‘‘We’ve got such a negative attitude to people opening themselves up,’’ Marsh told The Age. ‘‘If every time a player does open themselves up or say something controversial or opens up in a forum we’re not used to, they’re smashed for it … we see them putting their toe in the water then they’re smashed and then retreating out of the water.
‘‘Luke Hodge had nothing personally to gain that night – he was just trying to help his club. Again, Angus Brayshaw did the right thing a few weeks ago and he was being honest and then his team lost and he’s criticised. It’s disappointing.’’
Melbourne’s Brayshaw granted Seven a now-customary half-time interview and enthused about his team’s efforts during the second quarter against Essendon. This raised some eyebrows, most notably those of commentator and former Melbourne captain Garry Lyon on radio.
Again, according to Marsh and Dangerfield, it’s the media attacking a player for opening up to the media. The Cats recalled their former captain Steven King during the mid-2000s breaking with tradition before what was then for Geelong a rare free-to-air game and granting host broadcaster Nine an interview. King was criticised by commentator Robert Walls and pre-game interviews continued to be a rarity.
Although cricket is attempting some in-game interviews, the concept remains a rarity in world sport and it’s true that most clubs agreed they found the Hodge-Holmes exchange uncomfortable. While such practices have no impact on the result or the integrity of the game, the AFLPA believes any criticism should be directed at Channel Seven and not the players.
But now that half-time player interviews and TV cameras in rooms before games have become normal practice, the clubs’ attitude in the bigger picture is varied and multi-layered. Some players shun taking part because the prospect of having to speak at half-time plays on their mind during the game. And some club executives worry that the coverage will become so engaging that it will impact attendances.
Alternatively there is a view that breaking down cultural barriers only intensifies the unconditional love or positive regard supporters feel for their clubs. Therefore the more the fans get to know or engage with their captain, coach or star player and the better the stories around those key figures, the more protected the team will be against tough times and poor seasons.
The AFL Players Association prioritised the issue of engagement and more access to the media with footballers at all 18 of its pre-season club visits and also with the player groups from the 10 AFLW teams.
Marsh had told the AFL bosses during the most recent pay negotiations that the players were prepared to make themselves more accessible to the media and break traditional barriers, mindful that their wages were directly underwritten by broadcast rights.
At every club visit, the AFLPA broke the footballers into small groups – three in the men’s, two in the women’s – and asked them to put forward ideas or innovations to improve their public access in all areas and not limited to game day.
Marsh said he now had more then 100 player-led initiatives which he would take to head office, clubs and media. But with those initiatives came some strong player-led opinions about the broadcasters themselves.
A number of footballers were dismissive of the standard of some match-day commentary, which they saw as outdated and uninspiring. They pointed to the age of some of the commentators and the quality of some of the questions that came their way.
‘‘It’s up to the broadcasters to make it more interesting and the journos to ask interesting questions,’’ Marsh said. ‘‘There’s got to be a bit of responsibility on behalf of the journalists. The view of the players is that sometimes they get asked the most inane questions.
‘‘The media has got a right to criticise a player interview or their comments, but if every time a player puts his head up and gets smashed, it leaves a sour taste. This is a whole-of-industry approach.’’
Marsh said he planned to take the players’ views and media access initiatives to head office.
‘‘We don’t want to get the clubs offside, so what we’re looking at are more high-level talks and it’s a joint conversation with the AFL and the journos,’’ he said.
‘‘One example was what you saw before AFLX. The players are highly attuned to American sport and there are occasions they love the idea of being able to express themselves more than just turning up in the team polo.
‘‘But we’re on a journey here. We see the media landscape changing and what they (the players) get paid is directly tied to the revenues of the game. The players have lots of ideas about things they want to do and would be happy to do.
‘‘So I’m disappointed about the events of last week because the players will retreat as a result.’’
Caroline Wilson was previously chief football writer for The Age. She has won numerous awards, including the Melbourne Press Club’s Graham Perkin award in 2014 as Australian journalist of the year.