become even more important to ensure cultural protocols are followed and any challenges are dealt with in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players.
As the return to football has many Australians excited at the prospect, it is important to consider how the changes to the game will look in the short, medium and long term. Obviously, the push will be to enable the game to look as similar as possible to what it was and what we have come to expect. Yet the reality of the restrictions will dictate that the changes will in some cases be difficult and possibly permanent. The hardest decisions for the game going forward will be the cost to the human aspect. We then have to ask ourselves, 'What are we prepared to sacrifice to enable the long-term viability of the game and are we prepared to see those that offer so much to the game but are vulnerable to 'market forces' lost to the code potentially for years to come?'.