AFL’s not-so-free kick


But is it? The photo is; it was taken by an AFL photographer, Michael Willson. But glorious a shot as it is, it would not have inspired a T-shirt without the eruption that followed its publication.

It is not self-contained, like, say, Jezza’s mark or Shane Warne’s ball of the century. It was not the goal or the picture that was topical, and suddenly became so exploitable, but the moment it symbolised, and everything that moment signified for and about our society.

Who does the moment belong to? To Harris, yes, but no more than Whistler’s Mother belonged to James McNeill’s mum.

It belongs to her, but not in a proprietorial sense. It is of her, about her, but not hers alone (and in some respects is incidental to her).

Reportedly, Harris intends to raise some charity funds of her own out of the image, and good for her, but it can’t be by claiming exclusivity over the moment. She wasn’t much preoccupied by intellectual property rights when she posed happily with fans wearing the offending T-shirt the next week.

That logo.

In fact, on the AFL’s terms, she was endorsing the breach of her own copyright. To us, it looked like she was simply rejoicing.

Does the moment belong to us, the football-following public? Plainly it does. By our passionate engagement, we legitimise the game in our culture. By our reaction to the Harris photo, for better and worse, we gave the moment context and weight and historical force.

It is true of everything that happens in footy, men’s and women’s. This is what the AFL wilfully overlooks in claiming ownership. It is a mistake it makes too often to be accidental. It confuses the business, which it does own, with the game, which it patently does not.

Someone reminded us this week of Don Bradman’s precept that no one owns cricket, but rather holds it in trust for future generations. The AFL often gives the impression that it claims not merely custody of footy, but adverse possession, and rather than pass it on will sell it to the highest bidder.

Try as it might to appear benign and avuncular, the AFL sometimes can’t get out of its own lumbering way.

At some point this week, the AFL must have become aware of its own heavy-handedness. To spin its legal claim on the Harris picture, it sent out not the CEO, nor its general counsel, but Tanya Hosch, whose title is general manager of inclusion and social policy. So it was that exclusion was justified in the name of inclusion, commercial imperative in the name of social policy. It didn’t wash.

The Harris picture is a thing, a thing of beauty at that. That makes it a commodity, I suppose, replicable as merchandise. But the Harris moment is not and can never be a commodity. It is something far more precious than that. It “belongs” in the way that air belongs, and love, and wistfulness, and that premiership feeling.

I’ll put it another way. Sport is business, but not merely business. And goodwill has its own worth.

Just because some artefact of sport is saleable does not mean it has to be sold, and sometimes has more meaning if it is not.

Years ago, tennis champ Jim Courier would bridle when asked for an autograph, suspecting it would be sold for profit with no cut for him. At more mellow length, he figured he had made plenty out of his own name anyway, so what did it matter if someone else made a few cents?

Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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